By David Templeton
“Being hit by a superhero has got to hurt—and it’s definitely going to make a big sound on contact,” notes fight choreographer Zoe Swenson-Graham, striding past a cardboard lobby display featuring a massive Captain America preparing to be wailed upon by a large, metallic Iron Man. Then she adds, “Being hit by Captain America, though, is a lot different from being hit by an actor pretending to be a gang member from New York.”
Swenson-Graham, while confessing to never having been actually punched—by either a superhero or an angry drunk in a bar—definitely does know what a fistfight ought to look, feel and sound like.
A trained stage combat choreographer, her job is to design violent confrontations that are as scary and realistic to watch as they are safe and comfortable for actors to perform. Last year, she used swords, projectiles and other fanciful weapons in pitting pirates against lost boys and Indians, in the Mountain Play production of Peter Pan. This year, she’s back on the mountain choreographing the epic fist-and-knife fights—and the sprawling Jets vs. Sharks gang battles—that are a major part of the beloved musical West Side Story.
“I personally like unarmed combat,” says Swenson-Graham, laughing as we exit the movie theater and head out for a cup of coffee. “It’s more fun than combat with weapons. It’s a lot more personal.”
“That’s a key factor in hitting someone?” I ask. “Keeping it personal?”
“Absolutely! I trained in the U.K.,” she explains, “and a lot of what we learned in school is how to stage full-contact hits. I really like full-contact hits. They look good, they sound good and when they’re done right on stage, they are very, very satisfying to watch.”
Speaking of which, we’ve just watched Captain America: Civil War, a splashy, high-energy 3D film that was pleasantly packed to the rafters with combat—armed, unarmed and otherwise, including whatever it’s called when a mutant teenager shoots spider webs at people while dangling upside down from a crane.
The first full-on blockbuster of the summer, the Disney-Marvel extravaganza shows what happens when several key members of the Avengers find very strong reasons to disagree with each other. What follows are a number of epic battles, including what could easily be called the best superhero-on-superhero gang fight ever put on film.
“I’ve never actually watched the Avengers films,” admits Swenson-Graham. “Well … I saw Ant-Man, which I really liked, mostly because I’ve always liked Paul Rudd, who played Ant-Man. But the movie turned out to be really good.”
“So, it must have been a nice surprise when Ant-Man suddenly appeared in this movie,” I remark, referencing one of the film’s best and funniest twists.
“I loved that,” she says. “There’s something about Ant-Man I just really appreciate. He’s an underdog, I guess. It’s always fun to watch little guys take on bigger guys and win.”
And you don’t get much littler than Ant-Man. But where were we? Oh, right.
In addition to staging fights, Swenson-Graham is also an accomplished actor, having worked on stage for several years in England before returning to the States last year, almost immediately taking on the fight choreography of Peter Pan. As an actor, she was seen earlier this year in Ross Valley Players’ Arches, Balance and Light, and has just wrapped an independent horror film in the East Bay.
“I have a really dramatic death,” Swenson-Graham says with a smile.
Admitting that choreographing an act of violence in a movie is much different than staging the same act of violence for the benefit of a live stage audience, Swenson-Graham says that the secret to making it look real on stage is the clarity of the reactions each actor gives to being hit.
Or kicked. Or stabbed. Depending.
“And,” I comment, “I assume that the bigger the audience watching someone punch another person …
“The bigger the reaction of the actor being punched,” she completes the thought. And yes, for the Mountain Play, where the stage is the size of a small shopping mall and the audience often numbers two- to 3,000 people, it means that everything is bigger. “My style of choreography is to try and make it look as realistic as possible,” she says. “Obviously, with West Side Story—a musical about gangs, based on Romeo and Juliet—you’ve got knife-fighting, too.
“We’re doing it in a very stylized way,” she says, “but a very visceral and immediate way. It’s pretty scary, when those knives come out, even when you are sitting in the audience a long way away.”
“In Captain America,” I point out, “the filmmakers obviously worked very hard, during the big rumble scene where 10 superheroes are battling all at once, to make sure we didn’t get lost in all the mayhem.”
“That was pretty impressive,” Swenson-Graham agrees. “There were so many different kinds of fights happening simultaneously.”
“In West Side Story,” I say, “you don’t have the benefit of a film editor to show the audience what to look at from moment to moment. So how do you choreograph a massive gang fight with lots of actors, and make it clear where the important dramatic moments are taking place?”
“Well, a little bit of chaos going is realistic,” she says. “And since I’m all about realism, I’m OK with that. With stage fighting, we still have to stage it in a way where the audience doesn’t ever get confused by all of the action.”
“So, as someone who knows how to fake a fight,” I ask, “does a movie like Captain America, or a play like West Side Story, make you want to jump in and start pretending to hit people?”
“It does!” she says with a laugh. “And you know, with West Side Story, since I’m the fight choreographer, I can jump in—and I do. So I’m one of the Jet girls in the big rumble scene.
“It’s the best of both worlds, for me,” Swenson-Graham says, laughing again. “I didn’t just choreograph the punching and fighting—I get to be right there in the middle of it.”
COMING SOON: West Side Story runs Sundays, May 22-June 19 (and one Saturday, June 11), at the Sidney B. Cushing Memorial Amphitheatre, 801 Panoramic Hwy., Mill Valley; 2pm; $20–$40; 415/383-1100; mountainplay.org.