We’re thrilled to welcome fight director J. Allen Suddeth as a keynote speaker at the 68th annual SETC Convention this March in Lexington, KY.
Meet J. Allen Suddeth
J. Allen Suddeth has worked professionally for the past 30 years out of the New York area. For Broadway, he has staged fights for the smash hits Disney’s Aladdin and Newsies, the recent revival production of Jekyll & Hyde, Gem Of The Ocean, Saturday Night Fever, Angels in America Part One and Two, Loot, Saint Joan, A Small Family Business, and Hide and Seek.
Off-Broadway he has worked on productions for The Manhattan Theater Club, Playwrights Horizons, The New Group, Theater For A New Audience, The Public Theater, The Duke, BAM, The Woman’s Project, Ensemble Studio Theater, Second Stage, Riverside Shakespeare, Jean Cocteau Repertory, WestBeth, The Pearl Theater, Cherry Lane Theatre, and the New York Theater Workshop. Regionally, and in LORT theater he has worked for Centerstage in Baltimore (over 70 productions), The Arena Stage and The Shakespeare Theater in Washington, D.C., as well as The Denver Center, The Huntington Theatre, The Papermill Playhouse, The Hartford Stage, The Goodman Theater, The Actor’s Theater Of Louisville and The Cincinnati Playhouse In The Park, Seattle Repertory Theatre, The Northshore Music Theater, and the Big Apple Circus, among many others.
As a master teacher, Allen has been on faculty for The Juilliard School, Mason Gross School of The Arts at Rutgers University, The Lee Strasberg Institute, S.U.N.Y. Purchase College, and The Stella Adler Conservatory, as well as being a frequent guest artist at major universities and workshops in the U.S. and abroad.
For television, he has staged action sequences for over 750 programs on ABC, CBS, NBC, and HBO. He is the author of Fight Directing For The Theater, published by Heinemann Press. Allen has also taught at the National Stage Combat Workshop, currently at U.N.C.S.A., for over 15 years, and is the founder of the National Fight Directors Training Program. Allen is also a producer of The Complete Unarmed Stage Combat DVD Library.
He has trained over 10,000 students, and tested many thousands more. He is ranked as one of 16 recognized Fight Masters in the United States by The Society of American Fight Directors. He is also an “Honourary Fight Master” with Fight Directors Canada, and a “Fellow” and Life Member of the British Academy of Dramatic Combat.
Fri., March 3, 2017
J. Allen Suddeth will speak on the rise of stage combat in American Theater and actor training. “I have a unique perspective, having been part of it and watching it grow from a small group of interested parties into a nationwide movement specialty,” says Suddeth.
Where are you from originally?
J. ALLEN SUDDETH: I grew up in a Military family and moved every couple of years! I’ve lived in the South, the Midwest, in the D.C. suburbs, and in Europe. Both sides of my family were from Georgia, so I had strong connections there.
How did you get involved in theatre?
J. ALLEN SUDDETH: Like so many people, I was in my first play in high school — at Langley High in suburban D.C. It was a thrilling experience to be on stage and belong to a theatre family. I kept at it and was in 12 shows at my final high school, Indian Hill in Cincinnati. I was in musicals, drama, comedy, absurdist plays, children’s theatre… I even directed a show. Each experience taught me a little more.
Did you work professionally as an actor?
J. ALLEN SUDDETH: I did! As a non-Equity actor I spent many years working either in New York or regionally — from Alabama Shakespeare Festival, to Hope Summer Repertory Theatre, to summer stock, to five stints in dinner theatre. I was also involved in several Off-Off-Broadway shows and even a couple of Off-Broadway shows as an actor. I also, in those early days, created a theatre performance group, FightsRUs, that performed weekly at the Westbeth Theatre in the Village. I even appeared on the soap operas Texas and One Life to Live about 50 times as an extra and bit player.
What drew you to stage combat as a career?
J. ALLEN SUDDETH: It was easy to choose between two aspects of theatre, both of which I loved. As my reputation in New York as a Fight Director grew, the offers coming in for that work far outstripped the work as an actor. People were fighting for my services, both in theatre and television. When I was about 30 years old, I made the choice to brand myself full time as a Fight Director, and withdrew honorably from Equity. I never looked back. Being involved with so many wonderful directors, authors and performers for so many decades has been nothing if not exhilarating!
Many SETC members have seen your most recent Broadway work as fight director for the Disney productions of Newsies and Aladdin. What were the particular challenges of fight direction in those productions?
J. ALLEN SUDDETH: They each had unique challenges for sure. Newsies is a period piece and takes place in 1899 New York City. There are several incidents of violence within the play, starting in Act 1, Scene 2, where Jack Kelly hits both Delancey brothers in the legs with Crutchie’s crutch. The violence escalates into the Act 1 finale brawl, where I had six “hired goons” fighting 17 newsies. Twenty-three people! And one a child actor about nine years old. Plus a set that had three levels going up 35 feet in the air! I was able to fill this fight with action, plus story, tracking the leads, Jack Kelly, Davey and Les (the child actor), and their interactions with the Goons and Cops on stage. Les gets rescued by Jack, while Davey distracts the Cop but pays a price. That’s one example. Choosing props for the fight was another challenge, as they had to be period and serve the characters. Guns and knives were out, as being too violent. The newsies were kept to fists and feet, newspaper bundles, bags and found props. The Goons were limited to “billy clubs” and a baseball bat. Using the set was also helpful, and folks were slammed into uprights, barged into wooden carts, and leveled with a handy trash can. I tried to find some texture and “grit” to the movements.
Aladdin brought its own style challenges. It’s a fantasy set in a fictional world. It’s also something of a children’s story. There were several challenges to overcome here. First, I designed the swords and spears for the show, and had them custom made at Baltimore Knife and Sword. Wanting them to be light weight but also wide enough to be seen at the back of the house and shiny to boot, I chose aluminum rather than steel. None of the actors, save one, had much sword fight training. I identified him early on and made him the pivot point of one amazing sequence, because he could technically perform it and sell it! Training pays off! Working a sword fight to music in the number “High Adventure” with 15 actors was tricky. I used rhythm changes and mirroring techniques to break it up visually. There was a lot of rehearsal time and many versions before we settled on what is now playing on Broadway. An early version had multiple sets moving in and out, such as a stair case, a kitchen and a ladies harem. While interesting, these were all eventually cut to streamline the sequence.
What advice do you have for SETC members on succeeding with stage combat in their next production?
J. ALLEN SUDDETH: Hire a pro! Train your skills! Budget adequate time for rehearsals and money for props! Less is more! Act the fight, don’t just do the choreography! Breathe!!!