The arts and culture industries remain largely at a standstill in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, affecting millions of workers in an already delicate ecosystem. The Broadway Community Project, from industry veterans Greg Schaffert, Tiffani Gavin, Situation Interactive, and Playbill, was developed to shed light on the myriad fields and roles that go into making the curtain rise.
In this new series, we shine a spotlight on the faces you may not see on stage, but are nevertheless critical in creating and maintaining a theatre production. These are just some of the arts workers who have put their stamp on an industry that contributed over $14.7 billion to the New York economy in 2019 and $877 billion in value added nationally; these are just some of the arts workers in need of relief legislation and a recovery plan.
Today, meet David S. Leong, a fight and movement director who's helped bring the Battle of Gettysburg, the Battle of Antietam, countless sword fights and barroom brawls, and more to the Broadway stage. Working with the director, actors, the fight captain, and the design team, Leong ensures a safe environment to choreograph moments that may look messy, but in actuality, are meticulously choreographed. Among his favorite credits are The Public Theater's Henry IV, Parts 1 & 2 and Cymbeline, as well as Broadway revivals of Hamlet and Carousel.
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Name: David S. Leong
Title: Fight Choreographer, Movement Director
How did you get your start in fight choreography?
My childhood was filled with domestic violence. My escape was to turn on the TV and watch Zorro and Robin Hood. In college, my childhood fears were transformed when I was asked to stage some sword fights for a play.
What is a typical day like for you on the job?
A brief chat with the director, followed by a collaborative meeting with the actors about what fight or movement sequence we plan to stage. Rehearsals consist of teaching stage combat, creating the choreography moment by moment. It takes about 10-15 hours of rehearsal to create one minute of stage time.
What's your professional life like during the coronavirus pandemic?
I teach movement over Zoom. I co-author two college E-textbooks on public speaking that are used by thousands of students and I write public speaking tips on a weekly basis.
What are three skills a fight choreographer must possess?
An understanding of human psychology, a love for collaboration, and the ability to build trust quickly among people who don't know each other. Oh yeah, and some training in martial arts. But that is secondary.
What do you wish more people knew about your line of work?
Good fights are more about trust, teamwork, and collaboration than martial skill.
How would you like to see movement direction and fight choreography evolve in the future?
Hiring a fight choreographer should be mandatory for every play or musical with a punch, kick, fall, throw, or fight/battle sequence. To this day, serious injuries happen at all levels—from community theatre to Broadway—because actors, directors, and producers think that actors and directors can stage it themselves.
Did you have a mentor while developing your career?
Patrick Crean, trainer and choreographer to Errol Flynn. He is the Founding Father of modern day fight choreography. Over his career, he choreographed over 50 films and 500 plays with hundreds of stars including Laurence Oliver, Alec Guinness, Donald Wolfit, and Christopher Plummer.
What’s the most challenging aspect of your job? The most rewarding?
The most challenging: To keep actors safe while performing something violent. The most rewarding: When actors develop a sense of teamwork and trust while performing something that is inherently dangerous.
Do you have a favorite memory or fun anecdote from behind the scenes?
I just finished rehearsing a fight for Playboy of the West Indies at Lincoln Center and was rushing to a rehearsal downtown when an actor blocks my exit. I step back in surprise. He extends his hand with a huge smile on his face and says, "Hi, my name is Joe, and I really need to thank you!" Now, I don't know this guy because he's not in any of my fights, so I quickly scan my brain for a time when we might have met before. Nope, I have no idea who this guy is. And then smiley Joe says, "I know you don't me, but about 10 years ago, I came to NYC from Oklahoma, and my high school drama club booked a workshop called 'Meet the Stars of Broadway.' I wasn't even interested in theatre at the time, but when I heard that my school was going to NYC, I thought hell, this may be my one chance to see NYC. Anyway, you taught a stage combat workshop and showed us how to do a stage punch. That one moment changed my life and because of that, I got so excited about theatre that I joined my high school drama club, went to college, and majored in theatre. After graduation, I came straight to NYC, and now I'm in this show, and I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for you. Thank you for changing my life!" The takeaway: the power of theatre is potent. It affects us in so many ways that we can't even imagine.
What advice do you have for those aspiring to work in your field?
First, get training and certification with the Society of American Fight Directors. Then, find a mentor who is established in the world of professional theatre and film. Learn as much as you can about art, music, and dance.
What does it mean to you to be a part of the theatre community?
Theatre is more than my occupation. Theatre is my passion, my career, and family to me. Many of my friendships that are now over 40 years started in the theatre.