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Fighting In A Foreign Language …or, How I Taught Unarmed Stage Combat In Spanish

By Stefan Sittig

Editor’s Note: Stage Combat is the art of creating fights/violence for the stage with an emphasis on safety and illusion (no one really hurts anyone). Almost every major play/musical has moments of violence in it, from ANNIE (hair pulls) to the more obvious examples like HAMLET (rapier & dagger fight) or MACBETH (broadsword fight).

Teaching unarmed stage combat is never an easy task. Teaching unarmed stage combat in a foreign language is even harder, but that is what I had to do last year. At the invitation of Grupo Aventura, a South American professional theatre company based in Montevideo, capital of Uruguay, I traveled there to teach unarmed stage combat workshops in Spanish. The experience turned out to be one of the most challenging and rewarding of my teaching career.

The author with a few of his students

When first presented with the opportunity, I was thrilled—excited to travel, to visit the country, to experience the culture. But these were all emotions, not thoughts. The first thought exploded. “Wait a minute,” I said to myself, “Aren’t there any stage combat teachers in Uruguay? Why do they want me?” My second thought was, “If I do accept this challenging offer, how am I ever going to teach stage combat in Spanish?”

Even though I grew up in Latin America, spoke Spanish as well as English at home from an early age and have no problems communicating in Spanish, I was worried. Negotiating daily life in a foreign language is one thing. Teaching a specific skill with all the jargon it encompasses, in a foreign language, is quite-another. So, with some trepidation, I packed my bags (and knee pads and gloves) and boarded the plane for the 3,000-mile flight to Uruguay.

Above the clouds I pondered my situation. Teaching stage combat was something I had grown accustomed to—in English! I finally understood the intricacies of language and vocabulary required to teach it. I had years of experience teaching high school, college and university students as well as professional actors. I worked as a dance and fight choreographer for various professional theatre companies in the Washington, D.C. area. At this point, I felt competent enough to teach basic unarmed stage combat in English, but—in another language?

Approaching Buenos Aires where I had to change planes for Montevideo, I realized my main challenge was to translate all the combat information contained in the English language part of my brain, into safe, clear and concise Spanish for students who spoke no English. But, how to ensure that nothing was lost in translation? How to provide an experience as complete and safe for these Spanish-speaking students as I would for native English-speaking students? I pondered some more as we flew over the Rio de la Plata to Uruguay.

About the size of South Dakota, Uruguay is nestled just south of Brazil and east of Argentina. Originally a Spanish colony, it has struggled for years to escape the shadow of its two larger and physically imposing neighbors. With approximately 3 ½ million inhabitants, mostly concentrated in Montevideo, the country is small, but large in its love and appreciation for the arts. With a literacy rate of almost 97 percent, Uruguay is the most literate country in Latin America. It has a much higher educational standard than many areas of the United States.

The vibrant Montevideo Theatre community is always bustling and constantly growing. With more than 20 professional theatre companies and 100-plus productions a year, Montevideo offers a healthy variety of choices for the hungry theatre-goer. It has a union for Independent Theatre Professionals called FUTI (Federacíon Uruguaya de Teatros Independientes). Everything from Spanish translations of Ibsen to Tony Kushner and original works are constantly in rehearsal or in production with a frequency that rivals any mid-sized U.S. city. When I was there, a production of Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire” had just closed, and a much celebrated production of Copenhagen was packing the houses.

Uruguay has an equivalent of the Tony Awards, the Florencio. Named after Florencio Sanchez, one of the most important actors and playwrights of Uruguayan theatre, the awards are bestowed yearly and, just like the Tonys, a Florencio can mean a much longer run and more money in the box office till. However, unlike the U.S., there is little government funding of professional theatre in Uruguay. Many years ago, an annual amount was doled out and divided by several struggling theatres, but due to recent economic constraints, it has been eliminated. Despite the lack of government funds, Uruguayan theatre survives, moves on and manages to focus on performance, artistry and creativity instead of big budgets and elaborate sets.

Yet, with all its richness, Montevideo theatre lacks familiarity with stage combat. It is practically an unknown skill. Most theatre practitioners are aware that it exists, but they rarely have the chance to learn it unless they travel to Europe or the United States. So they make do. There is no SAFD or similar organization to regulate and sanction the teaching of stage combat. Unlike the U.S., there are no educational theatre programs at the college and university levels where students can hone their skills. Students in Montevideo who want to study theatre must do so at a private academy, in the evening after school hours. While strong in acting, voice training and theatre history, these academies are sorely lacking in the area of movement for the actor. Besides that, most interested theatre students cannot afford private training at all. They usually have to work two or three jobs to help out at home. Slowly, I began to get a picture of this city of contradictions. The desire and love for theatre is ever-present, but the opportunities to study and financial resources to receive or give training are scarce.

On the first day of my workshop, I was shocked when I entered the school. It is an old Spanish-style house, restored for use as a school. It has a series of spacious classrooms. While the house is indeed a marvel of 19th century Spanish architecture, it certainly wasn’t the ideal place for a stage combat class. Or was it? As I walked into our classroom to inspect the surroundings, I realized that the floor, made of a soft, pliant wood with considerable give, was actually not bad for falling, tumbling and forward rolls. And the non-air-conditioned room, which initially seemed cramped and claustrophobic, was actually quite open and cool once the long shutters covering the floor-to-ceiling windows were opened and fresh air from the outside came in. While this is not the same as teaching in an air-conditioned studio with sprung floors and full length mirrors, it actually serves its purpose quite well and turned out to be just fine for the number of students registered for the workshop.

The concept of time is different in Montevideo, too. The class was scheduled to start at 9:30 in the evening. I thought this was a rather strange time to start a class. Back in the U.S. I was used to teaching during the day or in the 7 to 10 evening rehearsal slot common for most theatre groups. Apparently, as my host pointed out, in Montevideo it is usual for activities to start as late as 10 on a weeknight, since most students have to work until then.

I gazed at my watch. It was 9:50! Oh my god! Is nobody going to show up? Isn’t there enough interest in stage combat here? My host assured me once again that the students would show up, perhaps a little bit late, but they would come. By a quarter past 10 most of them finally arrived, a motley crew of eight—four men and four women—of various shapes and sizes. Most were dressed appropriately and seemed ready to work. Things were starting to look up!

After leading a basic physical warm-up, other more specific challenges started to hover in my brain. I began to fear that I might not be able to communicate such technical terms as “knapp” or “safe distance” in Spanish. But that would be determined soon enough. After pairing them up according to height and body type as best I could, I started teaching a forward fall. It was amazing how fast they mastered this skill, with almost no verbal direction from me. They imitated the position of my feet, body, hands and head with very little coaching on my part. Their focus and commitment to learning was intense. They were so eager to learn, absorbing every detail like sponges. The fact that I could not rely on my words to communicate a skill actually helped them (and me as well) to focus on the visual demonstration. I could not believe how quickly they all seemed to be comfortable with the forward fall.

Next, I taught them the side fall/faint and moved on to the stage slap (no contact), and the hair/ear/nose pulls. As the workshop progressed, I could not believe how focused these students were. They delved into every technique with such abandon, with such dedication, I felt like the best teacher in the world! They asked questions without shame, and they repeated techniques diligently until they became comfortable with this new physical language. Even students who were struggling with certain techniques kept trying until they improved significantly.

Once the workshop was in full swing, I realized that all my initial fears and doubts were unfounded. These students were eager to learn, and I was willing to teach. It was as simple as that. The language barrier was not enough to keep them from experiencing a new skill that they so desperately yearned to master.

What this experience—teaching in Spanish—showed me was that when I taught in English, I had relied too much on vocal cues and verbal explanations to teach the details of each unarmed stage combat skill. Because many of the words used in English to describe unarmed stage combat techniques, such as “knapp” or “safe distance” have no Spanish counterpart, I found myself teaching more by example and demonstration. I noticed that the students focused more on my visual clues, rather than verbal directions. Different students learn differently, but when you are teaching a movement skill, such as stage combat, dance or mime, I firmly believe the ultimate learning technique has to be a combination of visual and kinesthetic. Verbal coaching can help a student who is more of an aural learner, but eventually, that student will have to engage his or her other modes of learning to grasp the techniques fully.

The intensity and love that these Uruguayan students brought to their learning of stage combat was surpassed only by the respect, love and admiration they showed me outside of the classroom. I was invited to all sorts of social events, my brain was picked about every possible theatre subject, and my movement advice was requested on a daily basis. I realized that these students are not dedicated just while in the classroom, but they live and breathe theatre day and night.

When I had to pack my bags and leave Montevideo to return to Washington D.C., I did not want to get on the plane. I had been made to feel a way I had never felt while teaching at U.S. institutions or theatre companies. I had been treated with respect, love and a sort of awe that teachers in our country rarely experience. I hear this is the way all teachers are treated in Uruguay. Perhaps they have learned something essential about the student-teacher relationship that we have not—or that we have forgotten.

That’s when I realized something crucial: Students who are not given as many opportunities to learn, and are not handed everything on a platter, but are made to work for their knowledge, go to their tasks much hungrier to learn. I wish I could see this hunger in the eyes of students in our country.

Perhaps my experience in Montevideo, has also taught me to be the kind of teacher that fosters this kind of “hungry” student. I hope I can pass on this “hunger” to students I teach in the U.S. Maybe it has something to do with passion and connecting with what truly motivates us in life. Uruguayans, with their rich Spanish culture, exacting European precision and Latin passion seem to have found the right combination for learning. Teaching stage combat in Montevideo was not a job, it was a pleasure.


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About the Author:

Stefan Sittig is a dance and fight choreographer, actor, singer and dancer residing in the Washington, D.C. area. He holds an MFA in Theatre from VCU, has trained in stage combat with Colleen Kelly and David Leong and has been a certified actor/combatant with the SAFD since 1994. He has been invited to return to Montevideo in January 2003 to teach more movement-related workshops and to direct and choreograph the first-ever Spanish version of the musical, Working. For more information go to: www.stefansittig.com


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stage combat, fight choreography, knapp, Safe Distance


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