Alex Martinez Wallace on “The Three Musketeers,” sword-fighting, and the need for stage combat to be huge (Artist Statement)

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The NOLA Project continues its 2017-18 season with a mounting of Pete McElligott’s adaptation of the Alexandre Dumas classic. Mark Routhier directs James Bartelle, Alex Martinez Wallace, Will Bowling, Kali Russell, John Neisler, Sarah Carlton, Keith Claverie, among others; stage combat directed by Wallace.
WHEN: May 9-27
WHERE: New Orleans Museum of Art Besthoff Sculpture Garden
TICKETS: $25 general admission, $18 NOMA members
MORE INFO: Visit The NOLA Project website

Staged combat — mainly in the form of sword play — becomes a character in itself in The NOLA Project’s staging of Pete McElligott’s adaptation of the Alexandre Dumas classic, “The Three Musketeers.” In this installment of “Artist Statement,” Alex Martinez Wallace — who directs the staged combat — explains the value of this form of action in the production, and why the willing suspension of disbelief matters here as much as anywhere in a work of theater.

When I attempt to reflect on my youth, so that I might put a finger on the influences that led me to study stage combat in a professional manner, I’m left flummoxed. Certainly professional televised wrestling played a key role in things. And while I ceased watching it around the age of 11 or 12 as my interests veered into the pursuit of true martial study, professional wrestling has a rhythmic blueprint to be utilized in stage combat that I’m uncertain whether choreographers fully appreciate.

I’ve never heard it discussed before, anyways. Rhythmic blueprint: because when choreographing a fight I’ll often hear it in my head before I see it. The sounds of breathing, hissing, stomping, punching, yelling, etc. Sometimes when teaching a routine, and things are coming along onstage with the players, I’ll close my eyes and just listen to the fight — listen for the story of struggle crescendoing into fury or desperation or the decrescendo into exhaustion and surrender. Stage combat is, after all, a study in acting and scene work with high stakes, and just like you can hear the story of regular scene work through spoken lines and conveyed emotion, so too can you hear the story within stage combat through the sounds of physical struggle.

Swords are another musical instrument to tell that story with, in a way. I enjoy working with swords because I can get away with more shenanigans, you see. The common man truly doesn’t know what a fight looks like. We are influenced by what we see in film, but unless one has pursued a study in martial arts or some form of combat, it’s something you see very seldom in real life. And as unfamiliar with combat as the common man is, even less so are they familiar with what swordplay actually looks like. None of us will likely ever witness a real sword fight in this life. It’s truly alien territory this day and age, and as such, I can create story with movements that people swallow down without question.

There is a type of person who will critique choreographed combat in film or stage with disdain if they believe it wouldn’t “work” or “look like that” in real life. I pray to God that those people experience such stark horror in a dream one stormy night where they wake up in a vegetative state the next morning: unable to move, unable to speak— having been jauntified by such psychotic visions that previous night so that I might be relieved by their witless prattle forever and ever, amen. Have you ever seen real fights? They’re as boring and Bunny Bread. Why on earth would I want to subject an audience to the ruthless pawing at each other that happens in real violence? And even more rare are those who will make similar critique about swordplay since, as I said earlier, we hardly know what it actually looks like. You’ll know those people when you see them: they’ve studied some historical European martial arts or fencing or whatever. You’ll be watching “Game of Thrones” and in-between bites of their mayonnaise sandwich on Bunny Bread they’ll say something like, “You can’t really stand on a horse while it’s in full gallop you know … .” And you pray for Jesus to come down and carpenter them into floorboards that go under the urinal in the bathroom of a house belonging to a dizzy drunk with a corkscrew cock.

What I’m trying to say is that swordplay in stage combat allows for a greater suspension of disbelief, which, in these garden shows, is necessary. Because like the acting in outdoor theatre and big open spaces, stage combat has to be huge. No room for subtlety here. It’s the opera of stage combat. It has to be great big silly fun. I have to manage the fact that with swordplay comes serious injury and death for characters while keeping things big silly and fun, which is a delicate balancing act in a family-friendly show. How do I do it? I hope you’ll come see and find out.

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