Meron Langsner Working with Moonbox actors
Harry McEnerny and Erica Spyres
MI: Fight directing is only one of many roles that you play in the field of theater. What aspect of the theater first drew you in, and how did you find your way to combat?
ML: It’s funny, though I identify primarily as a playwright, I came into theatre out of dance, and I came into dance out of martial arts. I took my first dance class as a college freshman because it was recommended to me as a martial artist. From there I took acting classes, and so on and so on.
I first ended up doing some combat stuff really early. I would be in small productions and there would be a fight and people would say “Let’s have the Karate guy do it” and my problem with that was that I knew it was an incredibly bad idea because the goals of martial arts and the goals of stage combat are polar opposites. That said, because I had started from dance and theatrical movement, I knew that I had a strong interest in physical composition. I started taking courses and workshops with the Society of American Fight Directors and worked on building my skill set as an actor-combatant and as a fight director and it soon became one of my main specializations.
What’s funny is that though I knew I wanted to write since I was about nine years old, it didn’t occur to me that I might write for the theatre until after I had acted, choreographed, and directed for a while.
MI: What Is it that a fight director can bring to a production?
ML: Before getting to aesthetic contributions, the first thing that a fight director brings is an enhanced awareness of safety, which in turn gives the performers more freedom to explore their own work.
That being established, a fight director deals with the moment-to-moment expression of direct physical conflict. It’s a given that conflict is at the heart of drama, and fight directors are concerned with the most open expressions of it. With that in mind, a punch is not just a punch, a slap is not just a slap. These moments of the physical expression of conflict are loaded, and should look better than the real thing. Robert Edmond Jones, one of the great pioneers of modern design wrote that a beggar on stage should not look like a beggar, but rather like a painting of a beggar. Likewise, stage violence more often than not looks nothing like real violence, but is really a simultaneously clarified and abstracted version of physical conflict. The basic part of the discipline is making sure that there is moment-to-moment narrative clarity in the fights, beyond that there should be an understanding of psychological, sociological, and historical context. For example, some of the most memorable instructions I’ve ever gotten from a director were from Rick Lombardo when I did A Streetcar Named Desire: When Blanche attacked Stanley with a bottle he asked me “How would a World War II combat veteran deal with this?,” likewise, when Blanche was taken away at the end and the nurse restrained her, he said to me that this scene should reflect that this was from a time period in which mental asylum patients were essentially tortured. Both of these cases involved the composition of period movement.
MI: What aspect of fight direction do you find most challenging, and what aspect do you find most rewarding?
ML: Very often as a fight director your work is only as good as your collaborators give it the opportunity to be, so the same answer applies to both sides of the question.
Most challenging is what I refer to as “rescue work,” which is when a production team realized late in the process that they needed someone to come in and work with their cast. Often this is after someone has already been hurt because a director said to “just do it” with no mind to physical or emotional consequences. Being called in late in the process with no context and nervous performers to basically prevent anyone from getting hurt again because “it was just a slap” is a gripe that I share with many of my colleagues.
In terms of positive challenges, I rarely if ever come in with preset choreography, especially if I don’t know any of the performers. My overall method is to come in with a dramaturgical understanding of the scenes I’ll be working with along with a sense of the time I’ll have to work on them. From there I compose based on what I find in the room.
What is most rewarding is when the fights are a seamless part of the production that supports the entirety of the story being told. Ideally, no one should know where the lines are between the director’s work and my own.
I love it when I get to sit in the theatre and hear the audience gasp at a well executed piece of choreography. (That said, I’ve gotten some very strange looks from fellow audience members who see me smile and nod my head at really horrific actions on stage).
MI: Who in particular has inspired you in your professional life?
ML: Locally, the two directors who I have longstanding artistic relationships that are responsible for some of my best work as a fight director are Meg Taintor of Whistler in the Dark Theatre and David Miller of Zeitgeist Stage. As I said above, very often as a fight director your work is only as good as your collaborators give it the opportunity to be, and these two directors have consistently created and maintained conditions where I have been able to grow in my craft.
As a writer, I am very grateful to Ilana Brownstein for inviting me to the Playwrights Commons Freedom Arts Retreat last year, which was an amazing experience that really revitalized my work, especially as it happened just after I deposited my doctoral dissertation and was refocusing my creative energies. I also owe a debt to Dawson Moore and the Last Frontier Theatre Conference, which was one of my best experiences as a writer in my adult life.
Historically and philosophically, I’m deeply inspired by the work and writings of Edward Gordon Craig (my favorite quote of his is “The dramatist is not the son of the poet, he is the son of the dancer,” and Meyerhold (“Words in the theatre are but a design on the canvas of motion.”) Playwrights who inspire me include Oscar Wilde, Michael Frayn, Tony Kushner, August Wilson, David Ives, and Tom Stoppard. I’m also a huge fan of Neil Gamian, Milan Kundera, Mike Carey, Herman Hesse, L.E. Moddessitt, and George R.R. Martin.
MI: What are your next big endeavors?
ML: The project that has the most of my brain bandwidth right now is Vagabond Theatre Group’s production of my full-length play, Burning Up the Dictionary, which is happening at the BCA at the end of November. It’s a story of language, love, lust, and loss and sort of the demonic love child of When Harry Met Sally and Neil Labute. I am incredibly excited about this production and really hope that everyone from Moonbox can make it out to see it.
I’m also co-writing and developing an opera libretto called The Marquis De Sade’s JUSTINE with my dear friend Silvia Graziano. It’s based on the famous novel and is a very fun mix of philosophy and very dark impulses.
Also in the realm of writing, I’m heading up Whistler In the Dark Theatre’s Playwright Incubator Program, which will include readings of two of my full-lengths. The first is called The Devil’s Own Game and is a reimagining of the Faust myth, and the second is Comparing Notes (working title) and is about pathological liars. We’re also developing work by Molly Haas-Hoven, Tyler Monroe, and Ron Pullins.
Another bog ongoing project with Whistler is The Schollah Holla Project, which is a series of scholarly talks attached to our season. My goal with this series is to create a forum for scholars to share their knowledge in a way that is accessible and relevant to audiences and practicing artists. So far we’ve had some really amazing people join us in our panels and I’m really excited to see what the future brings.