Keeping it unReal

A recent lengthy expose’ by the Chicago Reader on Profiles Theatre has been causing quite the buzz in our theatre and stage combat circles lately. The pattern of abuses chronicled there only briefly and tangentially touch on stage combat, but the issue is one that effects us in several ways, and the overall aesthetic of “real” in our theatre is a larger topic needing addressed.


Yes, if we are “to hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature, to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure” then we must recognize the representations of reality, so there must be some truth to our Truth… but the art is in the fact that it is not real. This is something artists, critics, and the general audience have a difficult relationship with sometimes. Witness last year’s accolades for The Revenant, in which Leonardo DiCaprio’s award-winning performance was generally lauded for two things: The bear attack (a marvel of the collaboration between technology and live performance), and the ‘reality’ of his suffering in the cold, making himself vomit eating real raw bison liver (and he’s a vegetarian), etc. – a strangely contradictory gift basket of “man, that bear attack was so real-looking and brutal” and “wow, they had a miserable time but it meant they did that stuff for realz!” All this somehow without acknowledging the contradictions there, that the bear attack could look and feel (to the audience) so real without it needing to feel real to the performers, and that we still somehow think it’s better if they really suffer for their art.

While sacrifice is nothing new to filmmaking or theatre, the celebrating of that suffering might be a more recent thing. Pushing the envelope for the sake of extreme results on screen is one thing, celebrating the misery of production is another, and one that makes me concerned as someone who both tries to work in it (when I can – hard in Wyoming) and sends young students out to do so. It’s one thing to admire Jackie Chan or Tony Jaa movies or District B13 for our knowledge that they really did those stunts, and another to use injuries as a selling point… Yes, The Crow gained publicity due to the tragic accident with Brandon Lee, but at least it didn’t use that to make a case for how realistic the gunplay was, like the ads for Raging Pheonix  almost did with their “Real Fight, Real Injuries” in several versions of the trailer.

I know and have heard briefly from a couple fight choreographers who worked with Cox at Profiles Theatre, and none were aware of what was happening either behind-the-scenes or after the choreographer leaves, and with systematic abuse like this I’m not too surprised the resident stage manager or others didn’t report it back. Some things, like unheeded safe words, uncontrolled attacks resulting in bruising and damage to sets, etc. SHOULD NOT HAPPEN, however, and I hope that any readers of this blog, who I assume know that already, will be in positions where they feel empowered to speak up about anything like that.

There’s so many issues at play here; the aesthetic of “real” versus, well, acting, both for audience and actors (is imagination a dirty word here?), the expectations based on movie performances (where we can use expert stunt doubles, CG enhancements, green screen compositing, pads, wires, mats, prop swaps, sped up film, depth of field compression due to lens choice, and other cheats while still keeping the final product realistic) being transposed onto live theatre rather than finding theatrical answers to those problems, and the culture-wide issues of abusive relationships, sexual assault, abused power dynamics, sexism (fake female directors, really?), career pressures, and more.

I can only hope that the horrified reactions to the Profiles Theatre piece, the #NotInOurHouse movement coming out of it to help maintain basic safety protocol on non-Equity productions, the petition to remove Mr. Cox from the theatre, the mea culpa from critics, that all of this can fuel a discussion reexamining our both work environment and aesthetic assumptions. Speak up. Take a stand when needed. We all have to walk that line between plausibility and real danger any time we pick up a sword, gun, or act out intimacy on stage, and the ‘right’ answer will always be determined by many factors, including our scene partners, the directors, the audience, stylistic conventions, and who knows what all else. Nobody can really give you universal answers, but so long as we keep the discussions happening, I think we’ll all keep moving towards a better place.


“Have you ever tried acting, dear boy?” – Sir Lawrence Olivier, to Dustin Hoffman, anecdotally in response to Hoffman’s ‘method’ approach.





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