A rip-roaring mix of swashbuckling, crotch kicking, bullwhip cracking, and body slamming is taking place on the stage of Columbia College’s Getz Theater. The crowd shouts at and taunts the fighters. “Go on girl!” yells one woman. “Kick some ass!” In the center of the packed auditorium sits David Woolley, who can barely conceal his glee. He leaps up sporadically and pumps his fist in the air, spurring the audience on to cheer even louder.
Woolley’s the one who showed the people onstage how to throw, punch, and stab each other. For the last 13 years he’s taught stage combat at Columbia, presiding over showcases like this one at the end of every semester.
Despite the rowdy atmosphere, Woolley makes it clear that stage combat is an art form. “It’s an important skill for an actor to have, because it helps you be in control in violent situations rather than killing yourself or your partner,” he says. “Being a teacher, you are not looking for results within two weeks, but later in their careers it saves rehearsal time, because they already know what’s going on.”
Woolley became hooked on stage combat as a student at DePaul University’s Goodman School of Drama in 1981, when he choreographed the fight scenes for Class Enemy at the Next Theatre. After graduating he trained with the Society of American Fight Directors for five years before receiving his teaching certificate in 1987. He’s since risen through SAFD’s ranks to become just one of ten Fight Masters in the elite organization.
Fighting has become Woolley’s way of life. He’s choreographed violent scenes for over 100 local productions and won a Jeff Award for consistent excellence in stage combat choreography in 1988. He also performs 280 dates a year on the road with Douglas Mumaw as the medieval combat duo the Swordsmen, a career that was launched in 1989 in that venue of verbal warfare, the Uptown Poetry Slam at the Green Mill. “On that little stage with a neon sign, a piano onstage, porcelain fixtures in the ceiling, and a big bar owner you don’t want to upset,” Woolley says.
Between gigs he hurries back home to teach classes every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon. Learning each technique requires a minimum of 35 hours of study, and most students will have put in 120 hours of class work upon completing two semesters.
“The minimum skills proficiency test requires people to do a fake kick, a stomach kick, a hair pull, a choke, and three different punches, among other things,” says Woolley. “You get your bumps and bruises but hopefully you stay away from horrific accidents. When you err with a broadsword, you can get cut, fall down, and sprain yourself, but I haven’t lost anyone yet, knock wood.”
While some students’ fights are empowering scenes of women defeating men, some are graphic depictions of the strong preying on the weak. “Periodically I go through these phases of ‘What am I teaching these people?'” Woolley says. “But if you read the paper and see that spousal abuse, child abuse, and warfare are still going on, then theater has an obligation to reflect that.”
Woolley could easily make the leap into the lucrative world of TV and film. But he says he enjoys the thrill of live performance, the romantic notion of clanging swords onstage before an audience, whose experience can never be duplicated.
“You can spend more time trying to create moments in theater than you can in film,” he says. “I liken swordplay to tap dancing, because it is a specific skill that requires your entire body and mind and motion, and the only way to get better is to practice.”
Woolley’s students will demonstrate their stage-fighting prowess as part of their final exams on Thursday, June 3, at 1 at the Getz Theater, 72 E. 11th. Admission is free; call 312-344-6100. –Carl Kozlowski
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Nathan Mandell.