Esme Cooper - what's it like to be a female fight director?

Esme Cooper is the second of the amazing women on our team who we interviewed. She tells us all about how she got into stunts, the work that inspires her, and what it's like to be a woman in the fight industry.

So, Esme, how would you describe your job as a fight director?

My job is to aid the actors and work with the actors to create a sequence of movements that are usually aggressive that they feel comfortable and safe performing, and that suit their character.

How come you decided to get into the world of fights & stunts?

I’ve always been an active person, I’ve always done lots of active things. I taught sailing, I can teach a range of outdoor activities, so being physical is very much a part of me. I’ve always been interested in fights, though I’ve fought very little. I went along to the audition at East 15 and absolutely loved what we were doing, and from there it’s become this!

What's the most exciting thing you've worked on?

Quite a few! My first ever professional job was working on Rave of Thrones, which was for a massive nightclub with 1,600 people and a big old fight for a long time. It felt more like a WWE kind of style and mentality than actual fighting, which was really exciting. I recently worked on Crooks 1926, that’s a brilliant fight - bare knuckle, in the round, nothing to hide - how do you make it work? It was all about looking at how we make it work.

Interviewer: "How did you make it work?"

A lot of interesting and unique moves, working with the actors to find what their characters would do, and how they would move as well. They were saying ‘I want to do more dirty moves’, and so we put those in, and got to a fight that they feel comfortable and confident doing.

What's it like for you working a female fight director?

So, I face challenges and advantages being a female fight director, and I think it’s really clear to say there are two sides to the coin. The first job I got, I got because I was a female fight director. I’ve been approached by a lot of female directors as well about scenes that can include something a little more touching, so if there’s a scene about rape, it’s a lot easier to get a female fight director to do that scene than a male one, because the female person within that scenario feels more comfortable - it’s a topic that we can approach more.

I think it’s also really important to respect the people that have made the way for female fight directors, including Kate [Waters], RC-Annie, and lots of other people. They’ve completely changed the perception of female fight directors by doing what they’re doing at such a high standard - there’s a lot more female stunt coordinators as well in the film industry. I mean, it is difficult - I’ve also got the problem that I’m quite young, and I don’t look like a fighter in any way, shape, or form. Usually I will get shock when I walk in, and I’ve had to introduce myself as the fight director and people go, ‘Oh! Okay, nice to meet you,’ and they don’t expect me to be the fight director, I don’t look like a fight director, I have none of the body types of an FD. So then it becomes about me having to prove myself - although I don’t any more. The theatre industry is inclusive, it’s very inclusive, and a lot of people are very happy to just accept it. I mean, you get the initial shock and then people are more than happy to do it. All the females I ever teach fighting to are ecstatic to have a female fight director. Quite a lot of the guys who I think would not identify as the typical masculine person are also more than happy to work with a female FD. You just have to look at it a different way - you’ve got to teach people the fight in a different way.

I think there’s pros and cons. What can be a con is it does feel difficult for me to try and get some types of work, but I’m still very new to the industry and I’m still having to fight like every other new fight director. I think sometimes the fact that I’m not male and I’m not a typical fighter can lead people to doubt whether or not I can fight. I think that’s probably the big disadvantage, but I’m probably at the stage where actually people are very excited to have female fight directors and be taught by women, so at the moment it’s actually aiding me more than affecting me negatively.

The industry I’m working in, immersive fights, is pretty much (bar about two other people) is completely unknown, no one really does fight direction for immersive theatre at the moment. Because it’s so new, because I’m one of the first; there are plenty of amazing fight directors like Dan Burman and Matt McKay and Nathaniel Marten who have worked in immersive theatre, and Stuart Boother for Secret Cinema. But in terms of fight directing, that’s kind of it. So for me, I’m able to make my way in an industry that doesn’t have many fight directors at the moment, which is quite refreshing I think.

I mean, it’s still difficult, I still struggle. Especially when teaching certain people - occasionally I feel a little backlash because I am a woman trying to teach them how to do a broadsword fight, and that can be a bit difficult. But actually, the second we get into the work, all of that disappears, and you work with the actor how they want to work, and suddenly it doesn’t matter who you are as long as they’re confident and happy with the process and the final performance, that’s the key thing.

Can you tell us about a challenge you've had to overcome?

So many! For me, the challenge is I trained as a fighter, and fight directing is a lot different, and I’m still learning. I think that’s so important for myself to remember, I sometimes think ‘I have to have these fantastic fights!’, and actually, I don’t. I’m learning, my fights aren’t gonna be as good as they’ll be in ten years. It’s about getting rid of the fancy choreography and going back to the basics - saying ‘What will make this fight good?’. That’s something I tried really hard to do with The Hunchback of Notre Dame - walking into the room, not planning anything fancy, just saying ‘I’ve planned a few things, but at the end of the day let’s get rid of what doesn’t work.’ That’s a big challenge, walking into a room for the first time with six actors and they say ‘You’ve got a day, make us a fight,’ and not knowing what exactly you’re gonna do. If you already know exactly what you wanna do, you already have your preconceptions, and that can actually make a fight a lot worse. If you walk in not ‘knowing’ anything, you can use the actors and actually create the fight together. It’s like creating physical theatre, you have to work with the people there to create the best outcome.

It’s tough being honest with people as well, when you feel like you don’t always have the answers! But the actors are incredibly creative, and they come up with twenty different solutions to a problem.

It’s really important to know as an FD, to work with your company, and it’s one of the main things I’ve learned, to have the confidence to walk into that room without knowing everything.

Can you tell us about some fight work that's really inspired you?

The Witcher - really good fight work, everyone should watch it. But the thing that I’ll say is Bad Roads, which was on at the Jerwood Theatre Upstairs (Royal Court). There was a fight that was done completely dark - it was a fight you could only hear. The sounds were so good, and what they were trying to do was actually very hard, they wanted to slap this girl down and urinate on her face. Now, actually, that’s really difficult to stage, so they got round it by turning off the lights, and the whole thing was an amazing soundscape-fight. I thought that was an incredible thing to do, and a very inspiring fight.

Esme is an incredible fight director for standard and immersive theatre, and a valued member of our team. This is the second of three posts about the awesome women we work with.

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