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Rc-Annie: the all-female stage combat agency that’s fighting the good fight

Rehearsals for the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of King John. Photo: Sam Allard
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Working on four shows at the RSC this year alongside TV and film projects, Rc-Annie is a partnership of top UK stage combat professionals. They tell Nick Smurthwaite why two fight directors are better than one

In the rehearsal room, they are often known collectively as ‘the Annies’. But Rachel Bown-Williams and Ruth Cooper-Brown reveal that Rc-Annie, the name of the stage combat company they set up in 2005, was actually randomly chosen after several beers.

“The initials RC refer to us, obviously, but I’ve no idea why we chose the name Annie,” says Bown-Williams. “It sort of stuck in our heads and everyone seemed to like it. Now, if we’re working together, we’re referred to as the Annies.”

This has been one of the Annies’ busiest years, with four shows at the Royal Shakespeare Company including Eleanor Rhode’s King John opening next week, Peter Pan at the Troubadour Theatre, Noises Off, soon to transfer from the Lyric Hammersmith to the West End, Witness for the Prosecution at London’s County Hall, and John Simm’s Macbeth at Chichester, also opening next week.

John Simm in rehearsal for Macbeth at Chichester Festival Theatre. Photo: Manuel Harlan

As well as arranging stage fights of all descriptions, the pair work in film and TV as fight and movement directors, train actors in stage combat, hire out theatrical weaponry and supply their own brand of high-quality, non-staining fake blood. They work out of a cramped office on the Brixton Road, near Oval underground station, which they share with two emerging fight directors – Bethan Clark and Claire Llewellyn – as well as the actor Victoria John, who acts as their agent, and a workshop coordinator and an armourer.

They aspire to be the go-to people for safe theatrical weaponry in the UK, and they also have plans to expand their fake blood provision. However, they are booked up with fight direction jobs until March next year, so time is at a premium when it comes to developing other sides of the business.

‘While the actors are warming up, these two peroxide-blonde whippets are beating each other up in the corner’ – Eleanor Rhode, director of the RSC’s King John

Collaborators clearly enjoy their presence in the rehearsal room. “While the actors are warming up, these two peroxide-blonde whippets are beating each other up in the corner, trying to work out a fight routine,” says Eleanor Rhode, director of King John. “They’ve worked together for so long, they come to rehearsal with a sense of playfulness and joy. It is always great to work with any member of their team.”

How did the Annies create their all-female stage combat agency? Bown-Williams says: “I did karate from a young age and I was a black belt by the age of 11. Growing up in Wrexham, there wasn’t much else to do. I did some stage combat at Rose Bruford College, as part of my acting course. After I left, I did some acting jobs and dabbled in directing, but I wanted a skill I could push forward, without being limited by how you looked.”

She did a two-week course at the British Academy of Dramatic Combat, then was apprenticed to Tom Klutz, who ran a company called Young Blood. There she met Cooper-Brown. “We started running classes for young people, and after a couple of years, decided to go it alone.”

Cooper-Brown says: “After training as an actor at Clarendon College in Nottingham, where I grew up, I helped form performance company Labyrinth and did all sorts of things, from playing Maid Marian at medieval banquets to being a magician’s assistant. It was great fun but not serious acting. I’d become interested in stage combat, having always been a tomboy, and finished up working with Young Blood. Rachel was the first person I’d met who was also considering stage combat as a full-time job. We spent a lot of time in bars and cafes talking about it before we started Rc-Annie. It took over our lives.”

Rachel Bown-Williams and Ruth Cooper-Brown


Rc-Annie’s six secrets of stage combat

1. Stage combat is just acting with props.
2. It’s not about the moves, it’s about the story.
3. In order to have a winner, you have to have a loser.
4. You have to look forceful but with minimum energy.
5. You can only be in the moment, not what went wrong or what do I do next.
6. It’s not a competition, it’s about working together to create an illusion.

The pair started to create their own shows using their combined skills. “We made one for schools called A Violent History, about weapons through the ages, and another show about court jesters,” says Bown-Williams. “There was also a silly family show we did in the Piazza at Covent Garden, about fairytale characters fighting each other for a trophy, with lots of sword fights and audience participation.”

They developed their working relationship while working on short film The Hunt for Gollum in 2009 as well as The Seasoning House and Plan B’s directorial debut Ill Manors. “This was when we realised that having two fight directors was useful, it meant we could do multiple things at once and literally be in two places at the same time,” says Bown-Williams. “It was also while filming with multiple cameras that we started developing our no-gap style of unarmed combat. This was as a result of seeing an edit where a shot had been selected that showed air between a fist and the face.”

Rc-Annie grew quickly. Its first West End show was Mojo at the Harold Pinter Theatre in 2013. Other important shows included The Three Musketeers at the Unicorn Theatre two years earlier (“our first show that featured large sword fights and lots of swashbuckling fun,” Bown-Williams says) Imogen at Shakespeare’s Globe in 2016 (“lots of flying and fighting challenges”) and Boudica at the same venue a year later.

Imogen review at Shakespeare’s Globe, London – ‘an accessible, urban reframing’

They extended invitations to combat and movement specialists from overseas to share their expertise, making useful contacts in the process. These include New York fight director and stunt coordinator J Allen Suddeth, fight director John Lennox, Robert Goodwin of Film Fighting LA and Peppe Ostensson of the Nordic Stage Fight Society.

“We acquired new skills and put them into practice almost immediately,” says Cooper-Brown. Looking at the credits on its website, Rc-Annie has worked on more than 150 productions in the past five years in theatres all around the country.

How did the two young women establish themselves in a traditionally male-dominated field? “I was so naive. It genuinely never occurred to me that stage combat was male-dominated,” says Cooper-Brown. “Even when I became aware of that, it didn’t make any difference because nobody is going to comment on it. The reason we got the work is that we were always friendly, happy and enthusiastic. We wanted to do the best job possible, and we were easy to deal with.”

It is in the nature of freelancing that jobs sometimes overlap. When this happens at Rc-Annie there are four people to deal with it. Bown-Williams says: “If you’re working on a film, dates tend to get pushed around. Even in the theatre, you’re not booked to be there all the time, so you have to predict how many sessions you’ll be required for. If we’re doing film and theatre at the same time, we can have massive issues with scheduling.”

Is there a big difference for them between working on a film and working on a stage play? “With film, once you’ve got the fight to the point where it’s as good as you can get it, that’s it, whereas in the theatre, you’re repeating the same routines, so your muscle memory is inclined to take short cuts.”

Whether it’s falling downstairs, duelling with swords, whacking someone round the head with a club or engaging in a steamy sex scene, the first consideration for the Annies is to ensure that the actors are safe and comfortable with what they’re being asked to do.

“It is our role to look after people physically and emotionally in all situations,” says Cooper-Brown. “Everyone has to be complicit in what we do, whatever the requirement. We’re always rigorous in our risk assessment, and try to make sure everyone is comfortable. Of course people are people and every now and then during a performance they will lose concentration or slip.”

Rhode, who has worked with Rc-Annie on a number of occasions, says: “I’ve never met fight directors who can make actors feel so safe or so inspired. They have the invaluable asset of knowing how to talk to actors and what they need.”

Even though they’ve been well-respected fight directors for 15 years, the Annies retain a questioning attitude towards their work. Cooper-Brown says: “Everyone thinks there is some magic answer to what we do, but the truth is you have to meet every challenge head on and think: ‘How can we do this?’ We’re not precious about it. We ask people to have a go at what we’ve come up with. Our aim is to find the right solution for each individual.”

King John runs at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon from September 19 to March 21

Macbeth runs at Chichester Festival Theatre from September 21 to October 26

For more details, see Rc-Annie’s website

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