Duel Purpose: For Fight Choreographer Robb Hunter, Bleeding Is Fundamental
Robb Hunter likes to give his neighbors a heads up before he starts firing automatic weapons in his house.
He’ll call up his neighbor, Carolyn, who runs a wind-chime business out of her home in their Fairfax neighborhood, and say, “‘I’m testing a fully automatic machine gun up here. Tell me if you can hear this.’ And I’ll fire 15 rounds.”
Carolyn will sometimes respond, “‘Nope, didn’t hear a thing,’” Hunter says. “Which is kind of scary. You can’t hear gunfire outside this house, standing next to it. Good insulation, I guess.”
Hunter, 46, is the founder and owner of Preferred Arms, a company that rents fake weapons to theater companies. (His firearms either shoot blanks or nothing at all.) He started the business 10 years ago in New York, and today he runs it out of his suburban Virginia home with the help of a few assistants. He also trains actors on simulated stage combat. But with arms like tree trunks, Hunter looks like a guy who could fuck someone up in real life.
Playwrights don’t tend to overwrite their fight scenes; they’re more likely to do the opposite. That’s where Hunter comes in. Certified through the Society of American Fight Directors, Hunter has become a go-to guy for theater companies that want to craft the best and bloodiest stage fights. He’s worked with Arena Stage, Washington National Opera, and, frequently, Studio Theatre: He’s currently working on Studio Lab’s Red Speedo, which premieres Sept. 25, and in 2012, he earned a Helen Hayes Awards nomination for his work on Studio’s The Walworth Farce.
Hunter wants the theater world to understand that stage fighting should never be an afterthought. A dance minor in college, he brings a certain fluidity and fastidiousness to theatrical combat, not to mention a deep knowledge of what types of weapons shows require. But one bit of wisdom he’s tried to impart to his clients is that in the sweat and fury of a real fight, people usually don’t let available objects go to waste. They pick them up and bludgeon their opponents’ faces with them.
Take the fight scene in Studio’s 2010 production of Tracy Letts’ Superior Donuts, one of Hunter’s favorite projects. Letts’ script includes an unusually detailed two-page fight between the play’s lead, a donut shop-owning ex-hippie named Arthur Przybyszewski, and Luther Flynn, a loan shark with an ulcer. To this scene, Hunter brought a particularly resourceful kind of savagery: Nearly every piece of the set became a weapon.
“‘Kick the table into Arthur. Then I want him slammed up on the bar stool, and then someone’s got to go over the bar and into the cash register. I want someone to get their hand slammed in the cash register,’” Hunter says he advised at the time. “There was a coffee machine, and we need to burn someone with the coffee machine...And there are donuts, so we have to beat someone with a donut tray.”
For the scene, Hunter ordered special padding and hid fake blood in four different places on the set for actors to surreptitiously utilize. “So they’re bleeding from their mouths, their heads, their hands,” Hunter says. “And I was going, ‘this is pretty much what I wanted.’”
Hunter and his wife Michele moved to the D.C. area in 2004. Two years ago, when they decided to expand the home where they raise their two young daughters, Kaylee and Sienna, they gathered up his entire weapons supply and moved it to a storage pod in the driveway. Beforehand, Hunter took an inventory of his stash, laying out all of his instruments onto a blanket in the driveway. “We had probably like 60 AK-47s and M16s,” he says. “It looked like we were at a swap meet.”
The neighbors just laughed about it, as they always do.
Along the walls of Hunter’s home office, he’s carefully arranged rows upon rows of broadswords, Roman swords, rapiers, daggers, katanas, axes, maces, and machine guns. He’s got oddities, too—like Sweeney Todd–style rubber cleavers and sword canes, one of his most popular requests.
Hunter also stocks switchblades, but he suspects he’s the only local weapons supplier who carries them, since they break easily. But “there’s always someone doing West Side Story or Twelve Angry [Men],” he says, so they come in handy every now and then.
Preferred Arms now owns nearly 900 weapons that it rents to theaters, festivals, high schools, production companies, universities, and even megachurches. The company has come a long way since 2003, when it started as a word-of-mouth operation whose inventory Hunter could fit inside a closet in his Queens apartment. He came up with the idea during his three years working on the set of Spin City as Michael J. Fox’s stunt double.
Hunter spent most of his Spin City days setting up pratfalls over desks or off of rooftops. In one episode, he got hit with hot dogs. But when the show decided to tape a dream sequence that involved a knight in shining armor, the crew found itself hunting for a sword.
“I was like, ‘Oh you should have told me, I have a sword,’” Hunter says. At the time, he only had one or two, and they were cheesy ones he’d picked up at the mall when he was a kid. He didn’t think they’d be helpful. He was wrong. “They said if you have stuff like that, that’s a specialty prop and you should let people know. I was like, ‘Oh really? I never thought about that.’” Two weeks later, Hunter was browsing swords on the Internet. He ended up buying some, but at the time he didn’t realize they were the wrong kind.
Turns out stage swords come with some special requirements. They need to be fairly blunt, with the right balance of heaviness and wieldability. Any retailer that claims an instrument of destruction is “battle-ready,” Hunter says, throws up a red flag. “The stresses and demands that actors put on swords are much greater than most people realize,” he says. “And the swords have to be super-safe and well-weighted and blunted and able to take who knows what the actor’s going to do to them eight times a week.”
Hunter has purchased a large number of his tools from his friend and fellow fight choreographer Lewis Shaw, who crafts the specialized weapons in his Baltimore workshop, Vulcan’s Forge. Shaw understands what makes an ideal stage weapon. The swords have to be shiny and pretty, flashing light at key moments so that “the audience follows the movement,” Shaw says. For this he often uses aircraft—or high-strength—aluminum, because it’s durable and light.
In Shaw’s workshop, building swords can take four hours or it can take a month. Along with aluminum, Shaw works with steel, leather, wire, bulletproof glass (for handles), even stingray skin. His pieces need to look period-appropriate. One of his “bastard swords” (a smaller, “hand-and-a-half” version of 14th- to 16th-century long swords, which required two hands to wield) can cost between $160 and $1,200.
Weapons alone don’t transform a decent fight scene into a meaningful one, though, and Hunter believes that each piece should say something about a character—or at least it should emerge from its environment. “I get a little sad when people are like, ‘We’re doing Macbeth. I need 12 swords and a few shields,” he says. “The audience doesn’t know what they’re missing—until you do it for them differently.”
Sitting in his home office, Hunter shows me photos from one of the productions he’s most proud of: a post-apocalyptic, Mad Max-style Macbeth that ran at the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival in 2007. For the famous scene in which Macbeth’s hired murderers slaughter the entire Macduff family, the show pushed the brutality to the limits, even rigging up a toy baby to gush blood.
“It was just awful and dreadful—in a really great way,” Hunter says.
Hunter does the work of a wizard, educator, and a counselor. In addition to other classes, he teaches a course on the history of Western arms and armor at George Mason University that is, as you’d expect, extremely popular. But in his stage gigs, his job is to put on enough of a show so that the audience believes it’s seeing real pain. To get there, he needs to turn actors often with zero fighting experience into bloodthirsty killers—or at least the kind of people who, in the heat of the moment, will split a dude’s head open with a donut tray.
This summer, Hunter performed in the well-reviewed Capital Fringe show The Continuing Adventures of John Blade, Super Spy, which both celebrated and spoofed spy and action movie tropes. The show served as a launchpad for new local company Live Action Theatre, which makes theatrical fighting a core part of its mission. In it, Hunter played a bleach-blond style supervillain in the style of Die Hard’s Simon Gruber or Blade Runner’s Roy Batty, clad in a long trench coat and sunglasses.
John Blade playwright Kyle Encinas, who works part-time for Preferred Arms, first met Hunter in 2009 while taking his stage combat class at American University. Encinas says he considers his mentor to be one of the best teachers he’s ever had.
“He simplified [fighting] into really clear acting beats. He made stage combat into a tool for the actor rather than fully concentrating on a technique,” Encinas says. “There is such a thing as putting too much movement on stage. ‘Less is more’ is one of the big things he taught me. A shorter, well-executed fight can be better than a longer fight where the technique is bad.”
The audience “won’t intrinsically follow the fight because they don’t understand it,” Shaw says. “They understand the larger physical story and the emotional content of the performance. The fight is just another piece of dialogue. You just bring it out with dangerous-looking movement.”
Fight choreography may be therapeutic for people in the business, too, Shaw suspects. In his line of work, a certain hunger for brutality may be required. “Most of the people who are involved in it have a slightly darker side. There is a catharsis,” Shaw says. “It’s also a hell of a lot of fun to do. It’s kind of a dream job.”
When Hunter’s website first went live, he says it got a lot of hits from government agencies, likely curious about whether he was selling the real deal or not. They stopped coming to the site over time, he says, but he’s still careful with his language online, making sure it’s clear that his weapons are fake.
Just because the weapons aren’t made to kill, though, doesn’t mean they can’t hurt somebody. An expression that Hunter and his colleagues find themselves using again and again is, “It’s not Nerf.” Preferred Arms’ implements may not be real, but they can still gouge out an eyeball if used improperly.
That’s why his company’s rental contract states explicitly, in bold: “We can’t be held responsible if your actors beat each other over the head with our swords.”
Retractable knives are one of the only things that Hunter refuses to carry. They’re unpredictable, and they only work “most of the time,” he says. A big peeve is when directors say they can’t afford a fight choreographer but want a retractable knife.
“It’s like, well, enjoy that lawsuit,” Hunter says, “because you can’t afford that either, I bet.”
All photos by Darrow Montgomery