Our Q&A with fight choreographer Tonya Lynn in 2014 for As You Like It.
Tonya Lynn is an actor, fight director/choreographer and youth theater teacher, and holds a M.A. in Theater and Performance Studies from the University of Pittsburgh. She has provided fight direction for many Pittsburgh area theaters and universities. Pittsburgh Shakespeare in the Parks’ 10th anniversary production of As You Like It is her 20th Shakespearean choreography credit.
Interview by New Place Collaborations intern Lydia Aceto.
Q: Is there a difference between choreographing fights for comedies vs. fights for tragedies?
A: My general approach for choreographing fights is the same, regardless of genre – you have to start with the text. Who are the characters? What is the reason for the fight? What does the dialogue tell us about what happens? All the good journalistic questions that actors and directors have to ask during the rehearsal process are part of my preparation as well. All fights have an internal story, and the genre of play (comedy vs. tragedy) comes out in the process of how that story is told. The comedy and tragedy elements all become clarified in that question of “what happens when they fight, and how does it occur?” There’s always an objective that the characters are trying to accomplish, and obstacles that prevent them from doing so; both comedy and tragedy can be found in the specificity of the tactics and techniques used by the characters to accomplish their goals within the fight.
Q: Some of the fighters in Romeo and Juliet appeared, how would you say this, somewhat less than noble in their fighting tactics. I thought it really suited their characters and the show. What thoughts go into choosing a fighting style for a character?
A: Thoughts on the fighting styles come first from the script and plenty of dramaturgical research, but also through conversations with the director and actors, as well. When looking at “Romeo and Juliet,” Shakespeare gives us a lot of information about how Tybalt fights through dialogue in the rest of the play; given that Mercutio delivers some of this information and does so while mocking Tybalt, that tells us that Mercutio’s style needs to be informed differently. Historically, Shakespeare is making topical references to fencing masters who were popular at the time the play was written, so research can tell us some additional information about the real people who are being referred to, and that information can be worked into the preparation as well. Romeo’s fight with Tybalt erupts out of emotion – and we know from the rest of the show how impulsive and driven by his emotions Romeo can be, so that also needs to be reflected in that character’s fighting style. The director may have an aesthetic preference for the production which then will also affect choreographic and staging choices. Actors will have input as well, since they know the character objectives most clearly. It all goes into the mix, and the end product needs to serve the overall story being told. I synthesize and distill all of the information to help shape a character-driven series of physical moments which serve the overall story being told by the production.
Q: What are the challenges and benefits of staging fights that are performed outdoors?
A: PSIP fights are unique! It’s just about as complex an environment to choreograph in as you could possibly find, due to all the variables. With no stage, we’re dealing with uneven terrain; in the outdoors, there are the weather elements to consider; without a set area for audience seating, the fights need to work from all viewing angles, especially given that the seating areas will change based on the weather elements (no one wants to sit in a mud puddle, or with the sun glaring into their eyes!); and then all of these variables are multiplied by the fact that the production travels to different parks each week! The fights need to be able to adapt to the different locations and weather situations, and that’s always something I bear in mind when putting the choreography together. These challenges have really pushed me to grow as a choreographer – since I can’t rely on all of the tricks that work on a traditional proscenium stage, I’ve been researching and exploring techniques that work in the round and up close to the audience as a part of my own training, and have found my work developing more creatively as a result. For the audience, it’s rare that you get to see such intense physical performance being done so very close to you – and I’ve seen some great responses to some of the climactic moments in past productions!