J. Allen Suddeth spends much of his professional life sitting in the dark, waiting. He imagines in the darkness how best to stab a person through the heart with a knife. Or how a man looks when he is tossed down two flights of stairs. Or what it sounds like when someone gets bashed over the head with a pool cue.
But he is not waiting for a payoff or for an assassin's signal. He is waiting for his cue.
He is one of a handful of people nationally known as fight masters. In the world of theater, filled with make-believe and fraught with emotion, Mr. Suddeth choreographs some of the most dramatic moments of all: battle scenes, barroom brawls, pratfalls, any athletic endeavors undertaken by the actors. Sometimes called a violence coordinator, Mr. Suddeth is responsible for anything, as one actor he's working with now puts it (only half joking), "that actors can kill themselves doing."
On this wintry afternoon, Mr. Suddeth sits in the darkened aisles of the theater at Center Stage waiting for the moment he is needed. The New York resident is in Baltimore to make sure nothing unexpected happens during "The Taming of the Shrew" (which opens tomorrow). In the Shakespearean comedy, a wealthy Italian announces he will not allow his beautiful, youngest daughter to marry until her elder and shrewish sister, Katharine, is wed. Upon hearing the proclamation, the suitors of the fair, young daughter agree to forget their rivalry until they can find a suitable match for Katharine.
Director Jackson Phippin has set the 400-year-old play in contemporary Italy. And though it has neither major battles nor lightning-fast sword fights, there are scenes that entail gymnastics, punching bags, motorcycles, and a scuffle between the leading ladies.
"This is a comedy. There are no gut-wrenching battles," says Mr. Suddeth, sounding a little wistful. Then he brightens: "There are people doing back flips; there are lovers trying to work out their quarrels; there's in-line skating. But no swords. Just falls, tweaks and smacks."
Mayhem always has attracted him.
As an acting student at Ohio University, he stuck his head in the door of a fight class.
"There was a roomful of people sword fighting," he says, his face lighting up with the memory. "The instructor said, 'Come in and watch.' I did, and I took all the classes in fighting the college had and then ended up teaching it, too."
Still, he headed for New York City in 1974 to make his way as an actor, but between acting jobs, he began getting calls from directors asking him to help out with the fights. By the '80s, he was working full-time as a fight director both on stage and on TV.
No matter what the medium is, Mr. Suddeth's job is rooted in the director's vision of the project. He begins by watching rehearsals and discussing strategy with the director. His goal is to create original, believable, safe violence that fits the story line.
"What you are looking for is someone who can bring a huge variety in fight moves from fisticuffs to swords to the play, someone who can bring a creative instinct to choreographing what the story is beat by beat, blow by blow," says Ethan McSweeny, assistant director of Washington's Shakespeare Theatre, where Mr. Suddeth has also worked.
"What you try to avoid is a fight that ends up being an event for which you stop the play, then when it's over, begin the play again."
Coordinating certain scenes
Usually, a violence coordinator is hired for specific scenes. During the several weeks a play is being rehearsed, Mr. Suddeth may fly into town for a day or two at a time.
"I'm expensive, so I'm hired for short amounts of time, very concentrated time," he says.
By the time a production opens, his job is done. During performance weeks, an experienced actor is often given the title "fight captain" and is responsible for overseeing daily rehearsals.
In the past decade, Mr. Suddeth has overseen fights in Broadway plays that include the Tony-award winning "Angels in America," as well as hundreds of off-Broadway and regional productions, among them "endless 'Romeo and Juliets' and 'Othellos.' "
At Center Stage most recently, Mr. Suddeth coordinated the violent scenes in "Othello" and "Day of Absence."
His ability to stage creative and lethal-looking faux violence has put him in demand as a teacher at Juilliard and other schools. And he has overseen make-believe catastrophes in nearly 500 soap operas, including more than 300 episodes of "One Life to Live" and 62 episodes of "The Guiding Light."
Brawls and fantasies
"I've done barroom brawls, bedroom scenes, attempted rapes, fantasy sword fights -- you know, when a pirate out of a book comes to life in some woman's dreams," he says. Then he shrugs and adds: "Hey, I don't watch daytime TV. I just work for it."
Once on a show called "Search for Tomorrow," Mr. Suddeth was hired to kill five people in a flood.
"That was fun!" he says. "We had to stand in a huge tank. We sank a car, two trees crushed a guy -- well, not really, but it looked like they did. It was great, but we froze to death."
The job keeps him on the road anywhere from Brooklyn to Argentina. Last summer, he taught in South Paris, Maine; Tel Aviv and Las Vegas. In September, he juggled the various kinds of violence necessary to stage "Don Juan" at Baltimore's Center Stage; "The Plough and the Stars" at Washington's Arena Stage; a workshop version of a musical called "Violet" in New York; a production of "Macbeth" at the North Carolina Shakespeare Festival and several episodes of "The Guiding Light."
And he has put the hours of waiting in darkened theaters for his cues to good use. In April, his new book titled "Fight Directing for the Theater" will be published.
"It's not about how to fight," he says. "It's about how to work with actors, how to do historic research so the fights are accurate, how to choose weapons, how to create."
Though in their third week of rehearsals, the cast of "The Taming of the Shrew" today is working on stage for the first time. For hours, director and fight director will watch the actors speak their lines and walk through each motion. The scenes, which will seem seamless during performances, are slowly, carefully blocked out.
"They start slow and work to 'performance speed,' or the speed at which it looks real," Mr. Suddeth explains. "The actors have to make an emotional commitment to the action, but not so much emotion that they hurt their partners."
In his worn blue jeans and blue-plaid shirt with a Buck knife on his belt, the 43-year-old looks prepared for just about anything. In this line of work, of course, he'd better be.
Accidents, both on stage and during filming, can happen -- and have. Once, he says, he watched in disbelief as a character in the "Three Musketeers" bounded onto stage for a sword fighting scene -- with no weapon.
His armed opponent pretended to scare the forgetful musketeer off stage, and the show went on.
Trick arrows fly
In his book, Mr. Suddeth wrote of a performance in which trick arrows, shot from offstage, landed four feet from their target. In another incident, he wrote, a harness used to make the characters in "Peter Pan" fly went awry, "nearly castrating the poor actor."
In still another incident, a television character aimed a swift and unchoreographed punch at his opponent and caught the leading lady in the nose.
Suddenly, it's time. Mr. Suddeth leaps to his feet and steps from the dark onto the stage where "The Taming of the Shrew" is being rehearsed.
Katharine, played by Kate Skinner, is working out in a gymnasium at her mother's home. In this scene, she must do a somersault and several gymnastic stunts on two gym rings as she sails out over the first row of the audience -- and back again.
All Ms. Skinner has to do is perform her gymnastic routine eight nights in a row before an audience without losing her grip, her balance or her nerve.
All Mr. Suddeth has to do is ensure that the scene is so well-timed and so well-rehearsed that nothing can possibly go wrong.
"Safety. Safety. Safety. Always," mutters Mr. Suddeth as he watches the actors. "But it's OK to look dangerous."