Fists Up: An Interview with Fight Choreographer & Actor Almanya Narula

This week Editor-In-Chief Regina Victor sat down with notable fight choreographer, dancer, and actor Almanya Narula to discuss the art of stage combat, her history as a performance artist in Bollywood and the United States, and what the field needs now. Victor and Narula first met on the set of Ricardo Gamboa’s Brujos. Victor was impressed by Narula’s ability to design impressive combat that was easily taught in a short time frame, as well as the vast career Narula has cultivated in a male-dominated industry. 

Regina Victor: When did you first start performing, and what drew you to fight choreography?

Almanya Narula: Ever since I remember, I have been a performer! I lived in Mumbai, India between the ages of 3-7, and there I participated in numerous Bollywood films/tv, such as Pyaar Ke Geet and Say Na Something to Anupum Uncle. When I moved to Bangkok, Thailand, I wanted to continue acting, and pursued that within the Thai industry. At a later age, I pursued the International Baccalaureate program for Theatre, which eventually led me to coming to Chicago and continuing my studies at Columbia College Chicago.

I have been practicing Martial Arts from an early age. As a kid I remember watching movies like Pirates of the Caribbean or The Princess Bride, and seeing all the cool fight scenes go to male identifying characters – I was super jealous! I remember thinking that all I wanted, was to be in a badass fight scene with a cool soundtrack playing behind it. When I practiced my martial moves at home, I would sometimes play movie soundtracks by Danny Elfman or Hanz Zimmer in the background and it felt great!

When I came to Columbia, I was introduced to this concept called Stage Combat by my mentors Fight Master David Woolley and Fight Director John McFarland (who I eventually was a TA for) and how it was used to tell stories that involved violence on stage or film. I was highly impressed by the SAFD (Society of American Fight Directors), on how they were able to modify martial moves for the safety of actors, and create the illusion of an actual fight. Stage combat made me realize what the human body is capable of doing. But mostly, I was very excited about the fact that I was allowed to play with a sword all day, every day. This motivated my inner childhood nerd!

Coming from a martial arts background, transitioning into unarmed stage combat was a little strange at first. My body was so used to the muscle memory of actually fighting someone as a defense technique that I would occasionally punch too hard. It took me some time to get out of the habit I had spent years building. However, being a martial artist proved to have some advantages. I was able to recognize certain moves that were modified, and understand the degree of pain that was inflicted. Because of that, I had some context to go off while portraying someone who was either the oppressor or oppressed. It helped me a lot with my intentions as an actor and eventually a fight choreographer.

Playing with swords, came much easier to me as I had no martial context to go off. I come from a heavy dance background, and to me stage sword fighting was much like a dance. I was able to isolate my body because of my flexibility, and that really helped me give a convincing performance. I could almost hear the theme of Kill Bill or Pirates of the Caribbean playing in my mind when I wielded a sword. It felt very sexy.

I started experimenting with fight choreography with a couple friends or in my downtime, and the thrill of seeing a fight come to life that tells a story was addicting. I love collaboration and being able to figure out the story with actors and the needs of the script is a very exciting time for me. Nothing will beat the experience of watching the fight that I choreographed, living and breathing in space on opening night!

Victor: You are an actor and a fight choreographer, are there any other artistic disciplines you practice? Secret skills? 

Narula: Yes! I have been a photographer / graphic designer for some time now. I was originally going pursue Photography as my major in college. Having photo-shoot sessions with people and highly manipulating those photos on photoshop was exhilarating. I was inspired by artists such as Tim Burton, Annie Leibovitz, Guillermo Del Torro and Frank Miller, and would use some of their artistic choices within my work.

Here is a link to some of my work.

I have also been a dancer all my life. I was in Bollywood for crying out loud! When I was younger, I trained in Hip-Hop, Tap, Ballet, and Indian dance styles. In fact, I sometimes say that had I understood how to sing, I would have been doing a lot more musical theatre.

I also work as a journalist! I worked at Coconuts Bangkok in Thailand one summer, where I was allowed to publish numerous articles, including an opinion piece ‘Why International Kids in Thailand Don’t Speak Thai’, which went viral instantly. I was amazed by how quickly that was able to spark some interesting dialogue towards the subject matter and that wanted me to pursue journalism further.

Last year an article on Profiles Theatre by The Chicago Reader came out, and was amazed by how the information was able to take down an abusive theatre company within two days. Being a Fight Choreographer, what went down at Profiles hurt me to the core and that finalized my interest in pursuing journalism as well. I applied and got accepted with a scholarship to School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) for Art Journalism where I am currently pursuing my graduate studies in the field.

I am excited to be able to report an investigate stories within the art community that should be told.

Victor: I can certainly understand that! What is the most exciting project you’ve worked on as a fight choreographer? As an actor?

Narula: As a fight choreographer, one of the most exciting projects that I had the opportunity to work on, is this upcoming slasher/thriller feature called Mollywood. I was the stunt coordinator for this production and one of the most interesting things for me regarding this project was that I grew up being absolutely terrified of slasher and horror films. Working behind the scenes on this project allowed me to witness firsthand the different side of some of these horrifying scary sequences. I felt like Batman, facing my fears. One of the coolest things about this project was geeking out with the talented makeup designers and collaborating with them to figure out the best possibility for a violent moment, a slasher scene, or an action sequence, and how we can implement the blood effects. It was a lot of fun working in a collaborative atmosphere, outlining moments, and seeing the pieces come together on camera. I worked with artists such as rapper Waka Flocka Flame who I was able to choreograph fights for, and Vinicius Machado (True Detective alum) who had come from a heavy capoeira background. Upon learning about his skill set, I incorporated some of his capoeira talents into the fight sequences and modified it to suit his style, and that was very exciting to see form. It added another layer to the character.

As an actor, one of my favorite productions to work on was the Jeff Recommended production, Captain Blood with First Folio Theatre, directed by Jan Blixt. Everything from the people, to the Jeff Nominated set design by Angie Weber Miller, to the fight choreography of Nick Sandys, to the writing and producing of David Rice who is the kindest soul on this planet, to the exciting sound design by Christopher Kriz was absolutely incredible. I played multiple characters in the production, jumped from panel to panel, rolled around on stage and swashbuckled with a sword. This was my pirate dream come true. Most importantly however, everyone had a kind, collaborative spirit. Everyone looked forward to being in that room and telling that crazy pirate adventure together and because of that we were able to put on one hell of a production. I would not trade that experience for anything.

Victor: When we worked on Brujos together, I was really impressed by your sensitivity not only to each of our stage combat skill levels, but also to our bodies. This made me reflect on intimacy choreography, which is closely related to fight choreography. Do you practice this? Do you think Fight Directors can benefit from doing both? 

Narula: Yes, I do practice intimacy design. Stage Combat has taught me more about my body than any other body movement class that I could have taken and that has aided me with intimacy design as well. I think anyone who works in the industry can only benefit from training in intimacy design. The error in the industry right now is that we still look at intimate scenes as just a sex scene or a rape scene. It is a lot more than that. We have to start looking at it through a vantage point that understands the needs of the characters and the stories. Especially now with all the sexual harassment cases coming to light, we need to be more adamant about understanding consent. Violence Design and Intimacy Design are two sides of the same coin. We are trying to tell the story in a way that everyone involved with the production, most importantly the actors, are comfortable with. Every move is choreographed, and intimacy should not be improvised. Having theatre practitioners who are trained in intimacy design, only allows for a more comfortable environment, where the director can understand the needs of the actors and the designer. I think Fight Directors already have a base knowledge on how to modify scenes for the actor’s comfortability and I definitely agree that more fight directors should pursue this training.

Victor: What are the key differences between working in film and theatrical combat?

Narula: In terms of combat, film and theatre are more alike than people think. In both cases, scenes should be choreographed for the actor or stunt performer’s ability and comfortability. Ample time should be given for the performer to rehearse the fight scenes and get comfortable with it. In both mediums, the fights should be choreographed in a way that the illusion can be masked for the audience or the camera. The choreography should always be relevant to the story.

However, because film is shot within a very tight frame, most of the movements have to be quicker and less exaggerated. The camera picks up every subtle movement the performer makes, and so specificity is key.

In theatre we have the opportunity to direct the viewers’ attention to another part of the stage while the action is going on, in film we don’t. The viewer witnesses everything that is displayed in front of them. Also film fighting is much faster than stage. The camera slows the performer’s movements down significantly, and if the choreography does not match the speed of the viewers’ attention, the fight is not as compelling.

In a theatrical space, the performers are playing in front of a huge audience. The fight scenes sometimes have to be larger than life- which gives actors the chance to slow the movements down for the audience to keep up. Film allows the actors to have multiple takes that are shot from various different angles. There are a lot more possibilities with film technology. In theatre, you have one take to make sure that the illusion is masked, the story is told, the angles correct, which is why stage combatants need enough time to rehearse these scenes and get comfortable with the movements.

Victor: Where do you see yourself in five years? Your second major was in Advanced Management, and I’m curious how that comes into play in your future.

Narula: Ideally, I would love to play Shayera Hol (Hawkgril) or Wanda Wilson (Lady Deadpool) or Tommy Oliver (Green Power Ranger). Basically I am looking forward to playing a superhero. Hollywood could use some more short badass women of color superheroes.

But mostly, I would love to be involved as an actor or fight choreographer in theatrical or film productions that include heavy fight scenes, to impact the next generation of women.

The industry for a very long time has severely under-represented women like me. My goal is to be able to change the market to recognize women as heroes who own their badassery. For the majority of film and theatre history, all the cool action sequences went to men. There has barely been any women’s representation let alone representation of women of color.  It is time for young girls to not get jealous like I did when I was child watching action films that only featured men. It is time for young girls to believe that even they can have a Hans Zimmer soundtrack behind them, and if I can be a part of that change, that impacts the next generation, I know that I have reached my goal.

As for my studies in Advanced Management, I have always thought about starting my own company. I would eventually love to have a stage combat that includes female identifying fight choreographers for hire, or a theatre company that primarily focuses on stage combat.

Victor: What changes in the theatre industry do you think would most benefit your discipline/What do fight directors need now?  

Narula: I believe that sometimes people underestimate the time needed for the actors to get comfortable with the violence or intimacy scenes. These scenes are not only physically straining, but also emotionally demanding for the actors involved. Ample time should be set aside bearing in mind the gravity of the scenes.

Another big concern that arises, is that often companies that put on shows that involve heavy fight sequences, don’t hire trained actor combatants, and that makes it very difficult for the fight choreographers and the eventual product of the piece. A fight should never feel like a separate element of the production, and when actors who aren’t trained embark on the choreography, it either looks sloppy where the audience members are taken out of the story, or choreography is simplified to a degree where the stakes are no longer apparent.

Trained actor combatants are able to pick up the choreography quicker and are able to focus more on the arc of the fight, rather than learning the basic core principles of safety. There are many actor combatants within the Theatre industry, and they are there for a reason. More theatre companies should make use of their abilities.

Another major concern is that for a long time the combat industry has been dominated by white men. The opportunities have been little to none for those who don’t fall under that category.  Much like directing and acting, we need to think about representation. Who is able to tell the story best. We need to represent more people from diverse backgrounds. The opportunities are increasing but we still need to recognize the importance of expanding the market, so that all these talented people of color, women, and gender queer fight choreographers can get hired.  

 Photos by Charlotte Klein.

 

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