A dark blue cape trails a figure triple-somersaulting through the air. Matching boots that have seen many, many fights stick a perfect landing in soft carpet. A streak of yellow, another somersault, Batman and Robin have saved the day again.
Thus began the career of David Anzuelo—violence choreographer and founder of Unkle Dave’s Fight-House, as well as accomplished performer and playwright. Having worked on the recent critically acclaimed productions of Sticks and Bones at The New Group and Disgraced on Broadway, Dave is headed into process with six new projects that will open over the course of the next six months. Now a much sought-after fight director, as a kid Dave rarely had anyone his own age to play with, so he became obsessed with action figures. When he turned 11, he began to train in martial arts and quickly started mixing real training with fantasy. Through the joy and solace of play, he was starting to hone the skills he would put to work nonstop in his later career: staging battles, fights, and all kinds of imaginary violence.
“Theater is illusion,” he says, “and we’re pretending to be someone to tell a story. The violence is not real, but depending on the style of the play, it may have to look real, like with Lucy Thurber’s Hill Town Plays. Disgraced is real. I’m interested in challenging myself to make an illusion of violence that tells this part of the story that the playwright felt was crucial. Illusions of violence. That’s actually what is the most exciting. Like, how can we make it look—make the audience wonder—did they get hit?”
That’s the puzzle of all theater in a way—we come to the theater and enter into a pact to experience something that we all know is not “real,” but that we will experience as real with our physical bodies and our emotional antennae, audiences and actors alike. Dave continues, “If [the audience] can tell that it’s obviously not real, how can we make them feel the emotional impact of that violent moment so that they might gasp, they might say, oh fuck, oh shit, that looks so real. That’s when I know the litmus test has been passed.”
Dave does this in every genre, from teaching dancers at the New York City Ballet to throw punches in the Broadway-bound production of An American in Paris, to being the go-to violence choreographer for downtown new play theater Rattlestick, to working on the indie theater scene.
I worked with Dave on my play The Gin Baby, in which there’s an emotionally and physically difficult scene where the main character Amelia shows up at her ex-boyfriend’s house at 4 a.m. in a drunken rage, begging him to fuck her. Dave was incredibly gentle with both actors; he understands how vulnerable actors have to be. Not only was the actress ripping herself apart in the scene, but the actor had to rip her apart, putting himself in an equally vulnerable position—pulling his junk out of his sweatpants and acting like he’s sticking it in her violently. They are both aggressors in the scene—him tearing into her physically, her using his dick to cut herself. It’s all about self-harm. The story is told through daunting physical action. It’s scary to play a scene like that, and that’s why I work with Dave. The harsher the scene, the more delicate he becomes.
Dave and I are starting work, with Daniel Talbott directing, on my untitled play about porn and fame, which has sexual violence in almost every scene. In a workshop of the play, Dave guided two straight male actors through a blowjob. Dave worked through the physical aspects of the scene, the unavoidable and wrenching intimacy, with such tenderness and precision that the actors were completely free to own their characters’ journeys, as they each prostituted themselves through this action to climb further in their careers. I feel in such good hands with Dave’s perspectives on the fight and sex choreography in my plays that I can go deeper into the physical action that will support what I am trying to say with a play. Fight choreography is often an add-on that comes late in the process of production, but working with him from the beginning of a project is giving me the freedom to fully express this story.
So let’s back up a little bit, to 1986. Dave, a young teenager, had been watching a lot of Martha Graham’s films, including Night Journey and Cave of the Heart. The Greek mythology of those stories resonated on a deep level, inspiring him to take the summer intensive program at her school. The students would leap around the room well enough, until Graham herself showed up—full makeup, floor length gown, opera gloves. Under her gaze, the students pushed higher and higher, as high as they could go. She’d lean in the doorway with a look of disgust, and bow her head in despair at how awful they all were. Worse, Dave knew he was the weakest link in the class. He was an actor first, not a dancer, so much so that the teacher felt the need to sit down and have the talk that might have ended his time there:
“You will never dance with the company.”
“You will never dance with the junior company.”
And then a pause, and a glimmer of affirmation.
“But you will work.”
This sank in.
“I know that too.”
He requested to stay, and the teacher acquiesced, with the proviso that he stay at the back of the class—the perfect place to watch and absorb. That experience, being the worst in the class, has made Dave the best fight choreographer. He buckled down, submitted to the process, and was open about his shortcomings. He acted like he could dance; he tried to think like a dancer. Meanwhile, in addition to his dance training, he had become an accomplished second degree black-belt Tae Kwon Do tournament fighter, and the physical discipline and drills of that form laid a strong foundation for stage combat.
After finishing his schooling, he went on to work with avant-garde artists Penny Arcade and Maureen Fleming as a dancer-performer. He also began performing his own work at INTAR, creating personal mythology pieces based on the four elements, storytelling with physical movement and music, but almost no text. He continued working as an actor until finally, in 2003, David Deblinger asked Dave to help out with some fights in Dirty Story by John Patrick Shanley. He agreed, and since then his career has exploded.
When Dave walks into a rehearsal room, he has no idea what will greet him in terms of the actors’ level of experience and comfort with stage combat. He has to get into the mind of a scared or tentative actor and balance their skills with the task at hand. He knows how to speak to actors and teach them how to act like stage combat experts, even when they aren’t. He knows what it is to feel like he’s out of his league—a common feeling among actors when they have to punch someone in the face, terrified they might accidentally punch that person in the face for real, or throw a punch that looks comically fake. He takes an actor slowly through each and every move, from the character’s intentions down to the anatomy of exactly which muscles and bones are involved. “If you’re falling, think up, not down,” Dave says. “If you throw yourself down, that’s when you get hurt. But if you’re thinking up as you’re falling down, thinking ‘don’t fall, don’t fall!’ then you’re engaging your core as you take your tumble.” He spells out the mechanics of the illusion in concrete terms.
Samantha Soule, an actress Dave sometimes calls his muse, has collaborated with Dave many times—perhaps most notably on Rattlestick’s production of Killers and Other Family by Lucy Thurber. “He’s a heart-driven man,” Sam says, explaining Dave and his understanding of the link between physicality and humanity. “Every show I have done with Dave has been unique and always borne from the actors’ abilities and instincts. He never pushes or forces an actor to copy his own instincts or moves, but encourages each performer to trust their own natural inclinations and then guides them from there.”
I’m really interested in how Dave puts his artistic stamp on the fights he creates. Playwrights are always very specific about any type of sex and/or violence happening in their plays, so it seems like there might be very little room for artistic input. When I ask him, he explains that he works with concepts as opposed to cookie cutter fight moves. It’s vital for him to understand the tone of the piece, whether it’s a dark comedy or a farce or a realistic drama. He reads the script several times, imagining each character and how they would all fight differently. If the character is a kindergarten teacher and has never punched anyone his entire life, he isn’t going to suddenly have Bruce Lee moves. He is probably going to punch wildly. Likewise, if a character is ex-military, she’s going to know how to land a good punch. But in his investigation of character and action, he also leaves room for the unpredictability of characters under duress. Another of Dave’s frequent collaborators, director and playwright Daniel Talbott, explains, “You know you’re working with an extraordinary artist and human being whenever you’re in the room with him, and you also know that he understands that human behavior, especially around sex and violence, is infinite in possibility. He doesn’t approach the work through polite taste or comfort, and he doesn’t judge action. He respects that humans crawl towards many things in life, whether it’s acceptable or not.”
And yet, having worked with Dave as both an actor and a playwright, I know that safety is his central concern when it comes to fight choreography. For all his dedication to violence looking and feeling realistic, he respects that the actors have bodies and they have relationships. They need to go home and not feel like a vampire has sucked the life out of them. Yes, they need to be raped, punch or be punched, slapped, hit, kicked, fucked, and even make love—but they also have to be able to do it for the entire run of a play and not walk away from the production with a limp. They need to stay safe through the most dangerous parts of the story so that the audience members can disperse with the illusion burning its violent, tender beauty in their heads.
The work of David Anzuelo and his company Unkle Dave’s Fight-House (whose core team consists of Jesse Geguzis, Sean Griffin, and Gerry Rodriguez) can be seen in the current productions of Sticks and Bonesat The New Group, Disgraced on Broadway, and the upcoming productions of Carnival at the National Black Theater, An American in Paris on Broadway, and Afghanistan, Zimbabwe, America, Kuwait at Rattlestick.
SARAH SHAEFER is a playwright and an actor who lives in New York City.