Who: Thomas Schall, fight director for Othello
Outside: The New York Theatre Workshop
Tell me a bit about your process. What’s step one?
TS: It’s nice to do a fair amount of homework before you step in the door. You start with the text and spend a lot of time with the play. The fights are a part of the story—it seems obvious to say that but it’s a trap to think about them as something spectacular—they live in the larger context of the play. Part of my process is thinking about how these moments of violence tell their share of the story and the development of these characters. I also do a lot of research. [This production of Othello] is set in a contemporary military context, so I’m doing a lot of research about the kind of combative training that these soldiers have done and how they handle their weapons.
So that was a discussion you had to have with the director prior to rehearsals?
TS: We had a few meetings before rehearsals began where Sam Gold was in the process of working out the aesthetics of the play. He looped me in about how he envisioned the fights. I had worked with him before, so I had a bit of a sense of his process and that was a big help in beginning to think about these fights.
What happens in the rehearsal room?
TS: You start to build the fights. It’s a collaboration, and it was particularly collaborative in this instance—working with Daniel Craig and David Oyelowo. They’re both very smart people and they have a deep background in movement. Building these fights was very much a sharing process.
Tell me a bit about the fights and violence in Othello.
TS: Sam’s aesthetic for Othello is very “unspectacular”—he used the word “pedestrian.” The way people move or live in a scene is very matter-of-fact. The behavior is not particularly showy, but these people live in a world where they are trained to kill. You’re trying to find a way for the violence to feel very organic and real.
What was one of your highlights from working on this production?
TS: I had this fear of walking into the room and seeing Daniel Craig/James Bond sitting with two bodyguards and I was supposed to say: ”This is how you fight,” and be laughed out of the room. It was a great relief to find that he is a wonderfully welcoming, lovely, pleasant, funny, down-to-earth guy. In rehearsal he’s just another actor in the room; he’s very mischievous with a wicked sense of humor.
Do some actors push the boundaries of what is safe?
TS: Yes. Some actors want to keep pushing. Sometimes the pushing actually shifts the fight out of a good place to not only an unsafe place, but the fight starts to not work as well.
How important is safety?
TS: My main goal is to make it safe, and something that’s repeatable eight times a week over a long period of time. In film, you might have a couple of days to do the fight and there are pads on the floor and you’re able to slam around. At the end of the day you’re done and you can soak in a tub. It’s a really different thing to be onstage where you can’t hide a lot of padding on your body.
How did you get your start as a fight director?
TS: I started as—and still am—an actor. Part of my actor’s training was stage combat and I found I had a little bit of a knack for it. Before I moved to New York 30 years ago, I was a resident company member at the Folger Theatre in Washington, D.C., a predecessor to the Shakespeare Theatre Company; it was a classic theatre company so there was a lot of violence [in the productions]. I gained a fair amount of experience first hand and was choreographing a bit on the side. I also trained with the Society of American Fight Directors. When I moved to New York, I focused on acting but occasionally something [in fight choreography] would come up—it snowballed, and working as a fight director went from being an occasional thing to 85 percent of what I do.
Schall has worked on over 60 Broadway shows. In 2016 alone, he was a fight director or fight consultant for The Front Page, The Cherry Orchard, Waitress, The Crucible, and Blackbird.