David Brimmer Talks About His Role as a Fight Choreographer on Broadway, His Focus on Keeping Actors Safe, and How It Began with a Nick to the Face in a Sword Fight
David Brimmer is a fight choreographer on Broadway and off-Broadway, who teaches stage combat at the Terry Knickerbocker Studio. His focus is on keeping actors safe, telling the truth about violence, and helping his students be more attuned to their acting partners and, therefore, better actors. His work ranges from choreographing fist fights to sword fights to gun fights – and even two hangings in Martin McDonagh’s Hangmen.
David’s work has been visible in dozens and dozens of productions including the original staging of the legendary rock musical Spring Awakening. For the Broadway production of Martin McDonagh’s The Lieutenant of Inishmore, David choreographed 82 rounds of gunfire in every show. His work can be seen in the 2022 Broadway productions of Hangmen and David Mamet’s American Buffalo – both productions nominated for Tony Awards (for Best New Play and Best Play Revival respectively). David is a Quaker who believes that telling the truth about violence is the best way to combat it.
TKS: How did you become a fight choreographer?
David: I was a competitive fencer in high school, and, when I went to college at NYU, I studied acting while continuing to work out by fencing. In one stage production, I was in a scene where I had a sword fight with another actor. My acting partner moved in the wrong direction, and I accidentally scratched the edge of his face. I’ve been a fight choreographer ever since. That expertise, combined with teaching stage combat, enables me to keep actors safe, while telling the truth about violence and its implications.
TKS: Should students study stage combat to become better fighters or better actors?
David: For both reasons. That’s why I love teaching it so much. The initial focus of stage combat is on keeping actors safe. But to stay safe, they must become better listeners. They must learn to be attuned to their acting partners. In the incident when I scratched the edge of my acting partner’s face, we were not in sync. He moved in the wrong direction, but we collectively were not communicating properly. Listening to your acting partner with your entire body – your entire instrument – is key to acting, and training in stage combat promotes better listening.
I’ve also found that a stage fight can be dull unless the acting that takes place within it is exciting. I’ve focused increasingly on the vocalization of fighting. If it’s just grunts and groans, it may be an athletically impressive display, but it doesn’t advance the truth of the play. The goal is not simply to be amazed by the spectacle but to be moved by the truth.
TKS: You distinguish between the truth of violence and the reality of it. Would you say more?
David: The distinction has two key elements: what the play tells us about violence and how violence is portrayed on stage. I’ll start with the second. The audience knows that they’ve walked into a theater; they know that it’s a show. They don’t want to see actors endangered; they want to see the truth. That’s what they came for, and that’s my job as a fight choreographer – to make the fight resonate with the audience without worrying them or endangering the actors. If the audience ever thinks that the actor is in danger, then I’ve failed, because the audience has been taken out of the story by worry.
At the same time, the violence in the play is a vehicle for a greater truth. It must rise above the reality of the performance and tell that truth. The violence must serve a greater good, and that is to expose its truth.
TKS: Is the distinction between the truth and reality of violence vital to your beliefs as a Quaker?
David: Absolutely. When people hear that I’m a Quaker and a fight choreographer, they immediately ask, “How can you be both?” But it couldn’t be clearer to me. The best way to combat violence is to reveal its truth: the horror of it; the absurdity of it; the consequences of it – for the victims, the perpetrators, the families and friends, the broader community – for all of humanity. In every play on which I work, the violence explores and reveals a greater truth, and my role as a Quaker and a fight choreographer is to expose that truth for all to see.
TKS: In your role as a fight choreographer, you collaborate broadly – with the director, the actors, the stage manager, and other specialists. Would you tell us more about that?
David: Every production is different, so the breadth of collaboration is different in each. My role always begins with the script, the director’s vision, and the performances of the fight-related actors, but it can become much broader, as the staging unfolds. If the fight involves a weapon, the stage manager is involved. If it involves a dance, the dance choreographer is engaged. If there’s blood on a costume, the costumer designer is involved. If it requires dramatic lighting, the lighting director is key. If it stems from intimacy, an intimacy director may be involved. The set designer may even need to be engaged.
I worked on one production that had a stunning all-white set and yet a fight that produced blood. We couldn’t clean the set between productions because the red residue would leave a pink tint. We couldn’t paint the set between shows because the paint wouldn’t dry in time. We had to design plastic blood, which has since become commercially available, and a couch from which the seemingly stabbed actor could draw and put in place the fake blood while the lights were out. The solution involved the director, set designer, stage manager, lighting designer, and actors.
For The Lieutenant of Inishmore, virtually everyone was involved in the choreographing of 82 rounds of gunfire and five gallons of pretend blood in every show. While the guns had been modified and could not shoot real bullets, we still choreographed “fire lanes” and ensured that no actors were in those lanes – to ensure every actor’s safety.
TKS: When in the evolution of a production do you become involved?
David: I like to be present at the meet-and-greet – to meet the actors and hear the first read-through. Then I can size up the actors and get a sense of their physicality and their temperament – and how I might best help them. I especially like working with living playwrights, so that I can hear from them directly how they envision the violence and its portrayal.
The violence is meticulously choreographed and rehearsed in the rehearsal room, but there we say, in the case of Hangmen, for instance, “The trap doors drop.” On stage the trap doors really drop, so another level of meticulous choreography takes place there to ensure that the actors are safe and that the violence is convincing.
TKS: You have an intriguing and compelling perspective on stage combat. What made you want to teach at the Terry Knickerbocker Studio in addition to your teaching at NYU?
David: Terry and I first met when we were both undergraduates at NYU. I was doing tech work on a show in which he was performing. We found that we shared a passion for the theater – and, as our careers evolved, for teaching the craft. So, I was immediately intrigued when Terry founded TKS and approached me as he was developing the faculty. What I enjoy most about teaching at TKS is that the students have chosen to attend a conservatory. That’s a distinctly different choice than choosing a college and a major. It means that the students see acting as the focus of their education and ambitions, and it’s very gratifying to teach students who have made that commitment. I see it reflected in their engagement in class and the intensity of their work.
TKS: The many dimensions of your work are fascinating.
David: The playwright has put violence into a production for a reason. My role as a fight choreographer and as a teacher of stage combat is to help actors honor the playwright’s intentions, ensure the safety of all involved, and enable the consequences of that violence to resonate at a gut level – and thereby convey more fully its horror.