Andrea Robertson loves a good fight. Not the improvised scrapping you might see on a playground or in a boxing ring, but the kind that plays out in dark theaters and dimly-lit auditoriums. Robertson teaches stage combat, which she defines as a choreographed fight that tells a story but is safe for the actors and looks realistic to the audience. “It’s telling a story through violence,” she says. Robertson stages fights using a variety of weapons as well as basic hand-to-hand combat.
As a theater major at Western Illinois University, Robertson enrolled in an Elizabethan weaponry class and learned to use a rapier and dagger. “It felt like home,” she says. And so, a career was born.
After earning a bachelor’s degree in theater and an MFA in theater directing, Robertson became a certified stage-combat teacher through the Society of American Fight Directors (SAFD). She’s one of 88 certified teachers in the United States and one of only two in Arizona. As owner of Fight Call, LLC, she works with community and professional theater groups, opera companies and other performance ensembles.
Is there enough stage-fighting work in Phoenix to fill a whole work week, or is this a moonlighting gig?
There really isn’t enough work to make a full-time living, so I run the theater department at Paradise Valley Community College. I teach four to five classes each semester in acting, theater makeup, directing and stage combat. I’m also working with the Arizona Opera as a fight director and have contracted for four of their five shows this season.
Why did you gravitate to this aspect of the theater?
It’s so immediate. It tells a story so much more immediately than a monologue or a scene in acting. There’s something much more visceral about it.
What kinds of weapons do you use?
There are eight different weapons: quarterstaff (a pole weapon), broadsword, sword and shield, rapier and dagger, single sword, small sword, knife and “unarmed,” which are punches, slaps, falls and hair pulls.
How do you prepare actors for a performance?
For example, if it’s a sword fight and they’ve never held a sword before, then we usually do some basics beforehand. Once they have the basics down, I give them something I’ve choreographed and we try it. If the choreography doesn’t work for them or the director doesn’t like it, then we change it. Then the actors rehearse slowly until they get the movement into their bodies. As they get more comfortable, they pick up speed.
Have you ever been hurt while on stage?
I got stuck in the arm by a dagger and got four stitches. I was a student intern at the time, and my partner aimed wrong. I also got hit in the head by a broad sword.
What’s the best, most authentic-looking fight scene you’ve ever seen in a movie?
The ones in The Count of Monte Cristo are pretty good – short and to the point. And, of course, The Princess Bride. One of my favorites is also Stardust, by fight director Richard Ryan.
What’s the most fun – or most difficult – stage fighting scene you’ve done?
The Scarlet Pimpernel. I directed the whole show and... the single sword fight at the end. Unfortunately, there aren’t very many fighting roles for women, so I haven’t done a lot as an actual fighter. I do way more fight directing.
What stage-fighting weapons do you own?
I have at least one of everything except a shield. I have 18 quarterstaffs, three broad swords, four single swords, two small swords, two sets of rapier and dagger, a whip, a mace and a bunch of knives. I have a little armory.