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Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.

An Interview with Rick Sordelet

If you have recently seen a Broadway show that has a fight scene, you have probably seen the work of fight director Rick Sordelet. Mr. Sordelet has directed the fights for a wide variety of Broadway shows such as The Scarlet Pimpernel (all versions), Beauty and the Beast, and True West, as well as many regional shows, including various productions at The Shakespeare Theatre here in Washington, D.C. He makes intricate scenes ranging from weaponless hand-to-hand combat to eighteenth century swordfights appear natural and spontaneous. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to interview Mr. Sordelet when The Scarlet Pimpernel was at The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

Michelle Butler: My first question is what exactly does a fight director do?

Rick Sordelet: I stage illusion[s] for television, film, and theater that are usually of violent nature. These illusions tend to happen when characters can no longer articulate verbally their conflict, and they resort to physical action.

MB: I was thinking that one of the goals of fight directing would be to make something look hard or flashy without making it too difficult for the actors.

RS: The number one thing that guides any fight director is safety. So you say "well, it's got to be 100% safe, 8 times a week." Then the marriage to the safety is - what can we do that is exciting for the audience, historically accurate, and yet be done safely 8 times a week, based on what the characters are capable of and, more importantly, what the actors are capable of. Some actors come to the table and are better fighters than their characters would be, and some characters are better fighters than the actors could ever hope to be. You have to figure out how to bring that to a happy medium.

MB: Does it create any sort of problems or difficulties when you establish a fight and then you have someone with different abilities take over the role for one of the original actors?

RS: Well, what happens - like in the case of Robert [Patteri, current Percy Blakeney in the national tour of The Scarlet Pimpernel ("SP4")] - the fight is set. The fight set to music - we have pretty much very little leeway as far as where Robert can go with it. However, he brings in a different fighting style than, say, Douglas [Sills, Percy in the original Broadway version] or Ron [Bohmer, the final Percy on Broadway].

For instance, Ron was left-handed. Terry Mann [the original Chauvelin] was left-handed. When the fight was originally conceived, it was conceived as a right-handed Percy and a left-handed Chauvelin. Then it switched to a left-handed Percy and a right-handed Chauvelin. And now we're back to two right-handed people.

Robert's a really good fighter. I've worked with Robert before. We did Ben-Hur: The Musical together in Orlando where he had a huge fight on the deck of a ship. I was lucky in that I knew what I was getting into with Robert and knew that he was a real fine fighter. He was able to embrace the fight and enhance it with his own personal style, but it didn't change the fight very much at all.

As a rule, [a new actor] doesn't really hamper [the choreography]. I've done 15 productions world-wide of Beauty and the Beast where we had set the choreography with the American cast, and now we're asking the Japanese or the Australians or the Europeans to step in and do this original choreography and try and make it uniquely their own. With very little changing you can do that and yet still find the subtle things that make it theirs.

MB: Right. Does it create any sort of problems when you have understudies who are other-handed from the lead for which they understudy?

RS: Well, in the case of Terry Mann - when his understudy would come in and his understudy is not left-handed - I design[ed] the choreography so that it would be easy for a right-handed person to still fight against another right-handed person with [the] left-handed choreography. Then we would go through that every night at fight call. I'm really proud of our fight call in The Scarlet Pimpernel in that every night - every night - before the show, they go through the fight several times. And that's one of the things that keeps us safe.

MB: Is it typical to rehearse the fight scenes before every show?

RS: It is for me. I have Aida on Broadway, and it's not a real big swordfight, but we do it every night. Any show that I'm involved in will do it every night because that's the only way I can guarantee that we will be fresh and safe. Actors don't necessarily like it because they say "I've got it. I know it. I feel it." But they do every dance every night - but not every dance has a sword in it, and that's the difference. Because a sword is like a character - it's like a whole new character. Rarely do you have a prop in a dance number, but when you have a fight scene, and you bring out a sword, it's like a new character. It enhances the original character, and this sword has a personality of its own in a sense. It brings a different respect to the situation. It brings a different tonality because we can no longer just talk about it - "I'm not just going to slap you, I'm going to stab you." And that brings a whole different sense of intimacy.

MB: What other scenes in The Scarlet Pimpernel did you design?

RS: The director and I worked very closely on the rescue ballet - that whole sequence when we come out of "Into the Fire" and we rescue all the people from the guillotine to music. I also assisted the director in the choreography of "Into the Fire" during the sword section. I provided some vocabulary that he was able to incorporate into the dance.

It was really a wonderful experience working with Bobby [Longbottom, director of the revised versions]. He's got such a vision in terms of creating really lovely and flowing pictures for an audience, and yet is able to still deal with someone like Douglas, for instance, who's a highly trained actor who really needs that kind of strong director to take him from step A to step B.

MB: You have worked on all four versions of The Scarlet Pimpernel?

RS: Yes.

MB: What was it like having to re-work your own work?

RS: Well, for myself, I tend to treat every experience like it's the first one. For instance, when we went to the second version of The Scarlet Pimpernel and we brought Rex Smith in as Chauvelin and we knew that we were going to make some changes, I just divorced my mind from what we did the first time and let the director set the tone in terms of what he wanted to keep and what he wanted to be rid of. And Bobby was very vocal about certain things that he liked and certain things that he wanted to remove. So I just created it, because my job as a fight director is to serve the director. I don't serve the actors. I don't serve the playwright. I serve the director's vision. It's important for a fight director to have a strong director so that you can then have a vision to follow. And so it was not difficult at all. [With] version 3, again, Bobby was really right in there with what he wanted different, and we provided it for him. Same with version 4.

MB: Can you take me through the process of figuring out how you would present a particular scene, such as the final scene in the theater?

RS: The first step is really long before the actors are around. In an original play like this, many times the actors aren't even cast and you are already discussing the fight scene. In this particular situation, Douglas and Terry had already been cast - which was great - and we were faced with "well, how do we create this fight scene?" The original director [Peter Hunt] kept saying "this is just the 11th-hour fight. This is a movie star fight. This is a fight like you see in the old-time movies." And my counter was always, "but why?" Because that's part of my job - "why are we fighting?"

The fight needs to advance the story. You shouldn't be able to take the last line before the fight and the first line after the fight and join them and have the story make sense. Something has to happen during the fight to make the story progress. For instance, in Romeo and Juliet, if you take the last line before the fight in which Tybalt dies and the first line after he dies, you can tell that we have been progressed. In the original version, [that] wasn't the case with The Scarlet Pimpernel. We had to work with Nan Knighton on making that a little more clean for the audience to understand - that there was a real reason why they were fighting.

Then the next step is you meet the actors and you assess their capabilities. You learn what the set is going to be like; what the clothes are going to be like, in particular, the shoes; what kind of restrictions you have. Then there is historical accuracy. They can't do things that weren't invented yet, and they can't behave with the weapons in a way that wouldn't be appropriate. They cannot hold the weapons like samurai swords, for instance, or use like them like billyclubs. They have to use them like they're designed. [Then] I have to find out if the actors can truly do that. Then there's the actor's input as well as the director's input. So there's what I want to do, what the director wants to see, and then the actors certainly have an input - which is very important, especially when you have strong actors like Doug and Terry. They were great. They were so wonderful - and all the wonderful suggestions that they had. Then you design your fight together - it's a collaboration. That's basically in a nutshell how we did the first version and was the template that we followed for the rest of the versions.

MB: I really enjoyed the fencing because I fence, so it is really interesting to hear how you did that.

RS: With my fencing background, which is very helpful, sometimes - I didn't have to do this with Terry and Doug - but sometimes, with actors what I will do is, I'll put a mask on them and I'll pad them and put gloves on them and I'll let them just whack at each other - just try it with really light blades. Because sometimes it's important to visit that area emotionally that brings you to the place of actually wanting to fight. By padding them and protecting them, they are able to do it without hurting each other and yet still experience it. Not that you would ever pad somebody up in a kevlar vest and shoot them so that they can say "well that's what it's like to shoot somebody." But it is important.

As a fencer yourself, you understand that sort of elan that you get when you fence. That rush. That euphoric feeling of what it's like when you are playing chess with somebody and you touch [hit your opponent with your sword]. It's a great feeling. Especially because you know you're not hurting them - you're not drawing blood. But you have bested your opponent in a gentlemanly way. And to bring that onto the stage and then to enhance it so it's like what we used to thrill to when watching Errol Flynn or The Princess Bride or Zorro - that's what we want to do. I want everyone in the audience to say "God, that's what it feels like." That's such an exciting feeling.

MB: Well, I think you've done that. What led you to this work?

RS: Well, I'm probably one of the luckiest people in show business in that I'm able to do what I really love doing. I started as an actor out of Wisconsin Superior with a B.F.A. My instructors were really great about recognizing my proficiency in this and helping me to get a grad school interested in my work as a fight director, but also as an actor. I went to Rutgers University and through the M.F.A. program with William Esper - and Esper was great. He was like "you know what, I don't care if you ever teach stage fighting or do stage fighting, you are here to be an actor first. And until you prove to me that you can be an actor, you won't teach stage fighting." And he was good to his word. When he saw that I had the capabilities to be an actor, then he put me into the designing of a program at Rutgers that is still in existence for staged combat, which is part of their M.F.A. I taught there for 5 years, three of them while going to school there.

Then when I left Rutgers, I started a family with my wife and took a job at the High School for Performing Arts. I taught there for three years and ran the program while staging fights and acting at night in New York City. Then I started doing regional theater work, and then from there I taught at Rutgers in Newark for three years and designed a program there, and was teaching full-time in college and teaching half-time at NYU. I started doing more and more fight work. In 1993, I did Beauty and the Beast, and I left all teaching and just never looked back. From Beauty and the Beast, that led to doing the Superbowl with Disney. That led to The Lion King [which] led to several other shows. I racked up 12 different productions on Broadway and almost a thousand new productions in New York City. And I had a great time doing it.

MB: Would you recommend courses like some of the ones you used to teach for people who want to get involved in fight direction?

RS: I would say that [for] anyone who really is serious about being a fight director, the most important thing they want to do is learn the craft of acting. That's where you live. The tricks are only tricks, and if your character wouldn't do that, then that's all it comes off as - as just a trick. So many Hamlets have been ruined for me watching Hamlet suddenly become expert with a sword dagger at the end of the play when all we've heard about him is that he's an emotional wreck and he's fat and scant of breath. Yes, he has been training in England, but not to the degree where he can throw a dagger 30 yards across a stage and nail Claudius in the chest, so that he falls 20 feet into the arms of the attendants. It's too silly to me. I try and steer away from that kind of trick behavior. I'm not interested in the tricks. I'm interested in what would these characters do under those circumstances. What have they learned in their life that would let them do those things. I tend to look at kids today. How would they fight if they were trained in swordfighting the way they're trained in tennis or football or lacrosse or any other sport? Because that was the sport of their day. And it's easy to say that any young man is going to use his fencing training as part of his ability to pick up girls, and to show off, and as part of the sort of mating strut or dance. So they would be pretty good. So when you see Romeo and Juliet, there's no question that Romeo, Tybalt, Mercutio, and Benvolio are really good at swordfighting because that's what they do. Just like my son who's 12 - he's constantly got a lacrosse ball and lacrosse racket in his hand, and he's constantly playing. They just do that.

MB: You mentioned earlier that you try to be historically accurate with a production. What happens or what would you do when the show is set in a different time period from that in which the story was originally set?

RS: Well, for instance, I did the Patrick Stewart Othello [at The Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, D.C.], and Jude Kelly, the director, set it now - it's as if it were happening in the Gulf War. You take that language and you just apply it to modern day. Consequently, we had gun battles instead of sword battles, and we shot people instead of stabbed people. It's just a translation. Sometimes you have to change the language a little bit; but you do that. You just have to ultimately tell the story in the spirit that Shakespeare, or whoever the playwright, intended it to be told. You don't want to get too radical.

At the same time you take a show like Xena: Warrior Princess [in which] they up front said "we are going to be anachronistic about this; we're going to have fun with the format of this." We know that no person alive can do what Xena does, but she's an Amazon goddess, so they get away with murder. They anachronize the language and they have a ball, and its great. I think the stunts on it are wonderful - it's one of the best things on TV for that kind of stuff. But that's how they chose to deal with it - they modernized everything.

You take a movie or a TV series like Highlander, and you watch him use his sword - which people call a samurai sword - and he uses it like rapier. Maybe one percent of the country notices the difference, but I'm bothered by that. I think that the style of the bushido is so much superior to anything that western swordfighting can do that it would have been much more interesting, if he would have followed the training of what the weapon is really used for, instead of treating it like a rapier. But that just comes from people who really don't understand the difference. Most people in Hollywood, or theater for that matter, really don't care. They don't know. It's a sword - pick it up; whack at it.

MB: And I guess that is where you come in.

RS: But [that's] not always the case. For every Scarlet Pimpernel, there are probably ten shows where they don't use a fight director, or a fight director that's of quality. Consequently, people get hurt, or it looks like a bunch of silly people in costumes whacking at each other. It doesn't tell a story. And that's too bad because, especially in plays like Hamlet or Macbeth or most of them, the climactic scene happens towards the end of the play and it's usually a big fight scene. It ticks me off to spend my money and spend my time and then watch the climax of the play be this lame choreography.

MB: In a situation where there isn't a fight director, would it be the director and maybe a choreographer directing the fight?

RS: A lot of times what happens is there are many really well-trained actors who have been in a lot of fights or have had a lot of training; the feeling is that they can handle it. Many times they do, and many times it looks just great. And many times it doesn't. The most important thing, though, is just having that third eye that understands the longevity of the piece. A lot of people can stage a fight that looks great once. Like stunt people - they can do a stunt once or twice, but you can't do it 8 times a week. That's where people get hurt. One of the things that I think I bring to the table is my ability to look at the big picture and say "how do we do this so nobody gets hurt?" With Beauty and the Beast, LeFou falls down 51 times a night. He looks like a hockey goalie with the amount of padding that I put on him. But that was a fight every step of the way because that was never designed in the original conception of LeFou. We had to alter it so much to put all that padding on - but that's what keeps the guy safe.

MB: You already mentioned Othello. What are some of the other shows in Washington, D.C. that you have done?

RS: I've been so lucky. My last show there was Coriolanus. Peer Gynt, As You Like It, Henry VI, parts 1, 2, and 3 with Michael Kahn [director] who I think is an absolute genius. I just think every chance I get to work with Michael, I'll take it because he teaches me so much about our craft.

Martin Guerre was at The Kennedy Center; of course, Beauty and the Beast; The Lion King, of course, will be coming down at some point.

MB: Do you have any projects that you can talk about that you are working on now?

RS: I just finished the film Hamlet with Campbell Scott and Blair Brown. Campbell Scott was also the co-director with Eric Simonson, and it was really a tremendous experience. We had a great time. We sort of shot it in the old style with long continuous takes so that we wouldn't lose the swordfighting. [Gladiator had recently been released while we were filming. The director and the director of photography and myself, we talked about the jump cuts in Gladiator, and [in] one particular fight sequence they had four hundred jump cuts. It was so choppy you could never really see how they were fighting. On the contrary, with Hamlet we had one take that was ten minutes long - basically the whole fight in one giant master which is almost unheard of in film anymore. But Campbell, being a real strong craftsperson, really wanted that kind of a story told with the swords - so that's what we did. And I was really pleased with the long takes that we generated because I think it will tell a better story with the swordfighting.

MB: I look forward to seeing that.

RS: That will be nice. That will be released sometime around Christmas.

MB: Do you generally work on one project at a time or many projects concurrently?

RS: I've got lots of different things. I'm at Guiding Light today, for instance, working for daytime TV. Then tonight I'll go to rehearsal of a show that's being done regionally in Montclair, New Jersey. Then I've got to check in on True West, which just changed casts on Broadway. We have a new guy coming in to Aida; I'll take a look at him. That's how my day goes.

MB: You have quite a few things going on at one time.

RS: Right. I have a bunch of stuff coming up this fall that I'm really going to be excited about. Craig Lucas' new play called The Stranger opened at the Vineyard Theatre. And I'll do a new production of the George F. Walker play called Heaven at Yale Rep with Evan Yionoulis directing. That's really exciting because I like bringing in new works that have never been done before, or world premieres or American premieres. Those are really great to work on.

MB: Bringing this back to The Scarlet Pimpernel, I have one final question. How would you rate your experience with The Scarlet Pimpernel in relation to other projects you have worked on, in terms of difficulty, fun, or whatever kind of standard you would like to use?

RS: That's hard. I'll give you a couple of different versions.

The first version, I was very excited to work with Peter Hunt who I still think is a really wonderful director. Sometimes, [with] new projects (and I've worked on a lot of big new projects like Titanic and The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast), there are a lot of land mines, and unfortunately, we hit a few. It was unfortunate because it was a good working experience with Peter and the original choreographer, Walter Painter, and then Adam Pelty.

When Bobby came in, it brought in a whole new dynamic. Again, there were certain landmines that you try and avoid - some we hit and some we didn't. But it was still a great working experience. It was also exciting to be part of history - to watch us take a show and do stuff with the show that had really never been done before - in terms of revamping it. And the same was true with version 3 and, finally, version 4. That we were able to continue the life with a product that so many people just wanted to go away, and yet the public doesn't want it to go away because it's a great story.

To see Douglas Sills was to see -- history. People twenty years from now are going to say "I was one of the lucky people who got to see Douglas in the production." That shouldn't detract from any other Scarlet Pimpernels - it's that the guy was fabulous. In terms of working with Douglas, it's a ten. Any chance I have to work with Douglas, I'll take it. It was great.

Working with Bobby is wonderful. He's wonderful. Working with the original team was wonderful. I had a great time. You bring a lot of that in on your own, though. You have to create your wonderfulness because if you don't, it's easy to walk into that hole too. I hope that answers your question.

MB: Yes, it does. Thank you.

A fight scene is just one element of a show, but when done well, it can add so much excitement and vitality to the peformance. I appreciate the insight Mr. Sordelet was able to provide into the process of directing fight scenes generally, and constructing such scenes for The Scarlet Pimpernel specifically. I look forward to seeing more of Mr. Sordelet's work on Broadway and here in D.C. in the future.

-- Michelle Butler

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