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The Folger Spotlight

"They Fight": Choreographing Shakespeare's Violence with U. Jonathan Toppo

U. Jonathan Toppo

Folger Theatre’s 1 Henry IV closes on Sunday. Like many histories, it ends with a climactic battle, and so we thought it fitting to celebrate the end of this “must-see” production by chatting with fight choreographer U. Jonathan Toppo. Toppo not only choreographed the fights in 1 Henry IV, but he also does triple duty onstage as Northumberland, Glendower, and the Sheriff! Read on to learn more about how he came to the world of stage combat, his process when working on a show, how fight choreography appears in contemporary plays, and what inspired 1 Henry IV‘s dramatic finish (but be warned—spoilers ahead).

When asked how I started doing fight choreography, my stock answer is I grew up on a street with all boys and two older brothers, but it was actually a longer journey. When I was in college, we didn’t have any stage combat classes, so we just started choreographing. My junior year, teachers form the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA) came and one of their classes was stage combat. The next summer I wound up assisting the class before going to LAMDA myself and continuing to learn there. I got certified and recommended and I returned to the states, and it was one of those skills that I was pretty good at. I got hired to teach some more as an assistant before choreographing Cyrano at a small theater, which led to a gig as fight captain at the Utah Shakespeare Festival, which led to assisting at Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) for ten years before taking over for John Sipes as fight director. And now I’ve choreographed a Broadway show, Off-Broadway…it’s kind of crazy. And of course, I still take classes, still train. There’s still a lot to learn.

Fight choreography for me is storytelling—I always look at what happens at the beginning, what happens in the middle, what happens at the end, and how the characters are changed by the end, especially in Shakespeare. He generally puts “they fight” and then you come up with what story you want to tell. I work by getting input from the director and the actors, and then going off on my own to work out all the nuts and bolts. I bring that into the rehearsal hall …and then generally I wind up throwing it all out and working from what rehearsal reveals and what the company can do. I’m not married to any of my moves or choreography; if we need to kill something that’s not working, we can just change it. My job is mainly safety, storytelling, and setting the actors up for success.

The company of 1 Henry IV. 1 Henry IV, Folger Theatre, 2019. Photo: C. Stanley Photography.

And that’s similar for working with a movement director. This is the third production for Alice [Gosti] and I. Generally, I feel I give her the language or the alphabet and she makes it calligraphy. She’ll say, “I need something here. What’s a martial move I can use?” And I give her something and then she makes it into something artful. For example, we just finished doing As You Like It at OSF. There’s a big wrestling scene, so she wanted wrestling moves. I choreographed those moves and then she went in and did some really wonderful stuff with repetition and slow motion. We work very well together; we collaborate.

A big moment in this play is the final fight between Hal and Hotspur. Hal must win, but Hotspur’s supposed to be an amazing fighter. The director, Rosa Joshi, wanted it to be a surprise that Hal kills Hotspur and for people who had never seen it to ask, “How did that happen?!”, so we worked on it from there. Because of Sara Ryung Clement’s beautiful set design, we knew we wanted to use levels. We knew we didn’t want it to be elegant. Sometimes I like to look at fights through poets, and I knew I didn’t want it to be Yeats; I wanted it to be more Bukowski. We wanted it to end with them getting down and dirty. We knew someone had to lose a weapon, that both had to lose weapons, that they would start grappling and punching. The actors [Avery Whitted and Tyler Fauntleroy] were a real help, suggesting things or trying things out, or thinking about what their characters would do, especially in the sections where they were hand-to-hand.

There’s scope for fight choreography in many types of plays, not just Shakespeare. We did Sweat a couple of years ago, which eventually went to Broadway, and there’s a big fight at the end of that that takes place in a bar, building on playwright Lynn Nottage’s storytelling beats. Another example: in a recent production of White Noise at the Public Theater, we choreographed a scene where two women tussle and get thrown to the ground, and that was a modern piece. We ended up cutting that fight, but it turned into a push and that’s still something that needs to be choreographed—it’s not just big fights. A lot of times in plays you’ll have a grab or a push or a slap and they’ll bring me in to choreograph that. People forget that those things are choreographed; we don’t leave those up to chance. In White Noise there was a moment where an actor had to raise a bowling ball as if he was going to smash this other character’s head, and then he turned and slammed it into a chair. We had to have him bring it up in such a way that the bowling ball doesn’t drop, and  the slam had to read that he was slamming it into the chair, but we also had to make sure he’s not busting props. There’s a lot of variety in the work I do.

Working on 1 Henry IV has been a wonderful experience. It’s been fun to be different roles and create three different, fully-formed people, with different challenges and comfort levels. And it’s great to work with these actors: Peter [Crook], Naomi [Jacobson], Kate [Eastwood Norris], Ed [Gero]…I learn so much from them, and from the whole company. It’s been great to work with them, and it’s been great to be with them.

Thanks to U. Jonathan Toppo for talking with us! Folger Theatre’s 1 Henry IV closes October 13. For tickets and more information, visit us online or call the Folger Box Office at 202.544.7077.

1 Henry IV
Folger Theatre
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Rosa Joshi; movement and choreography by Alice Gosti; scenic design by Sara Ryung Clement; costume design by Kathleen Geldard; lighting design by Jesse Belsky; original music and sound design by Palmer Hefferan; fight choreography by U. Jonathan Toppo.