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Fight Choreographer Brings “West Side Story” Violence To Life
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Saturday night, gang violence, 1950s style, explodes across the stage at Dublin Coffman High School. Students are presenting the classic musical drama West Side Story. One of the show’s directors is himself a former actor who turned to teaching others how to fight on stage.
In West Side Story two gangs, the Jets and the Sharks, are warring. The violence escalates until a rumble breaks out.
Dozens of actors are fighting on stage and in the aisles of the theater. It looks like chaos but the violence has been carefully choreographed.
“My name is Jason Speicher. I am a fight director in Columbus. I come in and direct the violence that’s in the play.”
with Dublin Coffman student Grant Coffman.
Photo: WOSU/Sam Hendren
Jason Speicher got hooked on theater just out of high school. He joined the Ohio Renaissance Festival and also acted in college productions. That led to roles with local Columbus theater groups. But he developed a desire to direct; more specifically a desire to direct the violent elements of plays.
“I started studying with the Society of American Fight Directors. They’re a group that teaches and furthers the education and safety of stage violence,” Speicher says.
Speicher learned an array of fighting techniques. He knows how to direct unarmed combat plus fights using knives, swords and other weapons. Some weapons might be a bit outdated but William Shakespeare wrote a lot of violent material.
“Shakespeare was brilliant in the fact that he never wrote what it was supposed to look like. His tag line is, every time violence occurs in his plays it’s ‘They fight.’ That means it’s up to what I as the fight director and the director himself see as what that violence looks like and how to portray it on stage,” Speicher says.
Here’s how Speicher directed a scene from Macbeth in which Macduff’s baby is killed.
“The last time I choreographed that production, the child of Macduff was a baby doll,” Speicher says. “So I took a water bottle that I had emptied and took some of the air out so that it’s crushable and slipped it underneath the doll. So the murderer just reached into the bassinette and crushed the bottle and it sounded like he snapped the baby’s neck.”
When he choreographed King Lear, he used fake blood packs to simulate the gouging out of eyes. Asked about his penchant for violence, Speicher says it’s a natural part of story-telling.
“There’s a saying in theater that all plays are about tension and dialogue is the way we express it. When the tension becomes too much for dialogue, violence breaks out. It’s when words fail us that actions happen,” Speicher says.
In the Dublin Coffman production of West Side Story, gang members brandish authentic-looking switchblades. Even though the plot takes a violent turn, the actors under Speicher’s direction almost never make physical contact with each other. It only appears that they do.
Dublin Coffman Student actors rehearse a scene from
this weekend’s production of West Side Story.
Photo: WOSU/Sam Hendren
We have, I’d say, probably about 30 actors, all participating in the violence in one way, shape or form. So there’s lots of chases, punches, kicks, a few grapples.
Student actors Grant Coffman and Harrison Deakin say they’ve learned a lot from Speicher.
“I knew a little about fight choreography going into this but nowhere near what he’s taught us,” Coffman says. “You know there’s working with weapons and kicking and then jabs and all the footwork that goes into it.”
“I got to work with Jason last year on Beauty and the Beast where I had a shorter fight scene but nowhere near as big as this is working with a weapon and so much dancing and foot work,” says Deakin. “So timing is key.”
Speicher adds, “We don’t actually physically hit each other. It’s always done in what’s called a safe distance or measure. But it’s made in a way on stage so it looks dangerous and the audience believes that it could happen and it is up to the actors to empower the weapons and empower the moment to make it look like actual violence on stage.”
That’s Jason Speicher who’s been the resident fight director at Actor’s Theater for the past five seasons. You can see his fight choreography in Dublin Coffman High School’s production of West Side Story Friday night and Saturday night at 7 o’clock.