Thursday Aug 15, 2013
On stage, actor Mark Baer stands poised and ready to receive the blows of his opponent.
Swiftly, he intercepts a punch, twists his enemy into submission and begins pummeling his attacker with everything he has. The emotion in his face is that of a man fed up with being bullied, exploding with rage and taking charge of the situation.
Baer, assistant professor of acting and directing at Indiana University Northwest, recently performed this intense scene out of “Of Mice and Men,” in front of The Society of American Fight Directors (SAFD). In doing so, he received official acknowledgement as a “recognized actor-combatant,” a title that conveys Baer’s skill in pulling off a realistic and emotionally charged fight scene.
Beginning this fall, Baer intends to introduce his students to the fascinating world of stage violence with his course, “Special Topics in Theatre: Introduction to Stage Combat.” He’ll also implement what he’s learned in upcoming Theatre Northwest productions, starting with “Dracula,” coming to stage this fall.
As the students and community performers will soon learn, stage violence isn’t as easy as it looks.
“I spent three weeks fighting 12 hours a day, six days a week,” Baer said. “To say that it was a physical challenge is a major understatement.”
The SAFD recognizes actor-combatants in 12 different weapon sets as well as unarmed violence. Thanks to his training at the national conference, Baer can add to his theatre repertoire the skills of fighting on stage with rapiers and daggers, broadsword, quarterstaff, and knives in addition to unarmed combat.
While the fake weapons may not be sharp, they are certainly dangerous. Watching the three-minute scenes that concluded the workshop makes one wonder exactly how these scenes are made without somebody being accidentally impaled.
“As an actor, the combination of the intense, physical specificity that you have to have while also having to act the violence, act the intent to kill someone, and act the pain of being hurt,” Baer explained, “it’s an incredible acting challenge — to be able to put the tip of your sword on a dime, exactly where it needs to be so that it can be safe.”
During a workshop practice session, observers will hear a room full of actors chanting as they move about the stage, simultaneously concentrating on their footwork and placement of their “weapon.”
“Advance. Advance. Retreat. Pass Forward. Retreat,” they chant in unison. “Parry one. Parry two.”
It’s similar to the recitations of dancers in ballet class: “First position. Second position. Chasse. Pivot.”
Learning stage combat, in fact, is very much like learning ballet. And, much like a choreographed dance in a recital, a fight scene in a stage production is made up of precise, deliberate and rehearsed moves choreographed by a “fight master.”
Coursework or workout?
Baer is looking forward to introducing the concept of stage combat to his performing arts students and using it to enhance his directing.
“For me, the reason for studying stage violence has to do with incorporating it into the storytelling in my work as a director and using effective stage violence as a storytelling element in my shows,” he said.
The course he is bringing to the Performing Arts offerings this fall, “Special Topics in Theatre: Introduction to Stage Combat,” is not meant to teach students stage combat. For that, Baer needs an additional three or four years of training to get to the “fight master” level. Rather, he hopes to introduce the basics and whet the students’ appetites for learning stage violence.
“I am trying to put professional tools in the hands of our majors, trying to give them tastes of what voice training is, and what stage combat training is,” Baer said, “not so they can finish their training here, but because these are tools of the trade that they need to go into the professional world and seek.”
Though the course will have an academic component, complete with textbook reading, quizzes, and a paper, Baer promises it will be quite physical.
“We will spend most of the semester on kicks, punches, throws, rolling and knife work,” Baer said. “One of the reasons I love studying stage combat is because it forces me to be physical. You have to learn these things with your body.”
The course will culminate in a “Fight Club” during finals week in December. It will be a public performance.
Overcoming mental barriers
Baer first became a recognized actor-combatant in 1997, but as with any physically demanding activity, the skill quickly fades. Baer said it was important for him to renew his training.
“Growing up, stage combat was a real important challenge for me because I am an intellectual actor and the physical challenge of it really pushed exactly the right buttons for me,” he said. “It was the challenge that helped me grow as an actor and helped me get out of thinking so much and trusting my body a little more.”
As a younger actor, mastering the standing shoulder roll was a defining moment for Baer. The memory of his accomplishment gave him the courage to refresh his skills.
“When I first started doing this, it was terrifying. I’m tall and it’s a long way to the ground. I was afraid of hurting myself. It was a barrier. I could do everything else, but the standing shoulder roll was the hardest thing. The day I finally broke through the fear and I realized my body could do that, it was amazing,” he remembered. “I cried. It was powerful.”
Now, Baer is proud to say, he is a pro. Ask him and he just might throw his 6-foot, 4-inch frame into a somersault from a standing position, not an easy feat for any actor, let alone a big guy in his late 30s.
He was, in fact, one of the oldest actor-combatants at the workshop, and apparently, one of the hardest working, as he was also bestowed with the “old dog, new tricks” award.
Theatre as a career
Baer, of Crown Point, earned his B.S. in theatre performance from the University of Findlay in Northwestern Ohio and his Master of Fine Arts in directing from Illinois State University. Surprisingly, like many students caught between what they think is practical and what they really love, Baer started out as an international business major.
Now, he is proof that following the path you love and tapping into the right resources, can pay off.
“I was out to make a billion bucks,” Baer admitted. “That’s what I thought I wanted. At the same time, from the very first semester of college, I was invited to audition through the theater company and I got cast. Before I knew it, I had a double major and I was choosing to do professional summer theater instead of taking internships in my business area. By the time I got out of school, I knew this was what I wanted to do.”