Bag & Baggage Theater Productions Shakespeare Hillsboro Oregon

Bobby Bermea: On touching and fighting

A sea change is happening in America's rehearsal halls – and combat and intimacy choreographers are piloting the ship of theater into new waters.

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Jacquelle Davis (left) and Kristen Mun going over fight choreography as Laura Bouxsein watches. Photo: Bobby Bermea

SOMETIMES GREAT CHANGE is happening, and it doesn’t quite register as great change. Then one day you realize you’re standing on the other side of a tectonic shift, and you almost didn’t notice it — or worse, almost took it for granted.

Such a moment happened for me the other day when I walked into rehearsal for Romeo and Juliet (running in repertory with Hamlet for Salt and Sage Productions) and fight rehearsal was going on. It’s been heartbreaking, because we’re doing rapiers and I haven’t done rapiers in, well, never mind how long but it’s been a long time, but, apparently, I’m no longer up for sword fights because sword fights are a young man’s game.

Well, except, not anymore.

When I come into rehearsal Jacquelle Davis is choreographing the swordplay. She is under the watchful eye of mentor Kristen Mun, one of the most well-liked and respected artists in Portland theater, though Jacquelle is very much in command of the room and she is putting Corey Huff and Juliet Mylan through their paces. And I couldn’t help but notice how different that room looked than it might have when I first got into theater.

When I started I never saw women fight choreographers at all, let alone women of color. I remember Mun coming to prominence in my mind when she won a Drammy for her work in Post5’s Henry IV Part 1. Since then, she’s locked down a bushel of awards for her choreography. During that time, not only has Mun become one of the top fight choreographers in Portland, but as she was doing here, she mentors other fight choreographers, including, besides Davis, Alwynn Accuardi and Murri Lazaroff-Babin.

Heath Hyun, considering the hows and whys and limits of onstage intimacy. Photo: Bobby Bermea

A couple of days later I come into rehearsal (for either show; I don’t remember which: they begin to blur together) and Heath Hyun, another well-liked and respected theater artist, is there as intimacy choreographer.

Intimacy choreographer as a position is still pretty new to me. I think the first time I worked with one, or rather, was in a show that utilized one, was Between Riverside and Crazy at Artists Repertory Theatre. For that show, there was specifically a sex scene that Amanda Cole was brought in to shape. Four years later, what falls under the rubric of “intimacy” has expanded considerably and can include any kind of physical contact between actors that might even imply invasiveness. Hyun essentially gave us a code and a vocabulary so that actors are always in charge of making sure they aren’t touched in any way that they’re not cool with.

It was interesting for me because no one had ever asked me before. And when given the option, I realized that I wasn’t necessarily comfortable being touched anyhow anywhere, but throughout my previous acting career, it’s always been that you do whatever the part necessitates. And I even think it’s still that. The given artists in question just have to figure out how to do everything the script requires within the sensibilities of the artists involved.

And it’s funny; my first emotional hit when I saw Heath and realized what he was there for was that I had never met a male intimacy choreographer before. It then occurred to me that I hadn’t worked with enough intimacy choreographers in my life to have built a preconception of who became intimacy choreographers. And I thought about all these biases that I had rolling around in my head about which people did which jobs and so on and so forth – where did they come from? It’s pretty jarring and borderline demoralizing to realize that these ideas are literally something I held over from last century and that this century is fast leaving them behind and if I’m not careful, I’ll be left behind with them.

And, Lord knows, anyone who knows me knows “careful” is not my strong suit. What that means, of course, is that I spend a lot of time running to catch up. Or getting run over, dusting myself off and trying to catch up again. It feels like it’s getting tougher. I’m not, as the saying goes, getting any younger.

Kristen Mun (left) and Jacquelle Davis: putting the choreography into combat. Photo: Bobby Bermea

And that’s okay. That’s life, right? Learning. Maybe more than anything else, life is learning. If you’re doing it right. And that can be a lot of fun (except when it’s not). Jacquelle gets fired up about her fight choreography; she pumps up the room. Watching her choreograph Alexander Buckner (Laertes), who’s built like a football player, to beat Alex Albrecht’s (Hamlet’s) ass is a treat in and of itself. I think back to when I was her age, and I wonder how many terrific fight choreographers we missed out on because we had these preconceived notions about what fight choreographers looked like. We’ll never know. 

Kristen Mun. Jacquelle Davis. Heath Hyun. So many others. They’re just doing their jobs, mentoring, choreographing, guiding — and they’re teaching something else besides; teaching me all these things I didn’t even know that I needed to be taught. There’s a Moment happening. Sometimes, a lot of times, everything feels loud and messy and awful and out of control and like this city, country, world will never be a decent place to live and then something relatively small happens and you realize the world is actually different than it was fifty, twenty, five years ago and that if you don’t keep your eyes open, you might miss it.

Bobby Bermea is an award-winning actor, director, writer and producer. He is co-artistic director of Beirut Wedding, a founding member of Badass Theatre and a long-time member of both Sojourn Theatre and Actors Equity Association. Bermea has appeared in theaters from New York, NY, to Honolulu, HI. In Portland, he’s performed at Portland Center Stage, Artists Repertory Theatre, Portland Playhouse, Profile Theatre, El Teatro Milagro, Sojourn Theatre, Cygnet Productions, Tygre’s Heart, and Life in Arts Productions, and has won three Drammy awards. As a director he’s worked at Beirut Wedding, BaseRoots Productions, Profile Theatre, Theatre Vertigo and Northwest Classical, and was a Drammy finalist. He’s the author of the plays Heart of the City, Mercy and Rocket Man. His writing has also appeared in bleacherreport.com and profootballspot.com.

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