Combat class kicks into gear at midterm

Theater major Cesar Ribot and his classmates repeatedly hit each other in the face with wooden chairs for six weeks just to get a good grade.

The class is called “Special Skills and Movement: Stage Combat,” and Tuesday night the students performed five-minute skits, open to the public, incorporating what they have learned thus far.

“I learned martial arts and classical ballet at an early age,” said USF associate professor Jeff Norton, explaining his skill in stage combat.

Norton has taught at USF since 1986 and is certified with the Society of American Fight Directors.

“The organization takes the fighting moves and standardizes them,” he said. Everyone learns them the same way, which reduces injuries.

The semester began with diving rolls and basically teaches “anything that involves violence,” Norton said, listing the moves students used in their skits: kicks to the face, flying over coaches and punches to the groin.

“When you’re in a real fight, you’re going to move pretty fast. But on stage you wouldn’t do that,” Ribot said.

Something Ribot said he learned in class was emphasizing his movements.

“In a groin punch, you aren’t going to snap your arm, you would swing it all the way back,” Ribot said.

Another trick to realistic fighting is making a good “knap,” or the sound of being punched. Sean Fraser took three or four punches to the face from student Colleen McKeever in their skit inspired by the movie Mean Girls. With his back turned to the audience, Fraser simulated a snapping noise by clapping his hands, a technique learned in class.

“I like it because you learn how to use the body in different ways. It’s fun times,” Fraser said. “You also don’t have to study lines.”

Baja Dean, also in the skit, threw a chair in Fraser’s face at one point, something she had to get used to doing.

“I tried the chair the first day of class and I couldn’t do it. I was so afraid I would hurt someone,” she said. “Once you learn to do it, it is so fun.”

The midterm skits were opened to the public for a reason, Norton said.

“You’re here to give them jitters,” Norton said to the audience of about 20, explaining that performing in front of an audience gives the performers nervous energy they can usually put to good use, except for fight scenes that require balance and poise.

“The purpose of the class is not just to learn combat moves, it’s to press students to express themselves in a very big way,” Norton said.

Norton said he was happy with the performances.

“With the amount of time they had, they were very good. But it’s not something you learn to do in a couple of months,” he said.

In his 20 years of teaching combat, Norton said he has never sent someone to the hospital.

“The only move with real contact is a slap,” he said, something else students have to perform. “You suffer for your art.”