As this Fall’s Mainstage production, Big Love, moves into the final stages of its rehearsal process and prepares to open, the Living Newsletter sent staff writer, Philip Merrick ’19, to a fight rehearsal to get an exclusive scoop on all things “dangerous.”
By Philip Merrick ’19
It’s a little after 6:00pm when Sydney Tennant ’18 plugs her phone into a speaker and “Ignition (Remix)” by R. Kelly starts playing. Actors flood the stage. Several wear knee pads; all wear movement clothes. They begin a series of stretches, following Tennant’s fervent commands: “Flat back! Stretch! Reach, reach, reach!” It’s obvious that this is routine, because when Bianca Thompson ’19 moves downstage and drops to the floor, the cast follows without missing a beat. The music changes to “Fergalicious” as Thompson calls out, “Dance it down, y’all!” What proceeds is the most enthusiastic abs workout I’ve ever seen. The routine is half workout, half dance party. Thompson calls out again and the cast responds in tempo: “Halfway up, all the way up, halfway down, all the way down…” Director Carolyn Anderson bobs her head to the beat. ASM Cara Geser ’20 dances along beside the tech table. As the group moves into planks, cast members Taylor Goodwin ’20 and Adam Newmark ’20 climb up onto a set piece and continue the routine from there. Despite (or perhaps because of) the grueling workout, this cast is bursting with energy.
Now the group gathers into a big circle. In the middle is a set piece that will soon be a pool, filled with real water. They begin a new routine, jumping and stretching to counts of eight, exercising each part of the body in turn. Fight directors and Skidmore alumni Callan Suozzi-Rearic ’14 and Madeleine Emerick ’16 leap into the fray. Souzzi-Rearic points toward the sky and then away to the side, calling out a cue as she does so, and the cast falls to the ground simultaneously. “Help someone up!” calls Emerick, as she takes the stage.
The actors help each other up and stand, waiting for instruction. Emerick and Suozzi-Rearic meet each other onstage, then look around at the cast.
Now fight rehearsal can begin.
I sit down with AD and fight captain Rebecca Rovezzi ’18 [RR], along with fight directors Callan Suozzi-Rearic ’14 [CSR] and Maddy Emerick ’16 [ME].
What role does stage combat play in this show?
ME: Something that playwright Chuck Mee says in the text of the show is that the physical life of the show should mirror the heightened nature of the words. So how I’ve always conceptualized [the stage combat] is that it needs to be very heightened and almost a little bit crazy.
CSR: When we were doing the massacre today, this is something that Maddie said to Becca: “This isn’t for you. This violence is to show them what this can do.” In the world that we’re living in currently… a lot of sexual harassment, a lot of rape and a lot of violence against women is becoming a part of the conversation we’re having in our society. [The stage combat] show[s] this intense violence where these women are fighting back against masculinity, and the men are having a conversation about what that means and their own violence.
RR: One of the first questions we talked about when we first started working on the show was: Is this a comedy? Is it a tragedy? And I think it doesn’t really neatly fit into any one genre because you have parts that are funny, but what they’re saying can be kind of horrific. Sometimes the show is at war with itself, and the combat in the show is reflective of that.
ME: Our impulses to laugh and cry live very close to each other. Chuck Mee plays with that in Big Love, and we totally want to mirror that here.
RR: There are moments [in the text] when you’re laughing, you’re laughing, and then you almost feel bad for laughing in the next moment. The combat does that in a lot of moments too.
“Let’s start with the massacre,” says Emerick. “Cake-eating positions.”
The actors milling about on stage become wedding guests. Tennant stands front and center, next to a big stand-in prop cake. She mimes cutting up slices and handing them to three of the ladies: Becca Gracey ’18, Lucy Consagra ’18, and Anabel Milton ’18, who stand next to Anthony Nikitopoulos ’21, Matt Clyne ’20, and Atticus Rego ’21. The individual relationships start unfolding onstage, ranging from cutesy to concerning, until suddenly, something goes wrong. Tennant shrieks. One of the guests picks up a wedding present. Someone pushes someone else and then, finally, all hell breaks loose. Guests run wild and begin hitting each other willy-nilly. Wedding presents become weapons. I can’t tell if Milton and Rego are fighting or flirting, but I think it’s both. Gracey slams Nikitopoulos’s head into an electric piano—a second time—a third—and then takes out a knife. Thompson flips over backwards. Nicky Citera ’18 takes out both Goodwin and himself in a single blow. Tennant and Newmark end up slumped, unconscious, over the side of a pool.
“Hold there! Relax!” calls Emerick. She’s grinning, and so is Suozzi-Rearic. They both cry out in unison: “Yaaay!”
Violence can sometimes be really heavy material. How do you keep it fun?
ME: The biggest part of it is that I take the work seriously but not myself.
CSR: I always like to say our bodies are so smart. They’re smarter than our heads. They’re so much smarter than our brains. They hold things—
ME: I’m sorry. You say that?
CSR: OK, you say that too.
ME: Thank you.
CSR: You never know, as a fight choreographer walking in, what that person’s body is holding—it could be in a farce, it could be in a drama, it could be somewhere in between […] Even the intimate dark stuff. It’s fun because it’s a place that we get to explore together and plunge into the depths of what it means to be human in every way.
ME: Regardless of what it is I’m choreographing, the moment when I watch the run of a fight and the actors get it, no matter if it is terribly depressing and dark and horrible or if it is a bunch of clowns slapsticking each other around—whatever it is, when the actors get it, that moment is so fun. […] Fight in general requires a lot of energy. It requires a lot of physical and emotional commitment, and as fight choreographers, we have a duty to bring that energy into the room with us. If we take ourselves too seriously, things can become deep and dark when they don’t even mean to be.
CSR: You could easily turn the Comedy of Errors into the most depressing story about three sets of twins who cannot find the right one. It can just get sad. So don’t take yourself too seriously.
Emerick and Suozzi-Rearic are part of Dispatch Combat Collective, a New-York based group of fight choreographers and teachers founded by, and comprising of, Skidmore College alumni.
Big Love runs November 28th-December 3rd, Tuesday-Saturday at 8PM plus 2PM on Saturday and Sunday, on the Mainstage of the JKB. Click here for tickets.
Philip Merrick ’19 is a Theater major, English minor, and current staff writer for the Living Newsletter.