Sunday, April 13, 2008

FIGHT CLUB: Houston's Combat Master Brian Byrnes


The famous saying, “Live by the sword, die by the sword” has a different resonance for those toting swords on stage. Stage combat keeps us at the edge of our seats, yet it’s an illusion. No one really dies, because of course the show needs to go on the next night.

The man behind so many of Houston’s swinging swords and fast punches is Brian Byrnes, fight director, certified teacher of combat arts, Society of American Fight Directors (SAFD) fight master, and Associate Professor at the University of Houston School of Theatre & Dance. Byrnes’s work has heated up productions at the Alley Theatre, Houston Grand Opera, Stages Repertory Theatre, The Ensemble Theatre, Theatre Under the Stars, Houston Ballet, Dominic Walsh Dance Theater, Main Street Theater, and Houston Shakespeare Festival.

And, that’s just his Houston credits. When blades strike and heads roll, it’s usually Byrnes calling the shots.

Byrnes was first exposed to fight combat in college at the University of Iowa, and it was love at first jab. His senior year he took up sport fencing, which he found very useful in the development of his craft.

“The process of landing a touch, but not being touched, is great training for developing effective distance and timing,” says Byrnes, who continued training various combat techniques to reach the expertise he now brings to area stages. For Byrnes, the “scene” is always the operative idea in creating a fight. Each battle needs to be cut from the same cloth as the piece he’s working on. When working with Dominic Walsh on his Romeo & Juliet, the fight scenes revealed a flavor of Walsh’s intricate choreography. “Violence shouldn’t ever be gratuitous,” he says. “It’s often what moves the story forward. You want to bring the audience into the character’s world.”

It’s been a banner spring for Byrnes that found him directing combat in Shakespeare’s Othello at the Alley, Craig Wright’s Lady at Stages, and Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd at HGO. And that’s in addition to his weekly classes at the University of Houston, where he teaches physical theater, movement for actors, and several levels of stage combat.

Byrnes spent a good deal of March immersed in Othello, directed by Scott Schwartz at the Alley, where he has choreographed over 50 productions thus far. The process is more complicated than it seems. You just don’t hand over lethal weapons and command a fight.
“I sat down with Scott to get an idea of his treatment,” says Byrnes. “We were going for a brutal and immediate energy to the fight scenes.” In keeping with the stripped-down, made in front of the audience’s eyes style of the production, Byrnes used a variety of swords, knives, and several “found/improvisational” weapons that were already on hand. He echoed the rawness and danger of the setting in his visceral fight scenes.

Over at HGO, the denizens of the HMS Indomitable in Billy Budd are sharpening their daggers. This will be his first production of Budd and marks Byrnes’ 30th HGO production, in addition to his master classes for the HGO studio. “Working in opera is fairly specific,” admits Brynes. “You know a fight is going to last so many measures and needs to be exactly timed to the music.”

Budd employs swords, cutlasses, daggers, knives, muskets, pistols, and a variety of nautical equipment to keep the action on edge. Daniel Belcher plays Budd and is thrilled to be working with Byrnes again. Belcher worked closely with Byrnes in his portrayal of Mercutio in HGO’s 2005 Romeo and Juliet.

“I am lucky he is doing the fight direction for Billy Budd. His fights are always incredibly realistic, and he works individually to each artist’s strengths. Also, the man is amazingly patient with each of us,” says Belcher. “I have been able to apply much of what I have learned from Brian throughout my career. I look forward to seeing what surprises he brings to the table.”

The feeling is mutual from Byrnes, who enjoys working with singers that see combat work as a crucial element to their training. Byrnes feels the shift in opera towards more solid acting skills has been a good thing. “HGO is really invested in making the combat scenes believable,” he says.

The fight scene often occurs at a pivotal place in the plot, which is exactly the case in Lady, Wright’s intense drama that depicts a group of childhood friends who find themselves on different sides of the Iraq war debate. Byrnes had to cope with firearms and hand-to-hand combat as well as figuring out what kind of blanks to use. Lady’s director, Leslie Swackhamer, faced several challenges.

“Brian worked with us to make sure that we carried the guns and handled them in ways that are realistic to hunters, but also in ways that would never make the audience or the other actors feel threatened or unsafe,” says Swackhamer. “We had an extra challenge because the space is small and very alive for sound. We had to try a number of different load combinations to come up with a charge that would not deafen the audience and the actors, yet would still have a realistic edge.”

Byrnes also contributed to Swackhamer’s Don Giovanni at Opera in the Heights last season.

“His fights are always dynamic and theatrical,” she says. “He is amazingly sensitive to the text, and to furthering the story we are trying to tell. As a director, I love working with him because I know that he has a million tricks up his sleeve; he will make my fights unique, and he will be dedicated to making sure my performers are safe and secure.”

Safety is key in fight combat. “It’s a fine line,” says Byrnes, “You want it to look realistic but you never want the audience to be concerned for an actor’s safety. I can always tell when an actor is in control. We practice distance, and masking (the angle the audience sees), and action/reaction to make it look real.”

Stepping into his graduate stage combat class at the University of Houston, you see students pummeling each other in various combinations as they practice several styles of combat. According to his students there’s no quicker way to drop into your body than waging a combat scene with your fellow actors.

“It’s just like learning your lines,” says Kristen Green, who has finished flying over the back of one of her classmates. “This kind of training also builds trust.” Choreography is key to keeping everyone safe. “Once you have it your body you transpose it just like a script,” says Leraldo Anzaldúa, who recently showed off his ace combat skills in Bertolt Brecht ‘s The Good Woman of Setzuan. “It’s a physical dialogue and you become very aware of your body.”

There’s a general consensus that combat training establishes a self awareness that can inform any role, whether it’s physical or not. For student David Millstone, the process goes even deeper. “One of the challenges for any actor is to go to the darker places,” says Millstone. “I find in combat work I often visit the unexplored parts of myself.”

Byrnes brought that “unexplored” part of Hamlet to Houston audiences in his direction of the Nova Arts Project production last season, complete with riot police, a ticking-bomb Hamlet, and an atmosphere of certain doom and collapsing momentum.

“Brian’s view of Hamlet was of a dark world devoid of all kindness. The characters only knew action and brutality and that showed clearly in the physicality of his interpretation, direction, and fight choreography,” remembers Amy Hopper, co-director of Nova Arts who also worked with Byrnes at University of Houston. “His world was in constant movement.”

In addition to directing Hamlet, Byrnes also wrote Nova Art’s debut production, Stella...Stella for Star in 2005 and several children’s plays.

The bottom line for Byrnes is to place stage combat into the larger realm of an actor’s world. “It’s really a matter of physics,” he says. “The movement itself needs to be believable. It’s just good acting training.”

Houston Audiences can next catch Brian Byrnes’s combat scenes in the HGO’s production of Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd on April 25 &27, May 2, 4, & 9, at Wortham Center. Visit

TOP: Students in Brian Byrnes Stage Combat class
Photos by Kara Duval

Reprinted from Artshouston.