Heather Smith - what's it like to be a female fight director?

Heather Smith is the third and final person 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, Heather, how would you describe your job as a fight director?

It's different. Whenever I tell people about it, or I say I studied stage combat, they always say ‘Oh my God, I didn’t know you could do that.’ Everybody always seems really surprised, so it feels cool sometimes when you tell people about it. I don’t know if they’re surprised because I don’t look like someone who would do that, or just because it’s something they’ve never heard of. I’d say it makes me feel cool sometimes.

In terms of what I do? A fight director is there to choreograph any fighting that might happen in a show, TV programme or any kind of performance that requires people to need to hit or hurt each other. A fight director can make sure that it happens safely.

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

Before I auditioned for drama school it didn’t really cross my mind. I went to something called Peer Productions, which is a theatre company for actors who want to go to drama school but haven’t yet got in and want to get more experience. There’d been people from Peer Productions like Pippa [Waite] and Veronica [Fragassi], they’d been to East 15, they’d auditioned and got in. So they came back and talked to us about the course and I thought, ‘Okay, that seems pretty cool.’ So I went to watch some of the East 15 combat shows, and I thought it was really cool, so I put it down as one of my audition options.

I went to the audition and the recall with Nick [Hall], I didn’t expect to find it as exciting as I did, because I’d never thought about it before, it just gave me a new interest. And obviously when I got in, I thought it’s a no-brainer, I’m gonna go - I really wanted to learn more about it and hopefully get really good at it. So then I trained in it for three years, and I’ve now come out with a big range of combat skills!

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

I did a music video with Billy Bilham - I think that was the first combat thing I did out of drama school. I think we did a lot of exciting group choreography things at drama school, and choreography for camera, and big fights in Studio 1 where everyone in the fight really had to interlink with each other, so things like that were quite exciting. But this video was a toxic love story where we started out meeting each other, and then we expressed our love through combat, and through hitting each other.

Billy’s choreography was really good, and I really enjoyed doing it with him. We kind of interlaced it with dance choreography as well - I guess stage combat is a little bit like a dance choreography because you have to learn it and get it just right to make it work.

It was really fun, and Billy’s a really great person to work with - he’s really giving. We actually had to change it a lot once we got into the room, because we couldn’t rehearse in the room where we filmed it (it was a tiny little garage), and so we had to change a lot in the end, but originally it was really cool.

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

The job opportunities are a bit slimmer. In my personal experience of things like reenactments, when I worked on a medieval reenactment once, it was pretty clear they’d never had a woman hold a sword there, because the reaction from everybody was ‘Oh wow, we’ve never had a woman here doing combat!’ It was kind of like they don’t consider women for things like that, and because historically women didn’t really fight, so for things like that all they need is men, and women don’t really get a look in.

From hearing experience of some other female fight performers I know, they’re always looking for quite short women who can emulate boys fighting, so there’s that niche of needing to look really young and short, or tall and badass. For women who are kind of middle ground, there’s a lot fewer job opportunities I’ve found. They are out there, but there’s less. Things like the opera, they only ever use male fighters. But in terms of workshops I’ve been asked to do, it’s not like those opportunities have been stumped because all the men are taking the combat workshop jobs.

Interviewer: "Have you noticed pushback/surprise from workshops?"

Kind of. I think it’s very subtle - if I’m doing something and I suggest we do it a different way, the director (who’s always been a man, coincidentally) will go ‘Oh, really?’, and then eventually say okay. Even though they have less experience than me, they’ll try and tell me what they think it should be - but it might be you can’t do it like that, if it doesn’t look good that way, or we have to make it safe. But then they’ll say ‘What about if we just try this?’, and I think, let’s cut out the middle man, because that’s not gonna work. You have to barter with them more. I don’t actually know though if it’s because I’m a woman or just because they have their own ideas, and they want to see that through before they make it safe. It’s occasional, but it’s not too much. I haven’t had too much pushback from running combat workshops.

One thing that did happen was for a fight job I did where it was clear they’d never had a woman do the fight work. We were quickly getting some costume together, and one of the guys running it had a suggestion - he said ‘We could dress you up as a man, stick a moustache on you, make a bit of a joke of you being a bit of a weak man,’ that sort of thing. And we just said ‘Okay, why? I could just be a woman, which I am?’

He was so surprised, he was saying ‘It’s so cool to have a woman here - let’s dress you up as a man.’

I would like to experience being in a room with a top female fight director, because I’ve only ever been taught by men, I’d like to be in a full room of just women doing fight choreography and see what that’s like. Obviously, female fight directors are a bit thinner on the ground than the men! My male teachers have always been supportive, I don’t feel there’s ever been discrimination on what we can do, they took our lead on it. We were all treated completely equally, and things were changed based on people’s strengths and weaknesses.

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

So, in our East 15 Showcase, we had to do a rapier & dagger and smallsword fight, and I think we had all the choreography down before Christmas. Chris Main [Director of East 15] had given me and Lindo [Nkomo] a bit of choreography at the end. Before Christmas, I felt really good about it. And then when we came back after Christmas, I felt like I couldn’t do it anymore. I don’t know what had changed, and it was for our showcase so I felt a massive amount of pressure to get it right. For a while I lagged a bit, and then Chris Main was like ‘What’s wrong with you?’, so I kind of coasted through it. Went it came to the Showcase, I just went for it. I think it was nerves that made me lose all confidence with it. When it came to the Showcase, it was fine, but it never felt as good as when we did it before Christmas. I guess I overcame it in the end by just doing it. I have a tendency sometimes to forget the choreography when I overthink something, because I’m thinking too much, and that’s something I’ve had to overcome every time I’ve had to do something. I know the choreography, but when I overthink it, I just forget it. But that’s something I’ve worked on since then.

I worked on a production of Henry IV recently - they hired me as an actor, but then asked me to do the choreography for the show. They said to me ‘You’ve got free rein to do what you want with each fight, we’ll just tell you what we want to do.’ We got to a bit that was a simple stab and someone falling to the floor, but the way that they’d choreographed it to start before the fight didn’t work, so I tried to get them to change the angle or change where they started on the stage, but the directors were saying they wanted them there, so I tried to work around it. But every time I tried to come up with something, they’d be saying ‘it’d be cool if he did this, or went like this’, and I’d say it wouldn’t necessarily work with the angle we were on because you could see the massive gap. Every time I suggested something, they’d go back on it, or try and re-choreograph it themselves. I just thought, ‘Do you want me to choreograph it or not?’ That was a challenge - we spent about an hour on that and got nowhere, and it was the most simple piece of choreography.

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

I saw a production of Macbeth at the Queen’s Theatre, and in the sword fight at the end they had a bit where they end up on the banquet table, Macbeth and Macduff, and that was really well done in terms of choreography, and that was really cool.

I also watched Kingsman the other day - it’s not the most intricate fighting and it’s all a bit silly, but that big scene in the church is pretty epic when he goes around fighting everybody. The way it’s a constantly moving thing from one person to the next - I don’t know if it’s the best choreographed thing in the world, but it’s pretty cool.

There was also a theatre fight scene I saw with a load of people fighting in a pub, and it was really slick. As soon as one person had been punched over a table, you were then into another fight, and everything kind of rolled together. Two people were having a fight on opposite sides of the stage, and then they’d swap partners so the two people were having a fight, but it happened without you really noticing it, like dance choreography. Someone you thought was upstage with one person would end up downstage with another person, and you don’t even remember them getting there. There was so much to look at - it was really cool to watch.

Heather is an incredible fight performer, a stage combat teacher for many actors over the years, and a valued member of our team. This is the last of three posts about the awesome women we work with.

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