Disclaimer: No actors were harmed in the making of this show, The Westmoreland Players president Dan Beckhard said jokingly of the theater’s upcoming production “Moonlight and Magnolias.”
But from how it’s intended to play out on stage, members of the audience may question that.
The play is set during the filming of “Gone With The Wind” and based on producer’s David O. Selznick’s scramble to get the movie to the big screen. And although it’s a comedy, there’s an elaborate scene of “intense physical storytelling,” as Beckhard calls it.
In that scene, the three main characters are totally exhausted, and their interaction devolves into a slap fight. There are also several other places in the show where the story gets physical. To ensure all those moments are as realistic and as entertaining as possible, The Westmoreland Players took the rare step of tapping the expertise of fight choreographer and stage combat instructor Joe Myers.
While this isn’t the first time the theater has hired a professional like Myers, it’s not done very often, said Beckhard. But with this play, there were too many physical scenes to think of doing it ourselves, and it was really helpful to have someone who knew how to do these things safely,” he said.
The difference a fight choreographer makes
“The biggest difficulty with productions that have violence is the physical storytelling,” explained Myers. Violence in comedy is harder than in drama because you have to fine-tweak every single moment so that it plays comedically. It’s one thing to choreograph a slap fight and say okay that’s funny, and it’s another thing to make it an intrinsic part of the overall story, to see the characters change and evolve,” he noted.
Another challenge with this play is that there are at least 17 slaps in the show. We had to vary every single slap because the last thing you want is the audience to be watching the same magic trick over and over again, said Myers. So, we had to find ways to have different slaps through different angles so no matter where in the audience you’re sitting you’ll still get the same experience, he explained.
Myers, who is based in Northern Virginia, spent one eight-hour stretch working with the cast in person. But when the second scheduled session came, there was an ice storm, so he worked with the cast remotely via teleconferencing. On top of that, the cast has been rehearsing as a whole five to seven nights a week, recording the footage, and sending it to Myers who then follows up with feedback.
We start every night of our rehearsal with the fight scene, both as a warm-up and as a separate rehearsal, said Beckhard, who also has a leading role in the play. Not to mention that outside of the official rehearsals we meet up individually and practice, said Greg Hewitt who also holds one of the three lead roles.
“One thing that Joe helped us to understand was how to physically get ready for doing a slap scene. We did improvisation of what the characters might do in, before, and after the scene. He also teaches you how to receive a slap to give you the look of strong impact. So, there was a lot of work doing head movements to make it convincing, Hewitt added.
All of that work has gone into fine-tuning what amounts to about five minutes physical interaction, Beckhard pointed out.
Until Joe came in, I can’t imagine how we would have done this, said Hewitt. Beckhard agreed that the training was imperative to pulling this show off.
Myers said what he sometimes finds when working with community theaters like The Westmoreland Players, is that you’re not dealing with career actors; they require a lot of instruction. “But luckily that wasn’t the case here. I’ve been nothing but impressed. It’s been truly fantastic to work with these actors. Their dedication, their talent, all of it has been really heartening, he said, adding that he’s confident of where their skill level is and he knows they’ll continue to fine-tune to the smallest degree what they’re doing until opening day on February 26.