Conflict is Universal: How Actors Benefit from Fighting

So you’re an actor. You delve into the strange places that character development can take you, learning odd habits and adapting them into the tiny window we get to view your character through for the brief engagement we have with them in a play or a film.

It’s pretty likely that, at some point in your performing career, a director/writer/teacher/coach/book has stressed to you one of the most important concepts of the performing arts: conflict.

Conflict is what drives a story  – this is Writing 101. The inability to attain a goal or the obstacles preventing said goal from being achieved are what make a story interesting. That’s why there aren’t a lot of legendary epics being written about simple and successful trips to the grocery store.

“John left his house in the morning. Traffic was uneventful. He arrived at the store, and it wasn’t crowded but wasn’t empty. He walked directly to the loaf of bread he needed, right where it should be in the bread aisle. He took the bread to the counter and paid, after waiting in a modest line. He left and went home, and his drive home was also uneventful.”

Ow. That actually caused physical pain in my hands to write.

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If you’ve ever been to a grocery store, you also know that is just never how it goes. Prepare for war, we need oranges.

The idea of struggle is what allows an audience to become invested and attached to not just a story or a narrative, but to the characters themselves. The relatability of conflict is universal. Sure, it’s unlikely the average audience member in a screening of The Force Awakens has ever actually been on the run from the remnants of a tyrannical government while learning they were part of something ultimately bigger than they had ever imagined. When we break down that conflict, however, into simple ideas – the idea of being told to do something we don’t morally agree with. Running away from the people who told us to do that thing. Finding unexpected attachment with people who have similar immediate goals. An inability to abandon something you know is important on a larger scale than your own well being or safety.

These very real struggles that were taking place in that science fiction film are the basis of the relatable conflict that made us fall in love with Star Wars in the first place.

So where does fighting come into this process?

The idea of violence on stage and screen is constantly at risk of being gratuitous. We see action movies constantly with no real purpose other than “get these two badasses to fight some more and burn up screen time to make feature-length”. We all have our guilty pleasures when it comes to these films, and they even have their place.

From an actor’s perspective, it’s important to remember this: fights should be conflict manifesting when words will no longer express the feelings, emotions, and motivations being brought forward by the story.

Fights don’t break out for no reason – it simply doesn’t happen. Physical conflict only exists where verbal and emotional conflict doesn’t meet the scale of what brought the conflict about and where it subsequently escalated to. To any of us that have ever been in a bar fight (or spent any time with John Lennox), you’ll realize this often has to do with the perception of what is going on in that moment – classic bar fights don’t break out for NO reason, but they can break out for the wrong reasons, the right reasons, misunderstood reasoning, and a host of other genuine driving forces that become character choices for the actor and the director.

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Late night at Combat Con. Just kidding. Mostly.

Alright, but the title of the article – why should ALL actors engage in some kind of martial practice, whether it’s on or off stage?

If we take the concept of these physical manifestations of emotional concept, and we accept the fact that this is the next evolution of conflict from an argument, cold shoulder, or even a screaming match between two characters, then we can treat it as the penultimate form of what it is.

Physical conflict is the final and direct result of all other forms of conflict – that’s why it’s often used so gratuitously – it’s easy to crank the dial straight to eleven and avoid complexity (additionally, this is the same explanation for gratuitous/overused sex scenes – it’s easier to show and is often perceived as the physical and more easily visualized manifestation of a very complex conflict/resolution cycle).

Actors who take the time to work through choreography and understand the choices that resulted in this extreme form of conflict gain an incredible grasp of the very nature of conflict itself. What fuels those choices, how far is a character willing to go, how much do they show externally, what are they internalizing and carrying into the next scene, how can we show those things to the audience… the list of questions becomes endless that are created during the process, and they are very personal and individual to any performer.

A fight director can inadvertently (or, sometimes, intentionally) become the best acting coach for conflict and drive that an actor will ever work with, simply because of the minutia of the choices being made, and the back-end analysis that has to happen to ensure the violence occurring in a scene not only makes sense but couldn’t have been portrayed in ANY other possible way.

What about fighting off-stage, though?

Over a hundred years ago, there was a trend in New York for actors and dancers (men and women, both) to pursue the art of fencing. It is my firm belief they stumbled onto a magical combination. Originally, these fencing schools would push the primarily physical benefits of staying in great shape, learning to control your body in new ways, perfecting posture and breathing, and learning a skill that might even end up being used in a production.

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Around this time, Alfred Hutton became a major influence on the concepts of European martial arts and fencing, for better or worse. Pictured is Esme Beringer, considered by some to be the first female action star, with rapier and dagger.

Not to discredit any of those facts, because they are true as true can be, but there is so much more benefit to that experience. The mental experience of engaging in a (simulated/athletic) physical conflict with another human being is something that is incredibly hard to understand from the outside for actors working in scenes requiring such intense stress and fortitude. Going on the same thought process that physical conflict is the top-tier of conflict, martial arts are an experiential learning process that delves into similar (if not the same) parts of the psyche an actor needs to reference in times of great stress and conflict.

If you’ve never actually had your fight-or-flight instinct activated as an actor, I highly recommend you spend some time in a mask with somebody you know is both dangerous and holding a sword charging you down. Blunt or not, safety equipment or not, the adrenaline hits. Replicating that feeling believably is one of the biggest challenges – that fight or flight anxiety doesn’t only manifest in physical conflicts, certainly, but that’s one of the best ways to simulate and see what your mind and body go through when it happens.

Spending time embracing the moments where characters (or even you as an actor) are driven to that top-tier of physical conflict and really analyzing how it changes your decision-making and perception is invaluable to an actor, not only in times where they need to present that exact emotion but also when dialing it back and playing to the subtleties of what make characters truly human.