Thomas Schall is having quite a season. He's worked on four Broadway productions: The Merchant of Venice, A Free Man of Color, War Horse, andThe House of Blue Leaves - all as fight director. But if you ask Schall, who is also an actor, to explain what a fight director does, he replies, "It depends on the needs of the play. I'm there to serve the vision of the director."
Such admirable modesty is belied by the vast range of skills that Schall brings to his work. Like any actor who has taken a course in stage combat - Schall's formal training came at Catholic University and at Virginia Commonwealth University - he was educated in broadsword fighting, rapier and dagger, and knife play. If that sounds as if most of his experience is in Elizabethan England, he replies, "One-third or less of my work involves Shakespeare." But it is true, he continues, that "I got my start in a Broadway production of the Scottish play, starring Christopher Plummer and Glenda Jackson. That was a pretty complicated experience, to say the least. The original fight director left, and I - I had been fight captain - took over."
Moving forward in the history of weaponry, Schall explained, "A fundamental part of my job involves gunplay. I train actors how to handle firearms." ForWar Horse, whose mostly young actors had relatively little experience with guns, Schall had to school them in how to fire blanks. "Some people think that blanks offer no real dangers, but there have been cases of actors" - Brandon Lee, Jon-Erik Hexum - "who have been killed by on-set accidents with blanks." Schall added: "Actors have to understand how dangerous the weapons can be." For safety's sake, the War Horse guns are handled in a chain of custody: a specific props person loads the firearms, and passes them to the actors before use. The guns are kept under lock and key otherwise.
The thrust stage of the Beaumont offers additional challenges for a fight director. "You're working with an audience who can see things in a 270-degree surround," Schall said. "That means you have to be especially precise about exactly where an actor is firing a gun. It's a particular challenge to be sure it isn't pointed straight at an audience member. That's rude."
To create maximum effect, Schall said that weaponry onstage must involve more than visual angles. "You are trying to create a visceral impact for the audience, which engages as many senses as possible." As an example, Schall pointed to the moment in War Horse when Ted, the father character played by Boris McGiver, employs a whip. (I won't spoil it by saying on whom.) "The sound preceding the impact is probably more important there than the visual," Schall said.
Schall, who was born in Bismarck, North Dakota, and grew up around the country near naval bases (his father was a Navy pilot), doesn't want to discount visual things entirely, however. "With War Horse, we certainly wanted to make sure that the weapons looked right," Schall said. To that effect, the production's guns are all World-War-One-era vintage weapons retrofitted to fire only blanks.
The British pistols are Webster, and the British rifles are Lee Enfield. The German rifles are Mausers, and the pistols are Lugers.
"We made a great effort with this show to be historically accurate," Schall said.
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com.