Women are often spoken of as the “weaker sex.” Titan’s production of Othello would beg to differ.
Othello’s Fight Director and Resident Company Member, Johnathan Hicks, weighs in about what it’s like to stage violence for a cast of fighting females in one of Shakespeare’s most physically brutal tragedies.
“Who wants to see a bunch of chicks fight?" Fight Director, Johnathan Hicks, asks.
"EVERYBODY." he answers himself. "I don’t need to get on a soapbox to let people know that women can get a negative rap for being the “weaker sex” – both in the world of stage combat and the world in general. But by now, this idea should be obvious bull honky. One of the best Fight Directors I know is a woman.”
Bull honky, indeed.
In fact, in Titan's production of Othello, when given the choice between a simulated slap and an actual slap that would make contact with her face– Cassio (Abbey Siegworth) and Othello (Leah Dutchin) immediately decided that, due to the proximity of the Queen's Studio Theater space and the importance of the moment in the two character's relationship, Siegworth would simply take Dutchin’s slap to the face.
Maybe not too terrible, if you have to do it just once but, unlike film, in the world of theatre repetition is key. A stage combat move like this requires much repetition and precision to get the physical contact to a “safe" and repeatable place in the adrenalin of performance. So Dutchin and Siegworth have to deliver and receive the slap over and over again in rehearsal and fight calls (fight calls are similar to a dance warm up, and they happen each time before the show is run), to ensure the actors are consistently making eye contact at the same moment (this is the unspoken, split-second, go-ahead to proceed with the violence), that Dutchin is striking Siegworth's cheek in the right spot (too high you make contact with cheek bone or eye socket- too low, the jaw takes the impact - both are potentially dangerous and more painful for both actors), making sure Dutchin's hand at the optimal level of tension and Siegworth's face is at the optimal angle and, lastly, that neither actor flinches or anticipates the strike - which, I needn't tell you, takes a greatly developed control of one's innate reflexes.
Yup. We're dealing with some pretty resilient and bad ass ladies here. So much so that, when Siegworth wasn’t present at rehearsal one day and Maggie Wetzel, Cassio’s understudy stepped in, she was given the option to “mark” the combat as the understudy. Instead, Wetzel took it on the cheek as well, without batting an eye.
When asked if he changed any of the combat choreography when he learned he would be working with all women, Hicks said No. “There really hasn’t been much thought about what I need to change in order for women to be able to combat instead of men. ”
Hicks approaches the combat from the point of view of story - not gender.
This goes hand in hand with what Lenny Banovez, the Director of Othello and Titan's founder and Artistic Director said when asked about the "concept" of an All-Female Othello.
"We aren't doing an All-Female Othello. We're doing Othello. With a female cast." -
When it comes to physical fighting in real life, there are some things that work in women's advantage as fighters:
- The male center of gravity is in the shoulders. The female center of gravity is in their hips - which is closer to the ground. Making them harder to knock over.
- Women have a higher pain tolerance
- Females, on average, have a larger Limbic system than males. This area of the brain is referred to as “the reptilian brain” because it houses instincts. This area, which is home to the mothering instinct and innate primitive fighting instincts, is larger in women than men. It has been observed that, when threatened, women actually display a primitive killer instinct far greater than the male.
Just think Momma Bear.
These things also aid them as stage fighters. Because of these reasons, as well as artistic choices, Hicks and Banovez have decided to stick to a specific “fight vocabulary” for this Othello
“Our Othello is contemporary world. What is cool about this is that it allows for more options as far as styles of violence. This modern setting gives us a broader choice from any fighting style and any weapon - past or present.
So everyone should just have guns then right? Ha!
We have used guns in Titan productions in the past and they immediately take the violence into the present [which is cool]. But guns are a tricky business for the theater. They are expensive. They must either be functional or be accompanied with some other technical element. They lead to questions: Does everyone have a gun? If not, who has one and why?
For Othello, we have decided to use a combination of daggers and unarmed combat. Since the idea of the human as a martial instrument has been around since Cain met Abel, and since here at Titan we like to keep it simple and raw, it works for us. There is an inherent brutality to the play. Therefore, the up close and personal quality of these weapons help to highlight the gruesome, intimate nature of the violence in the world of Othello”
A world you are invited into at The Queen's Theatre this month.
Keep up your bright swords, for the dew will rust them.
Good Madam, you shall more command with years
Than with your weapons. - Act 1, Scene ii