“Being hit by a superhero has got to hurt—and it’s definitely going to make a big sound on contact,” notes fight choreographer Zoe Swenson-Graham, striding past a cardboard lobby display featuring a massive Captain America preparing to be wailed upon by a large, metallic Iron Man. Then she adds, “Being hit by Captain America, though, is a lot different from being hit by an actor pretending to be a gang member from New York.”
Swenson-Graham, while confessing to never having been actually punched—by either a superhero or an angry drunk in a bar—definitely does know what a fistfight ought to look, feel and sound like.
A trained stage combat choreographer, her job is to design violent confrontations that are as scary and realistic to watch as they are safe and comfortable for actors to perform. Last year, she used swords, projectiles and other fanciful weapons in pitting pirates against lost boys and Indians, in the Mountain Play production of Peter Pan. This year, she’s back on the mountain choreographing the epic fist-and-knife fights—and the sprawling Jets vs. Sharks gang battles—that are a major part of the beloved musical West Side Story.
“I personally like unarmed combat,” says Swenson-Graham, laughing as we exit the movie theater and head out for a cup of coffee. “It’s more fun than combat with weapons. It’s a lot more personal.”
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