CULTURE CLUB: Directing the Fight with Christopher Elst

by JUDY DREW, Chair, Door Shakespeare Board of Directors

The role of a fight director in theater has long been accepted as vital for actors’ safety during staged fight sequences, and recognition of the importance of an intimacy director – a relatively new concept – to the comfort and safety of actors has grown rapidly. 

Recently, I had the opportunity to discuss both roles with Christopher Elst. He’s an actor and the fight director and intimacy director for The Tempest and The Three Musketeers: An Adventure, with Music at Door Shakespeare.

Judy Drew (JD): Christopher, both of your positions with Door Shakespeare involve movement – and sometimes a lot of movement! Let’s start with the goal of fight direction in a theater production.

Christopher Elst (CE): All of us in the cast and production team are looking to retell these two stories in compelling ways. When violence arises, that naturally raises the stakes of the story. 

We all work together to find ways to keep that action safe, sustainable and repeatable for the months of performances. We want every performance to thrill the Door Shakespeare audiences, and the best way for actors to commit to the storytelling is to feel confident in their ability to perform that choreography.

JD: There’s more fighting and swordplay in The Three Musketeers: An Adventure, with Music than in, perhaps, any other Door Shakespeare production to date. What are the challenges of such an action-packed play? What’s the key to making the action look realistic while still keeping the performers’ safety in mind?

CE: Rehearsing early and often is the key. Learning choreography of any kind requires a lot of repetition. Thankfully, we have an exceptionally strong cast that advocates not only for its own safety and strengths, but also holds the story above all. Combine those actors’ instincts with the thoughtful and inventive direction of Todd Denning and Marcy Kearns, and the fights come alive with character and excitement!

(From left) Jussac (Christine Saenz), guard (Mark Corkins), Aramis (Alexander Johnson) and Athos (Christopher Elst). Photo by Charrey Honkanen.

JD: The concept of an intimacy director is a fairly recent development. Tell me more about its primary focus.

CE: Theater is an art form that benefits best from collaboration. The best theater-makers are the ones who can blend all of the input from the artists in the room in a beautiful, artistic alchemy. 

Intimacy direction is a newer position, but it serves the important function of facilitating what had once been a nebulous and sometimes painful process: creating an intimate scene between two people who are often strangers.

JD: What training and background must an intimacy director have? 

CE: Continued training is essential for both fight direction and intimacy direction, but intimacy direction even more so. 

The movement had started before #metoo, but that, along with the Chicago Theatre Standards, sought to shine light on abusive practices. Pioneer organizations such as Theatrical Intimacy Education and the Intimacy Directors and Coordinators codified ways to preserve the mental health of actors and to hold unsafe practices and practitioners accountable in ways they had not been before. [They] also provided a means to build these scenes effectively, efficiently and safely.

JD: Do you find that actors are receptive to being coached by an intimacy director? 

CE: Some actors initially resist the process, usually clinging to an old method out of comfort or the belief that it will stifle creativity or spontaneity, but a good intimacy director creates guidelines, structure and comfort that inspires better work, rather than hindering it. Most actors I have worked with – and indeed, many famous and revered actors in Hollywood and on Broadway – have lauded this practice as freeing and absolutely essential.

JD: Finally, in addition to providing both fight direction and intimacy direction, you appear in both plays – as Mariner, Francisco and Juno in The Tempest, and as Athos in The Three Musketeers: An Adventure, with Music. How do you juggle the demands of all those roles? 

CE: I’m exceedingly grateful to the cast and the production team for their patience with me in regard to that very thing. All of us take on a number of different tasks to make these stories sing – literally. 

The cast plays double roles, works long hours and spends time outside of our rehearsals to commit words, music and choreography to memory. The production team builds and maintains songs, schedules, sets, props, costumes, lighting, sound and myriad other aesthetic and infrastructure needs, often working twice as much as the on-stage artists.

Christopher Elst (left, with his back to the camera) directs a fight sequence in rehearsal. The cardinal’s guards (from left) Alayna Perry, Jamey Feshold, Katherine E. Norman and Mark Corkins surround Aramis (Alexander Johnson). Photo by Amy Ensign.  

To bring theater back to stages in 2022, artists wear even more “hats” than before. Look at the growing number of articles in praise of unsung heroes – the understudies, swings and production designers, to name a few – if you want to learn how much work goes into every show. 

For me, the balance comes not in any exceptional ability on my part, but in the understanding that we pick one another up whenever we stumble. All for one, and one for all.

Door Shakespeare was founded in 1995 under the umbrella of what was then called American Folklore Theatre, and now Northern Sky Theater. Since becoming its own nonprofit, the organization has produced 44 productions in the garden of Björklunden’s 405-acre estate in Baileys Harbor.

Opening-week performances of The Tempest are June 22-27 (weekdays, 7:30 pm, and Saturday, 5 pm). The regular run is July 4 – Aug. 26 (Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, 7:30 pm).

Opening-week performances of The Three Musketeers: An Adventure, with Music are June 29 – July 2 (weekdays, 7:30 pm, and Saturday, 5 pm). There will be an opening-night celebration July 1. The regular run is July 5 – Aug. 27 (Tuesdays and Thursdays, 7:30 pm, and Saturdays, 5 pm).

All performances will take place in the garden at Björklunden, 7590 Boynton Lane in Baileys Harbor.

The Peninsula Arts and Humanities Alliance, which contributes Culture Club throughout the summer season, is a coalition of nonprofit organizations whose purpose is to enhance, promote and advocate the arts, humanities and natural sciences in Door County.