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Fight Club

By William Meiners (MFA ’96)

Photo: Anthony Chiappetta (BA '95)

Andrew Amani cuts a striking figure as a master stage combatant, choreographer, and stunt man. Photographed at Sacred Fools Theater in Los Angeles.

Weapon-wielding theatre alumni share struggles and successes from the battlegrounds of stage and screen

For centuries, actors have transformed fits of violence into elaborate spectacles on stage. The origins of stage combat can be traced to ancient Greek theatre, where conflict, essential to dramatic storytelling, often took a highly physical form. The choreographed violence is a carefully scripted dance of near misses that both reveals character and thrills live audiences. And it’s alive and well on stage and screen today.

From live Shakespearian battles in parks to action sequences on film, Columbia College Chicago theatre alumni populate that fight scene. They’ve spent hours rehearsing stage movements that flash by in a second during a performance. They’ve perfected the use of weapons, ever mindful of the safety of themselves and their fellow actors. And they’ve all helped teach others a craft rife with daily bumps and bruises. Here, theatre alumni yield their weapons to share their battle stories.

“There’s something amazing about taking an audience on an adventure.”

Love at First Fight

“Walking onto the third floor of the 11th Street building was a little like walking into a scene from Fame,” says Alison Dornheggen (BA ’01), a Cincinnati native, of her first elevator exit at Columbia College’s theatre building. “I saw two people sword fighting in the hallway.”

Dornheggen jokes that she thought stage fighting was something the cool kids were doing, and she became particularly hooked after seeing a pair of students do a swing dance number complete with combat choreography. She took to the training eagerly, becoming one of the first teaching assistants for John McFarland, an adjunct theatre faculty member known to all as Johnny Mac, and earned certification in small sword and sword and shield with David Yondorf (BA ’08), now also adjunct faculty.

As a member of Chicago’s Babes With Blades Theatre Company since 2003, Dornheggen is part of an all-female ensemble that celebrates strong female characters, both historical and fictional, to show how aggression, and even violence, affects their lives. “There’s something that’s really empowering about holding up a sword,” she says. “Babes tells women’s stories using the tools of stage combat. It’s another outlet for you to understand your body and physicality as an actor, as well as understand you character.”

Photo: Johnny Knight

Kim Fukawa takes a punch from Alison Dornheggen in Babes With Blades’ production of Julius Caesar.

For Sondra Mayer (BA ’98), a Glenview-raised actress who grew up around Chicago theatre, the introduction to stage combat provided another acting outlet. “I love entertaining people and telling stories,” says Mayer, who spent her freshman year in film studies before switching back to her first love of acting. “There’s something amazing about taking an audience on an adventure.”

A physical actor with a background in cheerleading and community theatre, Mayer never held a weapon before Columbia. “I could not believe how much I loved it,” she says. “I took to it really quickly and practiced like a maniac.”

The student-turned-teaching-assistant went on to earn certifications in multiple weapons, though the quarterstaff, a traditional European pole weapon, remains her favorite.

A Chicago high school drama teacher gave Kim Fukawa (BA ’07) her first sword, and she has brandished weapons on stage ever since. Another Babes With Blades member, Fukawa often discovers her character through the fight, like when she made her Babes debut in an all-female version of Macbeth. “Sometimes your character is built into the fight,” she says. “If you’re a scrappy character, your fighting is not going to be upright. You might do more underhanded things and go for weak spots. Good choreography should reflect your character.”

Six Degrees of David Woolley

Dornheggen says she can trace every theatre job she’s gotten back to six degrees of Columbia, and, more times than not, to David Woolley, the senior lecturer in the Theatre Department who has spent more than 25 years training students for stage combat. Indeed, all five alumni sources here cite Woolley as a pivotal figure in their careers.

Though Woolley’s reach extends throughout Chicago’s dramatist circles, he originally wanted to make things a little easier on himself. “The reason I began teaching was to create ringers that I could then use in the professional world, because there weren’t enough trained fighters with the skills required to do the art that I wanted to do,” he says. “I had to train everyone from the ground up.”

Those students who developed a particular knack for fighting would go on to help train others. An elective all these years, with the option of four semesters for willing combatants, stage combat becomes a core Columbia theatre course in 2013—and is offered as the first minor in stage combat in the U.S. Even the faint of heart can—and will—be coaxed into battle.

A key component to stage combat training is to make the actors really understand the violence they are orchestrating. “It’s about taking care of your scene partners rather than being aggressive,” Woolley says. He adds the partnership formed between two sparring actors is more important than having the mindset of “attacking a victim." But Wooley also notes that audience exposure to cinematic violence is causing the "violent requirements" of live theatre to become more intense-which can be traumatic for the actors. “I know that my students will dream the fights,” he says. “It will invade their dreams and makes for rough sleeping.”

But Woolley reassures actors of the benefits of mastering realistic stage combat: “If you can integrate good performance techniques into your scene while someone is swinging a broadsword at you, you will gain confidence as an actor.”

Photo: Anthony Chiappetta (BA '95)

Fight and flight choreographer Sondra Mayer instructs an actor for Peter Pan: The Boy Who Hated Mothers at The Blank Theatre in Los Angeles.

“If you’re a scrappy character, your fighting is not going to be upright. You might do more underhanded things and go for weak spots. Good choreography should reflect your character.”

To Live and Fight in LA

Mayer and fellow Woolley disciple Andrew Amani (BA ’99) moved to Los Angeles about 10 years ago to pursue their careers. On television, Amani was a stunt double for Lou Diamond Phillips (in Numb3rs) and performed stunt work on Without a Trace, Chuck, No Ordinary Family, and Miami Trauma. His various film stunts include a second-story backward somersault to reenact a shooting and falling down two flights of stairs fully engulfed in flames. Moviegoers can catch him in an opening prison scene in The Hangover Part III.

Mayer and Amani are earning critical success as choreographers in a refreshingly inspired LA theatre scene. Mayer is the fight and flight choreographer for Peter Pan: The Boy Who Hated Mothers, whose West Coast run garnered a number of good reviews. The challenge was to have actors flying around the stage without any harnesses, Mayer says, so she incorporated old cheerleader lifts to intensify the action and give the illusion of flight.

The pressures from a directorial standpoint, beyond keeping people safe, are the demands of such a long-running show. “I keep retraining people for Peter Pan,” Mayer says. “The biggest challenge is the wear and tear on people’s bodies. They have to vigilantly train and care for themselves.”

Photo: Anthony Chiappetta (BA '95)

An award-winning choreographer, Andrew Amani also performs stunts for TV and film and coordinates stunts for independent features and shorts.

Amani, a martial arts practitioner and former pro beach volleyball player, won several choreography awards over the last year, including the LA Weekly Theater Award and LA Stage Alliance’s Ovation Honors Award for Best Fight Choreography for the Theatre of Note in Hollywood’s production of Hearts Like Fists.

A company member of the award-winning Sacred Fools Theater, Amani lists Buster Keaton, Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Bruce Lee, and Jackie Chan among the athletic actors who have influenced him most. “Buster Keaton’s stunt work of early-day cinema still stands as astonishing,” Amani says. “It’s pretty amazing if you think about how he performed all these amazing feats without the use of today’s technology and innovation of movement.”

And not surprisingly, knowing how to dance plays a huge role in mastering fight choreography. “In addition to learning the steps, the actors must find the musicality within the choreography by coloring it with varied speeds and a variety of vocal expressions,” he says. “And each maneuver must be driven from organic intention. So, it’s fight the fight.”

Photo: Andrew Nelles (BA '08)

Ryan Bourque says his skills as a photographer help him as an actor and choreographer to see “the big picture of movement throughout a stage.”

A Cupcake’s Revenge, a Swashbuckler’s Eye

Most artists deal with the challenge of making a living while expanding on their craft. Dornheggen recently walked away from her nine to five as a marketing and sales assistant for an investment management firm to pursue a full-time artistic dream. This fall, she will direct the first public reading of Witch Slap by Jeff Goode, Babes With Blades’ winner of the Joining Sword & Pen competition.

Fukawa sacrifices to keep her Second City theatre dreams alive by working a couple of part-time jobs. As a cupcake filler for Molly’s Cupcakes, she has to be at work at 5:30 a.m. But for the actress who has played Sarah in Stop Kiss, Portia in Julius Caesar, and Lady Capulet in Romeo vs. Juliet, the nighttime roles are the true icing on the cake.

"As an actor, I've always wanted to work at places like Steppenwolf and the Goodman. It just so happens that I got there through fight choreography."

For Ryan Bourque (BFA ’09), who in June won the Jefferson Award for Artistic Specialization in Fight Choreography for the Hypocrites production of Coriolanus, freelance work as a photographer helps feed the same machine as acting and choreography.

“When I go into a theater and start laying out choreography, I really believe some of the skills I picked up in photography translate into seeing the big picture of movement throughout a stage,” says Bourque, who shoots for Time Out Magazine. “You have to find a clear way of telling a story without words.”

Bourque hopes to expand on his travel experience, camera in tow, to enhance the creativity of his work in Chicago. "As an actor I've always wanted to work at places like Steppenwolf and the Goodman," he says. “It just so happens that I got there through fight choreography. The community that I’m a part of in this town is unbelievable. I want to venture out, learn, and bring it back.”

Illustrations: E.N. Rodriguez ('11)

What to Wield
Fight combatants choose their weapons wisely

Rapier and Dagger
Use: Thrusting/stabbing attacks, suicide (in many plays)
Famous Productions: The Princess Bride, Three Musketeers, Zorro

Use: Thrusting/stabbing, fighting in close quarters, throwing/slashing
Famous Productions: Desperado, V For Vendetta, West Side Story

Single Sword (sabre, single rapier,
Hollywood swashbuckling)
Use: Sword play, slashing, thrusting
Famous Productions: Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Blade, Romeo and Juliet


Use: Stick fighting, blunt force, thrusting
Famous Productions: Robin Hood, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles