Behind Summer and Smoke: Fights and Accents

Before the holidays, I was able to observe a couple coaching sessions the actors had with the Summer and Smoke fight choreographer (who is also acting in the play) as well as the vocal coach.

Fights, or really any heated physical interaction between actors, can really make or break a production for myself, as well as my fellow theatre reviewer Ana Miranda. When we go to plays together and notice actors waiting for a sword to hit theirs before moving it, or if the slapping sound or actor’s reaction to a punch is mistimed, it takes us out of the world of the play – it reminds us what we’re seeing on stage isn’t real. I’ve always been a bit curious about what goes into physical theatre, and my brief opportunity to listen to Chance Heck’s instruction (Chance also plays Vernon and Dusty in Summer and Smoke) gave me a bit of insight into what it takes to execute a fight scene that doesn’t take the audience out of the moment. Fights are choreographed down to the minute detail, partly because of the effect a poorly-done fight scene can have on the audience, but also to keep the actors safe. Fights are rehearsed with increasing speed, based on the Fight Choreographer giving the ‘okay’ to move ahead. I was surprised when Mary Ellen told that me every fight is rehearsed before each show. Three things I learnt about choreographing fights from listening to Chance were:

  • While it has to look like a real struggle, the actors have to be careful not to pull against each other too hard (in a struggle scene) or they may end up punching themselves;
  • If you grip each other too hard, you may end up leaving marks and bruises which, of course, would look bad in the next night’s performance;
  • Actors use cues like squeezing gently before they’re about to let go so they can act out a struggle appropriately, without actually struggling against each other

Since Summer and Smoke takes place in Mississippi, the production also brought in Marliss Weber as a vocal coach to help the actors develop both southern and Spanish accents. While I missed the main session that Marliss did with all the actors, I was able to observe some of her one-on-one vocal coaching with some of the actors, and learnt a few things about dialect that I hadn’t thought of before. For example, all of the factors which affect how we speak – where we’re born, where we grow up, the first language we learn, and environmental factors (such as alcohol) all play a role into how our voices sound. While this is pretty intuitive when it’s written out, I’ve never really thought about a person’s accent and why it sounds the way it does, after seeing a play. What I realize now, is that the accent is just another level of character research – putting together a background story of who your character is, including why he speaks the way he does.

Next up: going off-book

Read more in the Behind Summer and Smoke series.

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