Philip d'Orléans, the Fight Director for Titus Andronicus, talks about ‘the simple pleasure of learning how to beat up people safely.’

What is a fight director?

Fight directors exist because it is inherently dangerous creating the illusion of violence on stage, and actors often get hurt in the process. The fight director’s main priority is to keep the performers safe, as well as the rest of the cast, crew and audience. In rehearsals, we have to quickly assess the actors’ physical abilities, their relationship to violence and their personal learning modalities. Then we choreograph fights that these particular actors are capable of repeating safely, consistently, with a high level of performed aggression.

The fights must be appropriate to the period, style, and tone of the production. They must be right for the characters and text, and must move the story forward. They must have variety, development, climax, surprise, logic – positional, martial, and psychological – and they must, fundamentally, be actable. If there is no journey, no evolving story in the fight, the actors will struggle to find their character's through-line. The fights must serve the director’s conception of the arc of the production, and the performer’s sense of the truth of their character.

Simply put, the fight director tells violent stories, safely.

How did you become one?

I started off as a stage manager with a sideline in lighting design and re-lighting. I then gave it up to go travelling; I moved to Japan where I taught English and theatre for almost four years. Whilst there, I co-founded a theatre company with friends, where I developed an interest in directing. I left Tokyo to study theatre directing in London for a year. I pursued more qualifications in stage combat disciplines, purely for the delight it brought me. Imperceptibly, my focus shifted towards fight teaching, and then pursuing the fight director qualifications. It was a complex journey which led me to the simple pleasure of learning how to beat up people safely.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to become a fight director?

There are many paths towards becoming a fight director. Some start off as actors; some as martial artists or fencers; some, like me, from backstage positions. I think the most common error people make is assuming the job is about fighting. Actually the fights are the simplest part of the work – anyone can bash together a fight – the important element is being able to tell an interesting story through action, safely.

These are the things a fight director needs to know:

  • Safety concepts and their practical application
  • Biomechanics – how the body works
  • All the stage combat weapons disciplines
  • Historical weapon systems, both theoretical and practical
  • Fencing and martial arts (for a practical understanding of martial logic)
  • How theatre works in terms of process and hierarchy
  • Basic first aid
  • How to tell a story

I would strongly suggest studying stage combat with one or more of the three British stage combat organisations. Taking the different weapons exams will teach you an enormous amount about the process and is a great way to meet fight directors.

The highest UK fight directing qualification is Equity’s Register of Fight Directors. Contact them for up-to-date details on what is required to apply.

A bloodied man grips a gagged man around the neck, as an older one-armed man talks to them.
One of the many physical scenes in Titus Andronicus.
Photo by Helen Maybanks © RSC Browse and license our images

How do you work with the director, designer and rest of the creative team?

The secret is communication as early as possible, as costume and set design all have an impact on fight composition and the director will have very clear ideas on how they wish to tell the story. It is always a matter of compromise between the departments as we all work together to create as strong a production as we can that serves the director’s vision. The fight director has to work within the constraints set by the various creative disciplines, using them to tell a muscular story that is surprising and original.

What moments are you focusing on in Titus Andronicus?

There is a lot of violence and blood in Titus. Any moment where a character is involved in a fight or struggle, is murdered, dropped into a pit, lifted or carried, falls, shoots or stabs someone – those moments fall within the remit of the fight director.

What are the main challenges with this show?

Traditionally one of the most difficult elements in Titus is removing the eponymous character’s hand onstage. However, in this production, I’ve been relieved of the challenge through the use of a very clever illusion!

My main difficulty has been working in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre itself – an enormously challenging space for a fight director. Because of the audience wrapping around the action in close proximity, and a proportion of them sitting high above the action and looking down, it can be extremely difficult to successfully carry off the usual tricks of the trade. Historically, many stage combat techniques were designed for proscenium arch / end-on performance, and do not work in a deep thrust stage. The focus has to be on making the violence look as realistic as possible, without letting the audience see the performers taking necessary care of each other, or exposing the trade secrets. Not easy in this space. But it’s challenges such as this that stretch our creative muscles and help to advance the craft overall. There’s a real excitement in being given the opportunity to try out new solutions to story-telling provocations. Not only do we develop professionally, but the profession itself develops.

What do you think is the most exciting moment in Titus Andronicus?

From my perspective, the end of Chiron and Demetrius’ story is a real coup de théâtre.

Titus Andronicus plays at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre until 2 September, before moving to the Barbican in London.