Fight master teaches art of stage combat: David Woolley

By Katy Nielsen

David Woolley has performed sword fights as “Guido Crescendo” for more than 21 years at Renaissance Fairs across the country. He is an Artist in Residence at Columbia and one of a select few fight masters within the Society of American Fight Directors.

He has choreographed violence for more than 500 productions, including fights for the World Wrestling Entertainment and the Goodman Theatre, and is the recipient of a 2010 Joseph Jefferson Award for Fight Direction for the Pulitzer Prize play nominee “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity.”

In his 49th semester teaching stage combat at Columbia Woolley continues to pursue his passions for instructing student actors, choreographing fight scenes and performing.  The Chronicle had the chance to sit down and meet with the fight master.

The Chronicle: How do you explain the concept of stage combat to someone who is not an actor?

David Woolley: It is theatrical violence. It is how to create the illusion of a fight without getting hurt. That’s what it is. It’s like magic. It’s like mime. It’s like tap dancing. It’s a learned skill that goes into an actor’s bag of tricks.  And if you want to do this, you have to be able to perform [William] Shakespeare because he wrote the plays with fights in them.

The Chronicle: Is this something anybody can learn or is it only for actors?

DW: It’s really an acting class. When it’s all said and done we are pretending to fight. People who really want to fight need to go elsewhere. The job is about taking care of somebody and making sure they’re going to be OK while you have a great time pretending to beat them up, so you will be safe and I can buy you a beer later.

The Chronicle: This semester, you’re teaching several advanced stage combat classes at Columbia. What other projects are you working on this winter?

DW: I’ll be teaching at the Winter Wonderland Workshop at the Pheasant Run [from] Jan. 7–9, which is the largest international sword fighting workshop in the world. We’re having [more than] 150 people come. “As You Like It” starts [Nov. 30], after Thanksgiving. “The Swordsmen” runs 18 weeks over the summer, and from now until May I’m at Columbia.

The Chronicle: Tell me about the show “Dirk and Guido: The Swordsmen!” Who exactly is Guido Crescendo?

DW: Guido Crescendo is a romantic orator and swordsman extraordinaire. We are in service to Her Majesty the Queen in hopes of becoming the King of England. We will be benevolent, she will continue to do her job and he will look good and wear a crown. Otherwise, he’s about doing good work and making sure men treat women respectfully, and teaching them sword fighting and stabbing one another—as men do—how to pose, look good and buy their women expensive presents. [Dirk and Guido] are larger-than-life caricature cartoons.

The Chronicle: What was it like when you first took these characters on the road?

DW: We went to the Pennsylvania Renaissance Fair and lived in a barn on somebody’s property at a national park for five weeks. We had a creek as our water supply. We were camping in a barn, writing by candlelight—writing new material everyday—just creating this show.

The Chronicle: Can you describe the experience of creating a show or fight scene?

DW: It’s a flow. That’s exactly what it is. The first thing I find out is how to tell the story, and then I’m going to look at the space and find out what’s happening. Next, I want to try to cover as much space as I possibly can. The goal is to get the audience to lean forward in their seats and get thrown back. Can I get a gasp? I’m basically going to build a roller coaster the audience is going to go on.

The Chronicle: Tell me about your teaching philosophy.  What kind of advice do you give your students?

DW: If it’s not fun, don’t do it. If you’re going to be an actor, find a job that feeds you once a day.  Those restaurant jobs are important—they give you food. Go to happy hour, get a ginger ale, eat off the buffet and patrons can be out there. Be bold and don’t be afraid. Stand in there and let someone swing a sword at you.  Swing one back at them.  Don’t get hurt, but commit fully to that action. Pretend you know what you’re doing.