SCR: How do you prepare fight choreography before getting onstage with the actors?
Edgar Landa: I read the play multiple times—for story, for character information and for other small pieces of information that would affect how a particular character might approach a fight or react to violence. I also make notes of props, weapons and any blood or injury requirements. Whenever possible, I ask for a floor plan of the set design so that I have an idea of the space in which a particular fight or piece of violence will take place in. And finally, I talk to the director. I ask for his or her thoughts on the play, particular characters, and the fights or violence. Often I'll ask for descriptive key words or phrases for specific characters that sometimes can open up doors in how to approach certain fights.
Once rehearsal begins, how do you work with actors to create the illusion of a fight?
EL: I come into the first rehearsal with some ideas about what the fight/violence might look like, what I feel it may have to it, and how the story and given circumstances might motivate the fight.
Sometimes I'll have worked out some fight bits with some of my graduate students [at the University of Southern California] before coming to rehearsal. Choreographing some possible fight moments beforehand allows me to explore and come into the first rehearsal better-prepared. These ideas will shift once I meet the actors and get input from them. I often find that we discover the fight/violence much more organically that way than if I come in with a prepared fight to impose on them.
In the rehearsal room I like to work collaboratively with the actors. I may start with some of my ideas just to get the actors moving and out of that they will often come up with good or better ideas that I can craft into safe and effective fight moves that tell a good story and support the overall story of the play. The choices made in the fight are determined by character and story and also by what can be done safely. That is always our first concern. We are creating the illusion of violence.
How do the fights in this play differ from other plays?
EL: The fights in The Motherf**ker with the Hat are challenging to choreograph because they are "messy" fights. There is no particular style or elegance because the characters are not skilled fighters. Yet we have to choreograph it so that the actors always are safe and in control to create the illusion of the fight not being in control. Even a seemingly wild and chaotic fight must be controlled and choreographed so that the actors are safe, the story of the fight is clear and the audience remains engaged in the illusion of the world that the director, actors and designers have created. The choreography is very much a dance with its own pace, rhythm and beats.
Tell us how you ensure actor safety.
EL: We work on mats in the rehearsal room and I encourage the actors to wear knee pads and elbow pads, if necessary. We work on fights slowly and methodically and build up slowly to "performance" speed. I remind the actors that "performance" speed is slower than reality because the audience has to be able to see the violence, and because intent and specificity in the fight is always better than speed.
Props and scenery pieces are custom-made to look like the real thing, but actually are made from soft materials. We choreograph the fights to avoid contact by found weapons and those items also are made from soft materials, which add a layer of safety. The breakaway furniture is made to consistently break as required. The rehearsal process allows the actor to be confident in the furniture functioning as intended.
I want to stress that the fight is a dance and the actors involved must look out for each other, must constantly breathe and create the violence from a place of relaxation in their body rather than from a place of tension.
What kind of fights will we see in The Motherf**ker with the Hat?
EL: The play calls for violent contact with "found" weapons, like a pistol whip, a stickball stick to the head, a coffee table/side table getting broken or broken on an actor during the fight.
What makes your job fun?
EL: I love working with actors! I’m an actor myself, so part of the fun for me is figuring out how to work with each actor, how much to lead and how much to listen. I also love the moment when actors take ownership of a fight or piece of violence. The moves are the moves—in and of themselves—so they’re not particularly exciting or fancy. It is the actors investing the moves in the fight with intention and specificity that makes for an exciting story telling moment.