Teens find drama in fight

by Sandy Moore

If you saw Rebecca Novello’s photo on Facebook, you might think “dancer” or “runner.”  She’s long and lean.

But when describing her interests and activities, Blair High School senior Rebecca says with a smile,  “I always put STAGE FIGHTING first.”  It’s her passion.  She’s been doing it since she was nine years old.

Early training at Lumina

When Rebecca signed up for classical theatre training back in 4th grade, she wasn’t expecting to play a male role — but there were not enough boys.  So she tied up her hair and lowered her voice to play a male role in Lumina Studio Theatre’s production. Soon Director David Minton was recommending Stage Combat classes, where she learned how to handle weapons.  Rebecca remembers her first katana (a curved samuri sword): “I had a lot of fun with it.  It was empowering!”

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Rachel Gelfeld, also a senior at Blair High School, got her start in stage combat at Lumina in similar fashion: acting at nine, learning stage combat at ten.  She was impressed by the high school girl,
Julianna [see next page] who helped Minton teach the mostly male class. “You have to be okay with getting close to people, including boys, said Rachel, “There’s always some awkwardness in acting at first. You might have to hit another actor ­– or kiss him.”

Fighters typically progress from unarmed combat training to lessons with rapier and dagger, broad swords, and finally – the thin, light single swords.  Because the weapons are real, safety is paramount.  As Lumina’s director Minton makes clear: “The swords – their edges and tips — are always dulled before they are given to students.”

Both girls were cast in many fighting roles through middle school.  One of the most challenging roles came in high school.  Rebecca’s greatest acting challenge came in high school when she played the blood thirsty King Richard III, who slain in a duel by Rachel’s character, the Earl of Richmond.


In a scene from Lumina Studio’s Boss John, actors (in the foreground, from left to right): Nick Coffey, Mark Reiner, Michael Gelfeld,and Gardiner Royce, demonstrate their stage combat skills. Photo by Linda Parker

Moving beyond Silver Spring

Throughout high school, both girls sought specialized stage combat training in the summers, including sessions at the at University of North Carolina’s School for the Arts.  Faculty who teach the high
schoolers are certified by the Society of American Fight Directors (SAFD), the country’s best known stage combat association.

At UNC, students begin with the fine points of “unarmed combat” (what you might think of as fist fighting).  How can you make the audience believe you are capable of doing real harm?  “Sometimes it’s by knowing human anatomy,” says Rebecca . “If your combatant punches you in the center of your chest, the sound you make is lower in pitch and lasts longer than if he strikes your back, near your kidneys.”

The UNC program requires strength, stamina, and mental toughness. Students take master classes on subjects like “Death and Dying” where they study how to take their acting to a new level.  “In most
theatrical performances,” explains Rebecca, “they cut death short. An actor falls to the floor and speaks in a theatrical whisper.  That’s not what it really looks like when someone dies.”  (See photo of
Rebecca, below).


Actress Rebecca Novello faces death in a scene from Lumina’s recent production of Boss John. Photo by Linda Parker

Movie directors now film human actors in body suits to use as the basis for animated characters in films like Avatar.  Rachel took a workshop recently in Philadelphia to learn more about these possibilities. “Michelle Ladd, a movie director, introduced us to ‘Motion Capture,’ where the actions of human actors in body suits are recorded and their forms are reduced to a skeleton that can be animated.  It’s cool to see a woman like Ladd who has taken her skills as a stunt woman and risen through the ranks in the profession.”

Bubble Gum flavored blood packs

Enhancing the realism of a fight scene often means who are looking to bring realism to a fight scene often means wounds and bleeding.  Pretend wounds, and fake blood.  Rebecca explains how it works:  “You pour a few tablespoons of gooey red stuff (a mix of corn syrup and dye) on saran wrap and fold it into a little pack that can later be popped.  At the right time, stage victims simultaneously cover the wound and surreptiously pop the blood pack.  We called the large packs ‘BIG BERTHAS,'” she says, laughing.  There are also times when an actor needs to hold a packet in his/her mouth to simulate a facial wound. But don’t feel too sorry for the actors.  Stage blood actually comes in flavors — like bubble gum or mint!


Rachel Gelfeld (on left) uses an epee rapier to fight fellow participant in stage combat workshop. Photo by Bette Cassatt

Both Rachel and Rebecca hope to continue their stage combat in college this fall.  Rachel heads off to the Savannah College of Art and Design to study with a professor who specializes in stage combat.   At Dartmouth College In New Hampshire Rebecca hopes to polish acting and fighting skills, dreaming of the day when she might stunt double for someone like actress Uma Thurman, her inspiration.

And why not?  With years of experience and training behind them, the girls stand a fighting chance.

Lumina Actresses return in Surreal Plays

No fist fights, but many verbal jabs are exchanged between actresses Rebecca Novello, Rachel Gelfeld, and Liz Porter in Lumina Studio Theatre’s “Daughters of the Surreal Plays” at the Montgomery College’s Performing Arts Center on June 11th and 12th. The plays, “Aquarium” and “The Terror” are intended for a mature audience.

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About the Author

Sandy Moore, the Kids' Voice columnist, writes for young readers and is a member of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. Sandy is also a past contributor to Washington Parent magazine, a Board member of Lumina Studio Theatre, and resident of Silver Spring.