Alexis Black is always up for a good fight. And since February 2022, the Assistant Professor of Acting and Movement at Michigan State University has been choreographing stage combat for the Tony Award-nominated production of Macbeth, currently on Broadway, starring Daniel Craig and Ruth Negga.
Working alongside her long-time mentor David Leong, Black is the Assistant Fight Director for the production, which runs through July 10, 2022, on Broadway. Her goal with this and any production is to fit fight scenes seamlessly into the play and to move the narrative forward through physical storytelling.
“I’m the person who sets stage direction in that part of a script that says ‘they fight,’” Black said. “I get to work with most everyone involved in the production from actors to special effects teams to choreograph a way to tell the story.”
Black brings extensive skills to the Broadway post, having choreographed in Europe, South Korea, and the United States on productions like Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet. She’s worked with the Tony-award winning Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C., and the OBIE Award-winning Vampire Cowboys Theatre Company, a company in New York City that specializes in action, adventure, and dark comedy with a comic book aesthetic.
“A huge part of my path toward combat and fight direction was working with mentors and with shows that were outside the box with combat,” Black said. “That’s given me a unique perspective on violence direction.”
Black received her BFA in Performance from Ohio University and her MFA in Theatre Performance Pedagogy with an emphasis in movement from Virginia Commonwealth University. It was there she met her mentor Leong. To date, she’s worked with him on 15 productions, including the Broadway production of Macbeth.
Stepping Into the Ring
Black was raised on the stage. Her family was involved in community theater in Kent, Ohio, and her first role was Gretl von Trapp in The Sound of Music. In high school, she combined her love of athletics and dance with theatre by staging a big fight between Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan in a production of The Miracle Worker.
Stage combat, Black said, combines everything she loves. It’s athletic, artistic, and nuanced, without condoning real-life violence. Stage combat provides a way to dig into the motivation of characters and to tell a story that exists beyond words. It also provides a way to connect with the audience through climatic moments.
Black comedically describes herself as a “test dummy” who makes sure elements of stage combat scenes are safe and that fight scenes are built from mutual respect among actors. Stage combat, she said, takes a lot of skill and trust. Actors discover what their bodies are capable of and learn how to actively listen and communicate with their partner on stage.
“In a lot of cases, your character is basically trying to hurt the other character while the actor is taking care of their scene partner at the same time,” Black said. “It’s so interesting and one of the most caring roles you can do in a play.”
Testing Things Out
This fall, Black will return to MSU, equipped with an expanded knowledge from her recent Broadway experience. She’ll bring perspective from her interactions with high-level actors, as well as methodologies for stage combat learned from her mentors. She’ll also provide insights from top special effects teams like J&M Special Effects, a company whose work spans motion pictures and stage.
“Stage combat embodies so many opportunities to talk around empathy, compassion, and our relationship with redemption. It’s an amazing way to tell stories.”
“The MSU Theatre Department has been so wonderful about supporting my work and enabling me to work on a Broadway show,” Black said. “I’m excited to expose MSU students to these innovative practices that I’ve learned.”
A movement specialist and certified intimacy director with Intimacy Directors and Coordinators (IDC), Black draws on elements of theatrical movement methodologies, athletics, and acting to teach students stage combat. And everything she’s learned and explored throughout her career strengthens her passion to mentor students at MSU and to collaborate on innovative practices within MSU’s Department of Theatre.
“My goal is to help prepare our students to move into this changing, professional world of theatre,” she said. “I admit, I can get a little geeky at times, but stage combat embodies so many opportunities to talk around empathy, compassion, and our relationship with redemption. It’s an amazing way to tell stories.”