“Where’s the funny?”
Talking with “The Play That Goes Wrong” Fight Choreographer Mason Tyer
Breana: Have you ever watched a show and wondered, “How did they do that?” There is a story behind it all. And that is what theatre is all about. Exploring and reflecting on humanity through shared stories and bringing people together. From the talent onstage to creative collaboration backstage, and community building on all levels, we’re here to share with you how each story becomes part of our greater story. How theatre brings our community together and makes it greater. Welcome to HOW GREAT: The GREAT Theatre podcast.
Keenan: Okay, so we’re happy to be joined by The Play That Goes Wrong, fight choreographer Mason Tyer.
Mason: Is it Tyer? Is that how you pronounce that?
Mason: Yeah, you got it.
Keenan: Yes! Awesome! Okay, cool. So our first question for you is what is fight choreography?
Mason: Love this. So fight choreography is the structuring of physical feats of daring and danger usually within either theatre or film—
Breana: Yea, that’s the most eloquent definition of anything.
Mason: Yeah, I came up with that right now. I speak sometimes! But physical feats of daring and danger that we see in theatre primarily, but also is applicable to film and TV. There’s a little bit of a cultural difference there, but the idea that we’re structuring all these actions to be in alignment with the story beats and the action that’s being intended for the show as well as what’s working for the people actually doing it, that’s kind of what fight choreography is.
Keenan: Will you talk more about the cultural difference between theatre fight choreography and film fight choreography?
Mason: Yeah, and thankfully, it’s starting to evolve because it’s not a good difference for the most part. There’s been a lot of decades of kind of systemic abuse of people in both cultures, obviously. Films have a little bit of a slower time adapting to it, unfortunately, but they’re really starting to get back up and underway here. So the biggest difference is probably what’s acceptable levels of danger and risk in terms of that and how much agency there is, I don’t know. Have either of you worked in film or TV ever?
Mason: Okay. So the timelines and kind of demands of production is quite a bit tighter. And usually you are actively being told how much money this minute costs in terms of production time. The stakes end up being really highly compressed. So historically, there’s been not a lot of agency to be able to kind of influence and change things because it impacts thirty different people or a dozen different departments. So historically, fights for movies and TV shows or stunts, whatever, have been, do this right now, do this right now. You can’t do this right now, we’ll find somebody else to do it. That’s why whether that should have happened or not, that’s what it has been for a long time and we’re still kind of in that heavy shadow of it. Theatre has also had that too, a little bit, but we’ve been a little bit quicker in terms of adapting to well, we have these people that we want to take care of and the run time for them, doing a show means they’re going to be doing it for weeks and weeks and weeks versus doing this thing right here three or four times and calling it good. So the primary difference we see is the acceptable levels of risk and danger that are allowed in there. For film it’s quite a bit higher because you’re doing it fewer times and the stakes are a little bit more in your face about what that is. Theatre, we have a lot more acknowledgement like, this person needs to be able to not have a long term or permanent injury after this because they’re going to be doing this for three weeks or four months, or maybe we’re going to remount the show in a year. So that’s kind of the primary cultural differences that we are still rectifying and we’re beginning to evolve to something more equitable in those spaces.
Keenan: That’s good news.
Keenan: How did you get into fight choreography?
Mason: I got into fight choreography because I graduated with a directing degree, so I got into it because I wanted to… There’s not a lot of opportunities to better your stage directing outside of just hands on, working on the job experience. So that didn’t stop me. And I wanted to find a place to get some education. I saw there was a stage combat class at a community college after graduating. I was like, well, that’s clearly about theater. It’s clearly about how do you figure out the climax of a show? How do you lead characters to have interminable character conflict and obstacles against each other that can only erupt into something that is the height of somebody’s life.That’s kind of what makes shows so exciting is that we’re seeing people at the best and worst moments of their lives. And violence is that but heightened even moreso. So I jumped into that to become a better director. And I was really engrossed in it. It pulled me along and I kept on taking more and more classes. And I kind of woke up and it was a couple of years later and I discovered I kind of became a specialist in that way. And from there I leaned into like, well, I’ll be a director still, but now I’m going to be directing just these moments, the worst moments of a character’s life. So that’s how I fell into it. And that’s kind of what keeps me going to this day.
Keenan: The worst moments of people’s lives.
Breana: Yea, I love that.
Mason: The worst moments of some characters lives. Hopefully some of the best moments of the performers life.
Keenan: Yes, for sure.
Breana: Everything works out in the end. Can you explain a little bit more that relationship between a fight choreographer then, and a director, when a director isn’t the one staging certain elements?
Mason: Yea, and what’s kind of cool is that it’s not codified, right? There’s a lot of different ways that relationship can be, and there’s a lot of different types of personalities and ways you can kind of put on either of those hats. So, as I said, I come from it from a directing standpoint, so I often try to foster kind of a co-director relationship with very specific boundaries, right? So for me, I’ll end up having preproduction conversations, in this case with Jeffrey, the director for The Play That Goes Wrong, and go, so what are the ways you’re wanting to work with me? What are the ways we’re wanting to kind of do hand offs between things? What’s the language that you use in the space? Whenever I’m in rehearsals, I’ll be watching the director going through and I’m understanding what their language is, so that primarily I have a really easy time stepping in and helping communicate clearly to the actors. There are other folks who do these jobs who are much more like dance choreographers, right? They’re like, tell me exactly what you want, and then they come in and they have like, hey, everyone, here’s what we’re going to learn right there. So they kind of conduct themselves in that way is that kind of movement specialist. It’s really lovely because it can be any of those things. It can be a mix. There are some times where I’ve been an assistant director. I’ve been just straight up like I’ve just had wider responsibilities, too, and I know a lot of people. So it can be really tailored to the production of what makes sense. For this show right here, there’s a lot of interspacing of stuff. It’s not like in “Romeo and Juliet,” right? There’s very specific moments of violence in “Romeo and Juliet.” Those moments, like those are the moments you go and take care of. But for The Play That Goes Wrong, things are happening the entire time, always. Even for the people who aren’t speaking, there’s usually some action that’s happening where somebody’s falling through a window, trying to climb up the set, getting knocked in the head by a door. So the relationship has, in this particular case, been a lot more intermingled. As long as it’s explicit and clear and we have healthy lines of communication, it can kind of be whatever it needs to be for that production.
Keenan: That’s something I hadn’t considered. Where do you draw the line between violence like slapstick and actual fighting? What constitutes… if someone throws the door open and it hits someone and knocks them out, does that count? Should you be involved in that?
Mason: Yea, yea, so what’s cool about this, the group of folks who helped write this show are a bunch of clowns from the UK, right? And so, when you start looking at the clowning and physical theatre spaces, you start seeing they’ve had hundreds of years traditions in terms of how do they stage kind of violence. You look at commedia, which is like kind of the progeny of Italian clowning and comedy. That’s where slapstick kind of like, comes from those roots. So there’s already been traditions for a long time for how do we do violence. This is clearly a type of… this is a modern clowning show. That’s kind of the view I’ve been looking at it. And in that case, there can be a little bit of a back and forth. The cast for this show is really spectacular. They’re really physically adept. They love working with each other. I think it’s really lovely, they’re performances who find the funny. Where’s the bit, where’s the funny? Trying to find that thread, like okay, how can we make it… Let’s double down on the funny right here. How can we milk it and keep going through? Which means they’re really all in. And they were already finding some things that were physically demanding, but they were working together. When I’m going into a show, I try to aim wide and I’ll clock anything that’s like, if that goes wrong, that might hurt. Like, I clock all of those. But then I have the conversation with the director and I start meeting the cast and the production team, and I start understanding where that actually falls through. Some shows that end up cutting some action. So like, oh, we’re not even going to have that. But I consider it my responsibility to be aware of all of it.
Mason: Some things may not happen. Some things we might find something much more accessible. Slaps are something that I always clock because they’re the most common way to have a long term injury in theater.
Keenan: Oh, really?
Mason: Slaps in a bad fall are the most common ways people get hurt doing physical feats of daring.
Keenan: Yeah, I guess… Like a popped eardrum?
Breana: Or blood vessels?
Mason: Old school style, right, in the seventies and eighties, you just get slapped in the face and you call it good, right?
Mason: Well, what happens is you end up popping these eardrums right here, and those nerves are pretty thin, and so sometimes they just never come back and you’re deaf in your ear. These nerves right here, after repeated practice, they get inflamed and then you start having nerve damage kind of filling out right there. Start losing feeling and sensation and coordination in your jaw. Some people are born class jaw syndrome, which means this structure right here is not nearly robust as it needs to be. And you can actually start getting microfractures in there.
Mason: Yeah. It’s a bunch of crazy stuff we started learning after we started caring about the people we work with. I’m part of the Society of American Fight Directors, so I’m part of an organization that cares about proliferating excellent stage combat. Excellent and safe stage combat is the mission statement there. One of our Fightmasters, one of our headest honchos, she got into stage combat because in a show she was doing, she got permanently deafened from a stage slap. Went pop, right into the ear jump. And she went, never again. I hate all of this, I’m going to fix it. And that became her mission.
Mason: So, yeah, it’s like because it’s one of those things. It’s just a slap. It’s just a slap. It’s exactly that thing. We can do that, right? Yeah, maybe. But can you do it five times a day? Can you do it for five shows a week? Can you do it also for five weeks of rehearsal? I don’t know. I don’t know if I could do that. And I practice this stuff. So that’s one of the most common places to get hurt is with a slap. A fall is too, because people panic. We don’t want to fall. We end up trying to stop each other, like, stop where we’re going. And we end up usually cracking our wrists. We end up getting bruises on our elbows and knees. The older we get, the less mobile we are. We end up starting to pull, like, muscles in our legs, our backs. We usually tense up and we start pulling muscles in our backs, and then we smack the ground with a full back. Ends up being a really sucky time. So it’s those things, where like, this will be easy. Those are the times where accidents happen, is when we’re not being mindful. So, yeah, a lot of times I come in to help people, oh, my gosh, we have this big sword bite that’s going to happen. Great. Love to help. And I’ll watch. I was like, what about that slap right there? And I was like, oh, we got it… I was like… Can I at least watch it? Because I’m responsible for it. Whether I do anything or not, I’m responsible, right? My name is on it. I have to take ownership of… helping support people’s safety. So that’s slaps.
Mason: Risk assessment is probably one of the most common things that I’m doing all the time when I’m entering into space, right? Because things aren’t safe or unsafe. It’s a spectrum, right? We’re kind of working on things, and that spectrum is different for you versus different for you versus different for me. So I have to go in and I can’t assume that’s unsafe, that’s safe. I actually have to think and pay attention and focus and understand what’s going on right there. So physically, yes, there might be some juice in terms of having contact face slaps. There may be some value there. And clearly we’ll have to think, like, when someone’s asleep and they’ll go wake up like, that little thing. We’re just saying a little tap, tap, tap. I see that all the time. That’s not a huge problem. It becomes a big problem when we want to try to get BAM, that thing, right? What do we actually gain out of that? Someone doesn’t have to think about it, and they can kind of swing their arm. Okay, so we’re looking for it to be an impulsive action, full of energy. Cool.
Mason: Did you know that the human eye depth perception fades out at about 21 feet? That means if we have action really far away, it’s going to be hard to tell how far in front of my face my hand is, right? So then that’s when we start looking at non-contact face slaps. So in that way, once we start understanding that we can kind of manipulate how the human eye is understanding things, then we can do illusions and we start learning from magicians about like, how do you make people look here when something’s going over here? Can we do that with faces? Yeah, you can. So with five minutes of practice, you can make a non-contact slap look reasonably pretty good. And there is, as long as you do these steps that are in there, you’re not getting hit in the face. You’re not going to get hurt because you’re not getting hit in the face. Well, think of that. Now we have someone who’s able to practice something specifically for a little bit, couple of times a week, and they’re able to do this for months or even years potentially. And there’s no injury that’s building up. We never have to worry about, hey, is that nerve starting to bother you? Oh, did your filling pop out that time? Okay, great. Was that a little bit low and I actually slapped you in the throat? A thing that was also taught for a while, things that actually happened. So we realized we had to go for what do you think, smarter versus harder. It’s like just these little things about what can we do to be safer? Is it worth doing a little extra work? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. We’ve largely determined in theatre that a contact face slap is almost never the option. It is very, very rare when it is better than just like, let’s just spend some time figuring out a non-contact version or maybe figure out what the story beat’s supposed to be. In film, it’s different because they might do that contact face slap because they can’t spend the time, for whatever reason, doing the training, but they’re only going to do it like two or three times and the person getting slapped is probably a stunt performer and they’re probably getting paid a couple hundred dollars per slap.
Breana: I also think about the fact that film can have stunt doubles and things like that because of the way that the camera works, and you can manipulate what the person looks like, whereas theatre, you’re like, you have to manipulate what the action looks like.
Mason: Yeah, that’s actually a really great way to put it. We have… From an execution standpoint of doing things between theatre and film, we can’t force the audience to look in specific places for theatre. Versus in film, we tell them where to look because we can point the camera there. But in both places we are curating their attention. So in theatre, we have to do a lot more like active work to make it happen, which is why theatre and film intrinsically feel different for the action you see, because we’re going to set the camera right here. Go as fast as possible. You’re going to be ten feet away. We’re going to put on this lens so we lose all of that distance. It flattens out. It looks like you’re going to be in each other’s mouths, but actually you have so much distance. Boom. For theatre, we have to create that by making, like a stage magician, bringing their focus over here while something else happens. When we do falls, I’ll usually have people fling their arms up as they’re falling so that people don’t notice that they’re actually, like, doing a kneel or a squat with their feet.
Keenan and Breana: Whoa.
Mason: This is the real stuff here, folks. Yeah, but that’s a step for, especially for people who have limited leg mobility or weak or reduced strength in their legs and they can’t just do, like, a fall, then I’ll have them go aAaA! and they’ll fling their arms up. They’ll try to grab something. Maybe there’ll be somebody they’re trying to reach to who’s also trying to reach to them. We look at people panicking and see where they’re going and we don’t notice that they are squatting down. It’s a cool little trick, but then we can extrapolate that to all sorts of, like, really high level stuff, too. So yeah, that’s a really lovely way to put it. Like, we have to curate their attention way more than we have to do in film.
Breana: So we have a couple… I’m going rogue.
Breana: Sorry. Because you mentioned before, like, how choreography for me would be different than choreography for Keenan. And I know we have some understudies.
Breana: How do you incorporate them into rehearsals to make that worthwhile?
Keenan: What a great question.
Mason: Going rogue is a good thing.
Breana: I try.
Mason: I love it. Understudies are… One, we should have understudies in every show we do from the now on in every place. Understudies are great because they allow us to have more people involved in it. It allows us to have greater flexibility for scheduling and planning, allows people to have lives. Working with understudies for stage combat or other feats of daring or dance choreography, anything, we need to not shortchange them for time. So what Jeffrey and Nick have been great about, director and stage manager for the show, is they’ve been including them on the initial rehearsals for any moments we’ve been doing. And so they’ll be hanging out, usually from an audience perspective, to see what I’m designing with the kind of primary cast. And we’ll go through and I will go ahead and check in. Hey, this was our option for how we had this door hit into this tumble to the ground into being yanked up onto this window here. Now you have that. Are you interested in trying some shape like that? Because the beautiful thing about fight choreography versus sometimes dance choreography is that it can be way more catered to the individual. Some dance choreography, especially group dance choreography, usually it’s very symmetrical, it’s very in time. Usually there’s very specific music beats that have to happen too. There’s a lot of reasons why it can be a lot harder to make equitable, diverse, flexible dance choreography. I say that is not a dance choreographer, right? So that is a little bit of like, looking at it from another side. But I’m always crafting it to those individuals. That’s kind of like the beauty of it. So we have some movements there that our understudies are doing exactly that. And then we just make the space for, okay, go through there. Let me know how that feels. Okay. Is there a weirdness here? Let’s just adapt this for you, right?
Mason: There are some things they have fully different sequences for. If they were to go on for this role or this role, or this role, because they’re under studying for… Each of our two understudies, like five or six roles. It’s preposterous, right? It’s so cool. But that means they have a lot on their plates. So it needs to be something they feel successful and confident doing. So I freely adapt it. So some of the stunts that the primary cast is doing, the understudies do different options because they’re just different humans and different people. So we make sure we carved out time throughout the rehearsal while they were seeing it being created. So they had informed consent if they wanted to do it at all, which I’m all about. If they don’t want to do it, then we’ll find something way different that fits better from them and then give them time to explore and play and see if it fits them. So that’s been really successful and our understudies have been champs because they’re focusing… When a scene’s going, they’re not watching one person, they’re watching four people and the other one is watching the other four, right? So that’s been.. giving them time is the best way to make understudies successful. Not just at the end, but in the beginning and throughout the space.
Breana: Well, what I like about it too, is, well, one, it’s safer when the understudies have time to practice these stunts, but also if they need to go on, it’s not just you trying to be the person who was originally cast for this role. It’s you taking on the character and giving them agency as well.
Mason: Yeah, I’ve not worked on Broadway and I probably won’t, but I know that historically, if they were planned understudies, what they’re doing is they’re learning a track to hit very specific beats and marks, like the people who understood it for Phantom of the Opera, they’re doing the exact same show every time, right? Understudies can be treated differently based on the needs of the show. There is a greater push, from what I’m hearing from people who do undersudying to have it be a little bit more open. So it’s not so… you are not being that person. You’re going to be that role and because you’re a different human is going to be. But I know that there’s not one true way for how you treat them.
Breana: So what are some of the things you’re most excited for in crafting this show and being a part of it?
Mason: Oh, golly, it’s just so challenging. It’s such a challenging show. I do these little breakdowns when I read a script. So I’ll go through and write down like I said, I’ll write down everything that’s like, this may need some help. Not that it will need help, but it may need some help. And like, I don’t know, I use an Excel sheet and I started running out of cells for it. There’s so much in there. But also for this show specifically, there’s such the idea that the set is your scene partner, the props are your scene partners. And it’s kind of like actually a through line in clowning a lot of the times, it’s not just who you’re onstage with, but your props are your friends, too. Like, how do you work with them so that you’re not just manipulating them, but they’re manipulating you? It’s a whole thing about empowering the prop or imbuing is usually the term we use, right? So in a show like this, it’s so rare where you’re not only viewing the props with agency and life, you’re also viewing the set with it. And it’s a playground, right? So as I was going through, I was like, okay, we have this here, this here, this here…. that will be fine. How are we going to climb up to a second story with no ladder? Interesting. How do we break a sword on stage? Things like that. So there’s all of these moments of like, there’s no playbook. That’s what gets me the most excited. Because then I get to go into space. Like, this is some stuff that we may have never seen before, but we may never see again because it can only happen with these people in this space, with this stuff we have at this time, right? Those are my favorite moments.
Breana: Is there anything else you’d like to say?
Mason: I’ll just offer that I’m really excited to be in this. It is really lovely to see more organizations striving to have specialists and professionals in the room because once again. It’s kind of a slow culture shift we’ve been experiencing where we’re realizing and I think larger social movements like the #MeToo movement and the Not in Our House movement that happened in Chicago for the theaters… We’re seeing these as kind of kick starting cultures going, oh, we really should care more about people. Kind of as a foundation for what we do professionally. Whether it’s in theatre or outside of it. I think that really helped expedite the how to. Okay, well, I don’t know how this is going to work. This might go bad. I want to take care of people. We should bring in somebody to do things. And so I’ve just noticed in the last couple of years, there’s been a larger human first perspective within theatre. So coming for a show where a lot can go wrong in The Play That Goes Wrong in a not fun way, it’s been really lovely to come in. And I’m actually not only my part of a whole organization that does that, the Society of American Fight Directors, I’m also part of a company that does that. And for this show, I’m representing Fake Fighting Company, which is in the Twin Cities, so that’s Aaron Preusse and I, who are both part of the safety. So that’s our whole kind of mission in life is to go through things like that. And it’s been a very rewarding experience coming up to St. Cloud to do this show.
Keenan: Thank you. Thank you so much.
Breana: We didn’t even tell you to say that!
Mason: I’m just sincere. It’s been a constant joy to come to rehearsal. I’ve loved every day.
Breana: For 25 years, GREAT Theatre has been transforming lives through the power of the arts. As a 501c3 nonprofit organization, GREAT Theatre is known for its Broadway musical performances at the Paramount Center for the Arts, as a leader in youth arts experiences throughout Central Minnesota, and for its commitment to community partnerships. It’s the generosity of our community of volunteers, donors, participants, artists, and audiences that make GREAT possible. To learn more about GREAT theatre, visit GREATTheatre.org.