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Professional fight choreographer teaches stage combat

May 26, 2015

John Wilson, a professional director, actor and fight choreographer based out of Kansas City, is teaching students in Stephens Summer Theatre how to give the appearance of fighting on stage without actually getting hurt.

Most productions have some sort of fight component, he said. (Even the family-friendly “Anne of Green Gables” produced at Stephens in December involved a moment of conflict when Anne whacked Gilbert over the head with a chalkboard.)

“All plays are about conflict,” Wilson said. “They say when conflict can no longer be negotiated with words, you either kiss, sing or fight.”

Wilson, by nature, isn’t a fighter but he is an expert when it comes to stage combat. He studied fight direction at Arizona State University and earned an M.F.A. from the National Theatre Conservatory in Denver. He is a member of the Society of American Fight Directors, where he earned certification.

Wilson is currently active in the Kansas City area, where he’s worked as at American Heartland Theatre, the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival, the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre (MET), The White Theatre at the Jewish Community Center, The Unicorn Theatre and Kansas City Repertory Theatre.

This is his second year as a guest artist at STI. This year, he is teaching the basics along with a martial arts component. Students have studied the art of fake strangling, punching and kicking—and the art of pretending to be hurt.

“The body and facial expressions are just as important in the storytelling as the violent move itself,” he said.

The work will culminate Friday with “Everybody Was King Fu Fighting,” a showcase production that will highlight over-the-top combat techniques.

“While we take a serious exploration of violence, this is lighter fare for the audience,” he said. “I’m excited about this year. Last year, I taught a buffet of moves—punches, slaps and the types of moves they will be able to use in many shows; this year, we’re throwing in Eastern fighting influences.”

Think Jackie Chan or “The Matrix,” he said.

“These are moves you only see in the movies, and they’re very challenging,” Wilson said. “What you’re used to seeing on film but not on stage, come see on our stage.”

Wilson pointed out that stage combat requires intensive rehearsal. It takes a full hour, he said, to rehearse 15 seconds of combat scenes.

“It’s kind of a miracle what we do here at STI,” he said.

“Everybody Was Kung Fu Fighting” starts at 7:30 p.m. Friday at the Warehouse Theatre. It is free and open to the public.

Click here for a complete schedule of upcoming STI performances.

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