Fight director Kate Waters: ‘Gratuitous violence doesn’t interest me’
Kate Waters – or Kombat Kate – is one of the most respected fight directors in UK theatre. She tells Fergus Morgan how to make stage violence look real, and why the industry needs to open up to more talent
Kate Waters loves a good scrap with actors. She’s had hundreds beaten up, stabbed and shot – some drowned in fish tanks and others throttled with telephone cords. And, as a top fight director for both subsidised and commercial theatre, she knows that none of it can look staged.
“I like my fights to be realistic,” says Waters – who is better known in the industry as Kombat Kate. “I don’t want them looking like a stage fight. I want it to look like it’s part of the action. That’s what I strive for. I try to make the violence look as real as possible. I try to base things on human instinct. A lot of my fights are very scrappy, because that’s how real fights are.”
Waters is one of the most respected fight directors in the industry, working regularly at the Royal Shakespeare Company, National Theatre, and in the West End.
Growing up in Hampshire, her first ambition was to perform on stage herself. “I was really interested in all things theatre,” she says. “I did dancing. I did judo. Looking back, you can see why I ended up doing what I do, but I actually wanted to be an actor.”
That ambition took her to Middlesex University, where she completed a BA in acting that was “confidence shattering”. She says: “I really struggled. Everything I did seemed to be wrong. But we did stage combat classes, and that was where I flourished. I remember thinking: ‘Oh my God, this is me, this is what I can do.’”
But the path from enthusiastic stage combatant to fully fledged fight director was a long one. After graduating, Waters taught at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama. She assisted one of the instructors, then was taken under the wing of Jonathan Howell, a teacher at Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. It was there, during the late 1990s, that she worked to get herself registered as a fight director by Equity.
“I had to get a brown or black belt in a martial art,” she remembers. “I was lucky. I already had that as I’d been doing judo since I was seven. Then I had to have fencing qualifications, so I had to take up fencing. I had to have the highest level of stage combat certificate. I had to have a first aid certificate. And then, after all that, I had to complete an assessment.”
‘I don’t want to see women always victims on stage. We’re strong, brave, courageous, and it’s time we had space for that’
Waters has reservations about whether it’s wise for Equity to make qualifying as a registered fight director so stringent, especially considering there are only seven listed in their directory.
“You don’t have to be on the Equity register to be a fight director, but it’s important to have regulation for the safety of the actors,” she says. “It’s important to know that people have reached a certain standard. But if you make it so unattainable, people won’t be able to do it because of time and finances.”
She continues: “It would be great if we could allow the niche of fight directing to grow, because I’m worried that at the moment it’s too closed. We could potentially be losing out on talent.”
It’s one of the reasons Waters now takes on assistants when the constraints of a tight production schedule allow it. “Anyone who assists me gets invaluable experience working in top venues with big directors, and hopefully that will change the culture,” she says. “Hopefully we can get some growth in my part of the industry. It’s all about paying it forward. It’s my role to help people out.”
Waters herself had to learn on the job. Her first professional production as a fight director, outside of drama school, was Coriolanus at Bristol’s Tobacco Factory in 2001. It was then that she worked out an approach that has served her well ever since.
“I remember the fight between Coriolanus and Aufidius,” she says. “I remember it being quite exciting. I remember the relationship I had with those actors and how special that felt, and how much they loved doing the fight. I discovered that what I was good at was guiding actors to the end result.”
Waters is not prescriptive about telling the actors where to go and when. “We work it out as we go along. It’s got to come from instinct. It’s got to feel right. If you go in and plonk moves on actors, you can always tell. They’ve got to own it. They’ve got to invest in it. That’s how I work. I mould, and I guide.”
CV Kate Waters
Training: Middlesex University, BA Acting
• Hamlet starring Rory Kinnear, National Theatre (2010)
• All-female Shakespeare Trilogy, Donmar Warehouse and King’s Cross Theatre, London; St Ann’s Warehouse, New York (2012-2016)
• Young Marx and Julius Caesar, the Bridge Theatre, London (2018)
• Tina – The Musical, West End (2018)
• King Lear with Ian McKellen, West End (2018)
Ever since Coriolanus, Waters’ career has progressed “steadily”. And, she says, “that’s exactly how it should have been. It was all about building up a network of friends and directors in regional theatre up and down the country”.
It was Jonathan Miller’s 2008 Hamlet at the Tobacco Factory that catapulted Waters into high-profile London theatre. The show’s climactic sword fight was lauded by reviewers and off the back of that, Waters found herself at the National under Nicholas Hytner. She’s been his go-to fight director ever since.
Most directors don’t know what they want from a fight scene, Waters says. She sees her role as one part of the creative process, helping them understand what works and what doesn’t.
“First I read the script, so I can understand the story and the structure and the motivation for the violence,” she explains. “Then when I get into a rehearsal I chat to the director and the actors. I like to have a collaborative approach, so that we arrive at something that fits with their show, because ultimately it is their production. Once we have that vision, it becomes technical.”
She continues: “When I was training I loved working with the small sword and the rapier. I loved the neatness and the delicacy. Swords are less fashionable now, because directors tend to make Shakespeare more modern. But I could stage a fight with anything if I had a story.”
In recent years, Waters has choreographed fights for some huge productions – One Man, Two Guvnors, Curious Incident, War Horse, the Donmar Warehouse’s all-female Shakespeare trilogy, Danny Boyle’s Frankenstein. For Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre’s Peter Pan, she staged a three-minute, 20-person battle scene.
She doesn’t want to give too much away about her most recent assignment – The Lieutenant of Inishmore in the West End – but promises it will be “a really bloody mess”.
Now, she’s in a position where she’s able to turn work down. And she does, particularly if she thinks the play’s violence is problematic. “I don’t like gratuitous violence,” she says. “It doesn’t interest me. And I’m getting to a point where I don’t want to see women always victims on stage. We’re strong, brave, courageous, and it’s time that we had more space for that.”
It’s important, she says, because fight scenes can have a huge effect on an audience, particularly a young, impressionable one.
“I walked out of Peter Pan on a preview night, and I saw a couple of kids walking down the road pretending to have a sword fight with nothing,” she says. “That battle scene has had a massive impact on them. And that was kind of cool.”
The Lieutenant of Inishmore runs from June 23-September 8 at London’s Noel Coward Theatre
What was your first non-theatre job?
Washing dishes in a cafe for the summer at the age of 14.
What was your first professional theatre job?
Playing Planchet in The Three Musketeers around castles in Wales.
What’s your next job?
King Lear transferring to the West End with Ian McKellen.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
You will get over the hurdles and accomplish what you want if you just keep going.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
Jonathan Howell (fight director and teacher of stage combat at Bristol Old Vic Theatre School). He taught me so much about the craft and skill of stage fighting. He gave his time freely and selflessly.
If you hadn’t been a fight director, what would you have been?
Probably would have kept trying to pursue a career as a performer, but I am glad I followed the fight-directing route. I am much better on the outside creating and guiding actors.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
No. Just turn up, do my job with a sense of grace, generosity and openness and kick some ass.
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