Beauties, Beasts and Fisticuffs: A Q&A with Fight Director Lee Soroko

Lee Soroko

Like in life, there is violence in the theatre. Actors slap and punch each other; they wield machetes, or pipes; they stab each other in the backs physically as well as figuratively.

And in the South Florida theatre community, when a show calls for swordplay, fisticuffs and anything else that arises when conflict boils and words fail, directors call Lee Soroko. The Boca Raton resident and professor in FAU’s Department of Theatre & Dance is one the region’s most in-demand fight directors, choreographing action for the Florida Grand and Palm Beach operas, and on stages from the Arsht Center to Palm Beach Dramaworks and Maltz Jupiter Theatre.

“Much like magic, you’re fooling the audience into seeing something they don’t actually see,” says Soroko. “When you do it well, you don’t even see the difference.” This is a fertile time for Soroko: “Beauty and the Beast,” which he discusses in this conversation, is in its opening weekend at the Maltz, and next week his contributions to Dramaworks’ world premiere “House on Fire” will open. He took a half-hour from his busy schedule to discuss his unique specialty.

How did you get into this unique theatre specialty?

Like many folks that train to be professional actors, you end up not spending as much time being a full-time professional actor as you want to be. When I grew up, I was really physical: I did sports, I fenced, I did martial arts—it was part of the daily zeitgeist for me and my other siblings. So when I went through training—I took a stage combat class up in Wisconsin—the professor realized that I had a larger skill set than he did. So I ended up assisting him, and then choreographing shows, not realizing that I had no idea what the hell I was doing! And now that I look back to the early production of “Romeo and Juliet” that I did back in the ‘80s, I’m just so happy that nobody got hurt.

I imagine you’re better off career-wise than if you’d pursued acting, because there are not nearly as many fight choreographers as there are actors.

No, there’s not, and when I had kids, I realized that I needed a job that was more than just being a fight director or an actor. Luckily I was able to trade in my graduate degrees and professional experience for full-time academic teaching positions, where I would then teach others how to move, how to fight, how to give the illusion of violence so that it tells a really important story, and that nobody gets hurt.

Shakespeare, master of all words, truly the greatest … when Shakespeare can’t express nuance, feeling and emotional quality with his words, he says the following: “They fight.” And the violence is the turning point of every story, because once you lay hands on another human being, you can’t unlay those hands. The relationship is irrevocably changed. So from that standpoint, having the opportunity to share those experiences and using that as a gateway to teach acting classes, so that you still understand that it’s pretend, it’s dance—there’s no element of machismo—but it’s all about the story the playwright is trying to tell at that particular moment. That allowed for the opening of doors to other elements of my career that being a professional actor wouldn’t allow.

Soroko, in black, on the job. Photo courtesy of Emily Dabau

What are some of the productions you’ve worked on that you’re most proud of?

I have a long relationship with Maltz, and one of the things I’m really proud of is their production of “An Inspector Calls.” They re-envisioned it. The chandelier came crashing down, there was a big fight on a table. That was really exciting. “Les Miz” was visually opulent, and I got a chance to work with some really heavy-hitter voices. And then the opera—whether it’s Florida Grand Opera or Palm Beach Opera. I got a chance to work with a production of “The Passenger” back in 2015 at Florida Grand. That was its regional premiere, but just the set alone was worth the price of admission—the light ship on top, and Auschwitz down below. The voices were powerful, the story was heartbreaking, and I got a chance to smash a violin onstage after it was being played, and do a neat trick!

Sometimes when there’s combat in a show, the general director will handle it, rather than hiring someone such as yourself. Why is it important that a show with such physical activity have a fight choreographer?

Safety first, safety last, safety always. People don’t think that something as innocuous as just grabbing someone by the shoulders or forearms would need a fight choreographer, because they did that in high school—it’s just grabbing them by the shoulders. But the truth is, if you have any friends that did high school shows, particularly women, ask them, “did you ever get these five little bruises on your biceps?” And I would say 95 percent would say, “absolutely.” Because when you activate the thumb and grab somebody’s bicep, it acts as a vice, and that person has five pinpoint bruises on their forearms. Because performance is a fight or flight phenomenon, even though you’re acting. You get a lot of adrenaline, and you grab and you squeeze the bejeesus out of that arm. And it hurts! And though you don’t think of it, all of a sudden you’ve created bruising. And then you have to have makeup, and if you have a long run, it’s aggravating and sore. There’s a way to do it so it gives the illusion of violence. Basically, if it hurts, we’re not doing it right.

Instead, you think, “we’ll do a pretend slap.” Well, if you do a pretend slap, and you don’t do it correctly, you’re paying $75 a ticket, and all of a sudden, when something is not done correctly, it takes you out of the action. And then you’re no longer involved in the emotional journey of the character, but you’re commenting on how crappy the slap looks.

The other part is, for Actors Equity, the No. 1 injury for the last 10 years is the noncontact slap to the face, because they made contact. And when you make contact with the face, there are sliced corneas, split lips, chipped teeth, cut septums. Those are the minor ones. Then you have the ones that are career-altering or -ending. When you get hit with a noncontact slap, and you hit somebody square in the eardrum, then you’ve got a ruptured or a broken eardrum. Surgery won’t fix that, and once your eardrum is broken, if you’re a singer, you’ll never find pitch again. You have legitimately ended that person’s career because of your unwillingness to hire a professional who is an expert at keeping people safe and telling you the story, because you don’t want to spend the money.

Call a fight director—they probably will negotiate. A buddy of mine out of Chicago said, “treat yourself like a plumber.” If you only want to hire the plumber when there’s feces on the floor, you’re no longer thinking how much you should pay. You pay what you need to do. So why not do some preventive maintenance, so you don’t have to spend the big money at the end?

Are most actors OK with some degree of real physical contact, be at a slap or shove, or a push to the ground?

Typically what happens with actors is they’ve read the play ahead of the time, so they know what the play entails. Everyone says that they’re fine before they get the job. Some actors have more physical adeptness than others, but certainly touching, slapping, grabbing, tossing, throwing, is clearly articulated in the script. But being able to do so in a believable manner, that takes time and training. Some actors do so swimmingly, because they have a connection and awareness of their body, and some actors less so. So that’s where you need the rehearsal time. Because if you wait for technical rehearsal, or a couple days before you’re supposed to go up, it’s not integrated into the storytelling of the actor.

Where, in “Beauty and the Beast,” are your services required?

There’s a couple of places. The first funny elements with Gaston—he communicates physically, so sometimes while dancing he’ll throw out his fist and he will give a punch to his wormy little assistant. More specifically, when the Beast is attacked by wolves, there are some minor falls and jumps and punches. But the big moment is when Gaston decides to go and kill the Beast, and the Beast is up in the tower, and Gaston is kicking, punching, flailing the Beast, and the Beast isn’t fighting back because he’s got nothing to live for. Until all of a sudden Belle returns, the Beast then sees Belle and fights back at Gaston. He’s holding Gaston over the edge of the tower, and Gaston says, “let me up!” And the Beast tells him to get out. And he moves toward Belle, and then Gaston pulls out a knife and stabs the Beast in the back a couple of times, and the Beast rears back and hits Gaston, who falls back off the battlement.

A lot of this sounds like it could be scary. Do you approach this violence differently knowing that there will be many children in the audience?

Absolutely. Sadly, children have become inured to violence. But here’s an example—the back stab. That moment is a scary principal moment. Rather than doing a back stab, let’s say Gaston would attack him across the middle or chest, which would certainly be very visceral and very dynamic. It might be too much for young audiences. So you have to pick and choose.

I’m very conscious of how much you can get away with physically, and how much you really need to convey the story that this is a horrible moment, because the Beast has given up, and the Beast is being attacked by Gaston, who earlier we laughed at and joked with. But now Gaston is no longer funny. He’s vicious. That allows an emotional arc. The violence changes everything, and it’s with the violence that we truly understand the emotional needs and journey of the various characters. With the possibility of loss, it ups the stakes.