Christopher Elst, fight director for MCT’s production of DEATHTRAP, has a gift for making an audience squirm. His method of intricate physical storytelling occurs when conflict between characters escalates beyond words. Since seeing his work for the first time, I’ve been insatiably curious about his process and his own story. Recently, he graciously granted a request for an interview.
Marcella Kearns: What originally drew you to undertaking the study of violence design (stage combat)?
Christopher Elst: I started in high school when I heard about the “fencing” program for the high school Madrigal Dinner in Kenosha. I had always had an eye for swords and martial arts and thought this might be a way to start learning more…I began to assist the teachers in my first year out of high school, and then began teaching it myself shortly thereafter. I joined the Society of American Fight Directors…in 2006 and have pursued stage combat as a profession ever since.
MK: Tell us about your personal process in building physical fights onstage. How do you approach a script and your work in the rehearsal hall?
CE: …I consider stage combat to be a modern martial art, focused on storytelling, rather than defense, in the same way that many Eastern disciplines teach that violence and destruction are set aside in favor of aesthetic creation. A master becomes an artist, as the understanding of violence reminds one of their human nature—the earth, the id, the beast, etc.—but channeling that directionless passion are the creative and rational drives…
To that end, it is essential that we as fight directors give our actors the tools required to tell these stories… We must understand fear, violence, and all the darkest parts of our humanity in order to create compelling art, but we must be in command of those forces, and teach others to be in command of them, if that art is to be of value.
Elst directed the fight scenes in Theater RED's swashbuckling BONNY ANNE BONNY.
MK: What have you found is the most challenging part of staging fights with actors who have very little experience with combat?
CE: …Working with an actor unfamiliar mostly poses challenges in getting the appropriate commitment level; they are usually either too timid or too eager. I am fond of saying, “Keep your method acting out of my stage combat, please.”
MK: There are several weapons revealed as part of the setting of DEATHTRAP. If you had your pick, which of those would be most exciting to you to use in a fight and why?
CE: I have to say, I was drawn to the work by swords, and I’m still fascinated by them, even with my facility in their use. There’s a reason other weapons just never found their way as strongly into the canon of theatrical violence, and indeed, history. There have always been swords. Their elegance and effectiveness are unsurpassed.
MK: What do you foresee may be the most challenging thing for you to accomplish when working on DEATHTRAP?
CE: Theatrical violence is no different than a magic trick. The challenge here is that we never know which effect is meant to be real and which is a character fooling another character and the audience. We want to create that duplicity without belying the truth of each moment…
DEATHTRAP ran August 10 – 27, 2017. Their current production is FRANKIE AND JOHNNY IN THE CLAIR DE LUNE which runs September 20 – October 15. For more information visit www.milwaukeechambertheatre.com