‘A different kind of Sunday school’: Mercer Theater professor teaches stage combat

How Mercer students learned to fight, but not hurt each other

Scot Mann, the president of the Society of American Fight Directors and a professor at Mercer University, talks about how he teaches Mercer students how to perform stunts and fight on stage.
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Scot Mann, the president of the Society of American Fight Directors and a professor at Mercer University, talks about how he teaches Mercer students how to perform stunts and fight on stage.

Kimberly Gessner has been taught how to stab and punch, but she never hurts anyone.

The lessons the Mercer University student takes at Tattnall Square Center for the Arts are all in the name of art and safety.

While her class has learned several self-defense techniques, the potentially life-saving moves her professor has taught them is only a by-product of the class’s main purpose: stunt work for the stage.

“I decided to take stage combat for fun. … I’m so glad I did,” Gessner said. “Scot has done a fantastic job.”

Her professor, Scot Mann, is the acting president of the Society of American Fight Directors, a national nonprofit organization which promotes safety and handles certification of industry professional stunt workers.

Mann is a 1990 graduate of Mercer University with a decade’s worth of acting, fight directing and stunt work under his belt.

Alongside his wife, Kelly Mann, he co-choreographed the world premiere of Stephen King’s original musical, “Ghost Brothers of Darkling County,” directed by Susan Booth at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta, according to the society’s website.

Before Tattnall was home to Mercer University’s theater program, the $425,000 Arts Center was Tattnall Square Presbyterian Church. The irony of their Sunday meeting time is not lost on the master class.

“We started this on Sundays because we could use our space upstairs, and because of our space, we call it ‘Fight Church,’ ” Mann said. “So it’s a different kind of Sunday school.”

After a semester of instruction, students partner up and perform choreographed fight scenes for a society judge who will determine whether they are eligible for certification. Students have the possibility of failing, passing or getting a recommended pass.

“The combat class we’re doing this year is unarmed and knife; there are eight disciplines with the (Society of American Fight Directors),” Mann said. “Each one requires at least 30 hours of training with a certified teacher, and then they’re adjudicated by an outside fight master.”

Mann said that no Mercer student has ever failed.

Theater students Brenna McNulty and Chas Pridgen have partnered for their adjudication the past two years and are currently working on their third. They have performed scenes from “Peter Pan”, “The Gay Deceivers” and recently they took on the confrontation between Loki and Valkyrie from the Marvel film “Thor: Ragnarok.”

“In both the real scene and in ours, it’s an unarmed and knife fight so … we use the dialogue from the scene and then we do the choreography around it,” McNulty said.

McNulty and Pridgen are both certified in small sword, rapier and dagger with recommendation.

“I think we work well together because we both come from dance backgrounds,” Pridgen said. “The transition from doing partner work in dance to doing fight choreography was actually pretty easy. Choreography is choreography, and fighting is just dancing with a partner and a prop.”

For performance-focused theater majors such as Pridgen, the class is not just for fun, but also for their future.

“We’ve had some students work at some of the bigger outdoor dramas, and those involve canons and horses and, a lot of them, actual sword fights onstage and firing black powder rifles, and it’s like 75 shows a summer,” Mann said. “Having combat on their resume gives them an edge to get cast because if they don’t have to train them, then it makes it much easier for the rehearsal process.”

Mann said the most rewarding part of teaching this class is the student’s enthusiasm.

“It’s outside of a regular class, so their attendance is voluntary, and they’re coming because they’re passionate about it,” Mann said. “When they’re watching their peers and they see that a technique actually works and their eyes light up and they say ‘Oh my goodness, am I doing that too? If I do it right, I’ll look like that?’... The reward to me is seeing them light up when they find out they’ve passed.”