I don’t know what you might expect a fight director to be, a battle-worn brute whose eyes shoot daggers maybe. Kate Waters is certainly not that.
The petite actress, known in the industry as Kombat Kate, is a powerhouse of ensuring on-stage skuffles, skirmishes, sword fights and slugfests go with – and without – a bang. At the National Theatre alone, Waters, who found she had a natural talent for stage combat while training as an actress, has worked on productions including One Man, Two Guvnors, Frankenstein, Hamlet and War Horse.
Her latest work for the National Theatre is Damned By Despair, the tale of the saintly Paulo, who discovers his fate is inextricably linked to that of hideous gangster Enrico. Safe to say there is more than a little need for Waters’ pugilistic skills.
Matthew Amer met Waters, one of only two female fight directors on Equity’s books, to learn more about the art of fight direction and to get hands on in a workshop you can watch above.
How do you go about choreographing a fight scene?
You look at the play, you take the story and you try to understand why there is violence and what has driven the characters to get to that point where words have failed. But the starting point has to be the story. Once you’ve got a feeling for the fight in your head and a sort of storyboard with stages of the fight, I just choreograph it.
I don’t come into the rehearsal with any planned moves, they come out of whatever we’re discussing, whatever comes out of the actors’ bodies, what we think is right or don’t think is right. It’s an organic way of approaching the work, because actors aren’t dancers, they like to be able to know why they’re doing it and what they’re doing it for. I think it’s better that we discover it together, like any other rehearsal process, and then I just guide them and make the moves up and thrive off what they’re giving me and what I’m giving them as well.
The other part of my job is the health and safety issues that I have to take into consideration. In the back of my mind I’m thinking “Is this sustainable to do for eight shows a week?” “Can we keep what we found in the rehearsal room today?” “If they’re being thrown to the ground do they need to be padded?” Even if it’s a scuffle, nothing is taken for granted.
What obstacles and challenges did you have for Damned By Despair?
Quite a lot! First of all the director [Bijan Sheibani] thought he would set it in 1625. That has an effect on what weapons were around then and the violence of that sort of period. We got a few weeks into rehearsals and the period has completely changed, so that changes what I do. We now have a very 2012 Naples. So, obviously, in 2012 we’re talking knives, guns, hand to hand, not swords and daggers.
One of the characters, Enrico, is an evil man; he doesn’t have many redeeming qualities. When we first meet him he beats up an innocent person. I didn’t want to make excuses for him; we wanted to show how far this man has the potential to go. It is pretty shocking and if we make it work, it will be horrific.
Do you have to have a taste for, or understanding of, brutality to do your job?
I’m not even very good at watching violence. When I’m putting it together, I just see it as physical movement and telling a story. When the actors take it on, if it’s done really well, they can make me wince at the stuff that I’ve created. I don’t do conflict in real life. I wouldn’t be anywhere near a fight or an argument if I could help it. This is a pretend world and it’s much safer.
Do you worry about people getting hurt in your fights?
I have to deal with it. The nature of putting the fight on stage is physical and doing anything physical is taking a risk. My job is to eliminate those risks, so I make sure the actors know exactly what they’re doing, when they’re doing it, making sure they’ve got sensible shoes on, no jewellery, all those things that I see that could be a potential risk. Once the actors are on stage, they have to take responsibility for the choreography that they have been given.
They can’t do things in the heat of the moment just because they feel like doing it, not with a fight. It would be unprofessional and the next thing their colleague wouldn’t want to work with them because they would feel unsafe. It’s the worst thing, feeling unsafe on stage in front of 1000 people. The audience can sense that and they feel it.
On the flip side of that I have actors who have differing abilities, who have different body shapes, who are different ages. What I’m doing with some of these guys who are young and fit, I wouldn’t be doing with a guy who might be in his 60s.
If I always thought “This is so dangerous,” the creativity would just go, and the creativity is what sparks me; safety is just part of it. You do often find that they’re fine in the fight because actors are so focused, then they walk off stage and trip up.
Being one of only two female fight directors registered with Equity, have you had to fight against preconceptions?
If it was something that was happening all the time I wouldn’t be doing this because I don’t think I’d want to battle against the feeling that I wasn’t capable of doing my job because I was a woman. But 5% of the time, I might come across someone who might think that I wasn’t capable of doing what I’m doing. It can change suddenly when they see me with a sword in my hand.
Most people find it a pleasure to have a female fight director because – and this is not me saying this, this is me quoting other people – it takes the competition out of it. When you come into the room, it’s about the story and the creation of the story rather than a fight. I don’t know what it’s like to be a male fight director. I only come in and do what I do because I’m me. I don’t try to be blokey about it, I just do what I do and it seems to work.
Scroll to the top of the page for our exclusive fight workshop video.
"I'm not even very good at watching violence... I don't do conflict in real life."