Alumni Profiles

Battle Plans
A fight master trains actors to mimic the real thing

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David Leong '73 has made a career taking a fight and turning it into art. Ranked among the elite fight choreographers in the country, Leong has spent nearly four decades creating and orchestrating complex battle scenes for hundreds of dramatic productions on stage and in film. Working with everyone from college students to Hollywood stars like Christopher Plummer, Sigourney Weaver, Kevin Spacey and Joan Cusack, he has a single goal: to create fight scenes that look just real enough.

"Theatrical violence is entirely different from real violence," Leong explains. "Stage violence has an aesthetic, a romance. It's all about ebb and flow." Just like acting itself, Leong says, stage fighting is about reacting and responding.

The theater department chair at Virginia Commonwealth University, Leong got his start in fight choreography as a student at UNH. Recruited as a top gymnast, he was sidelined by injuries. Instead he immersed himself in theater, where he was the obvious choice for any role that required, well, bounce. After graduation, he moved to North Carolina to pursue an M.F.A. degree; teaching a class in movement for actors led to a series of university jobs and invitations from professional theaters to choreograph their fight scenes.

Other than a summer workshop in mime, Leong's skills were basically self-taught until a fight director from London approached him after seeing one of his productions. "Up to that point, it was basically an ignorance is bliss sort of thing," Leong says. "I had no idea how much I didn't know." He began studying with legendary fight choreographer and frequent Errol Flynn stunt-double Patrick "Paddy" Crean, an expert in weapons choreography. "Paddy taught me how to tell a story with swords," he says. "One of the essential tasks is to learn the rhythm of a particular weapon and create for it a physical vocabulary that fits seamlessly with everything else that's happening on the stage." Leong is now one of only a dozen "Certified Fight Masters" in the United States, with a reALsumeAL that includes work on the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical "Billy Elliott" and the Olivier Award-winning British National Theatre production of "Jitney."

Leong's work always begins with research. He is preparing for a fall production of Oklahoma! by reading several books about the 1940s and determining what farm implements might be seized up in a confrontation between farm hands and cowboys. Part of Leong's preparation is to make sure the battles he crafts are safe for his actors since even a prop sword (or, in the case of Oklahoma!, a shovel) can cause serious injury.

"The stakes are incredibly high," he says. "You really need to know how to work with each person and his or her individual style to be sure that no one gets hurt."

While Leong once worked on as many as 25 productions a year in order to establish himself, he now takes on only the three or so that truly speak to him. But you can be sure they will be shows where the fight scenes are breathtaking and exciting, with just the right amount of real.

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