William & Mary

Doersch teaches student actors the art of the fight for 'Rover'


The distinctive “ting, ting, ting!” of metal hitting metal rings out as two young men face off with swords flying. The setting of their skirmish is not the deck of the Queen Anne’s Revenge or the countryside of 17th-century France. It is the Dodge Room in William & Mary’s Phi Beta Kappa Memorial Hall, and the two battling are students in the College’s own stage combat club.

David “Pops” Doersch, instructor of stage combat at William & Mary, has run the club – euphemistically called “fight club” or “sword club” -- for 10 years. And now, with the fight-heavy play “The Rover” set to open at Phi Beta Kappa Memorial Hall on Thursday, he is busy walking yet another group of young actors through the carefully choreographed dance that is stage combat.

“It’s a grand and fun, rollicking life to live as a stage combat choreographer,” said Doersch, who has taught at William & Mary for 12 years. “You get to basically be a swashbuckler all your life, which is all too much fun. But it’s also a tremendous teaching tool for acting.”

Doersch has taught and choreographed stage combat around the world for more than two decades. In addition to overseeing the stage combat club and teaching a course in stage combat at the College, Doersch is also the fight director for the Virginia Shakespeare Festival and the co-founder of the International Organization of the Sword and the Pen. Founded in 1999, the organization has members in 20 countries, including stunt coordinators for major motion pictures and theatrical fight directors for some of the world’s most acclaimed theatres. The group also offers workshops, which students from all over the world attend. Doersch said that William & Mary is always well represented at those events.

In fact several of the students in “The Rover,” including Megan Malone Behm ’11, recently attended one such workshop in Canada. As fight captain for the upcoming show, Behm is now passing the skills she learned at the workshop on to the students she’s supervising.

“There are some people in the show who have had no training whatsoever, and they are doing really, really well,” Behm said. “They’ve had to pick up really fast and they’ve had to really dedicate themselves to doing basically two years of training in about two weeks. It’s been really phenomenal to watch them develop.”

It’s a skill that is more difficult than it looks. Doersch said that hundreds of hours of rehearsal are required for every moment that’s on stage.

“If you have a fight on stage that’s 30 seconds long, the actors may well have spent between 40 and 50 hours in rehearsal trying to get that little 30-second moment perfect,” he said.

Though the weapons are not sharpened, stage combat is still potentially dangerous and so every effort is made to ensure absolute safety for the actors.

“We have to make sure that it’s all rehearsed in extreme slow motion so that the blades placement is exactly safe and done with not just precision but a light touch,” said Doersch.

Although stage combat isn’t just about swords – other weapons and even falls are included in the training – “The Rover,” a Restoration-era comedy, was written during a time in which “it was very popular to put lots of sword fights on stage,” said Doersch.

There are numerous sword fights throughout the show, including one large skirmish in which seven fights happen at once and another showcase fight between two of the show’s main characters who wear masks while brandishing three swords and even a cape. Capes were once commonly used as weapons, said Doersch, adding that their hems were often lined with lead shot, glass, fish hooks or other dangerous materials.

“So when you got hit with that cape, you knew you were getting hit by a weapon,” he said.

Because the play is set in Naples, Italy during the 1650s, Doersch is teaching his actors two main fighting styles: one for the English cavaliers who were roaming Europe during that period and another for the Spaniards who controlled the area at that time.

The actors playing Spaniards are using Spanish hilt cup rapiers, which are heavy and have a broad blade.

“They are very high, very erect, very formal in their swordplay versus the English cavaliers who are using smaller, lighter blades,” said Doersch.

“Given it’s a comedy, we’re taking some liberties with the historical facts and making them broader and coloring them with a broader pen because it’s more fun,” he added.

Every move in the fights in carefully choreographed, Doersch said. And in fact, much of the language and many of the moves used in stage combat are borrowed from dance.

“The fights and the dances of any given time period always mirror each other because they are drawn from the same cultural aesthetic,” Doersch said.

Though learning how to fight for the stage can be a lot of fun, it is also now a necessary skill for theatre professionals, Doersch said.

“Stage combat is very important,” he said. “They expect actors when they come out of any kind of credible training program to know how to handle a sword, or at least know how to throw a punch or slap.”

But Doersch wants his William & Mary students to go one step further, giving their audiences not just fights, but good fights.

“The audience should come away from a fight knowing more about the characters than they did going in, just like any good scene,” he said.

“A good fight involves all the elements that good theatre does because it is just theatre.”