Tag Archives: fight

No Retractable Blades

What is a retractable knife? We have all seen them at novelty shops or with Halloween costumes. When you push the blade against a surface, it slides up into the handle. When you pull it back, a spring inside forces the blade back out of the handle. With enough speed, it appears that the knife blade is plunging into your body as someone stabs you.

The illusion they create gives many a director the idea to use them onstage in a fight scene. However, they are completely unsafe. Most larger theaters already ban them outright, but many smaller and temporary performing spaces are unaware of how these seemingly innocuous toys become deadly during a stage fight.

If the blade were to press ever so slightly against the opening in the handle, it will bind with enough pressure that the blade will not retract. When that happens, your actor is suddenly plunging a real knife into another actor with enough force to puncture their skin and even their organs. Even the knives with plastic blades will cause fatal damage.

This is an inevitable part of their design; you cannot fabricate a retractable dagger that does not bind, nor can you adapt an existing knife to avoid this problem.

In 1990 at Pentameters Theatre in Hampstead, UK, Dr. Annabel Joyce used a plastic retractable knife while playing Lady Macduff. It failed to retract and she had to go to the hospital. She fortunately recovered.

In 1998, a production of I Pagliacci in Milwaukee saw David Rendall accidentally stab Kimm Julian with a knife that failed to retract. This happened during a day of rehearsal where they had already practiced the scene a dozen times, and were actually running the fight in slow motion with the fight director. Kimm did not realize he had been stabbed at first, but collapsed three or four minutes later. He was rushed to the hospital for immediate surgery and eventually recovered, though he had to be replaced for the remainder of the show’s run.

Also in 1998, Michael McElhatton was stabbed with a retractable during a performance. Before his famed role in Game of Thrones, he was performing in Twenty Grand at the Peacock Theatre in Dublin. His character was tied to a chair and stabbed multiple times by two other actors. He wore a padded vest for protection, and the whole scene was carefully choreographed by a fight director. The show ends with his death, and the actors untied him for curtain call. When he came off, he told one of the actors, “Ow, you really punched me with that last one.” He went on stage for a second bow, then returned to the wing to tell the stage manager, “I think he winded me. I don’t feel well.” He ran out for a third curtain call, then collapsed when he returned to the wings. The blade had jammed and missed the padding, plunging into his chest and missing his heart by an inch.

These are just some of the stories that have made it into the news. Countless other injuries are swept under the rug. You can see why most theaters ban retractable knives. Rick from “Weapons of Choice” even states that insurance carriers will not cover injury claims for a show in which a retractable is used. Even if the injury has nothing to do with the knife, the knife’s mere presence is proof of an unsafe work environment. He recommends destroying any retractable knife, plastic or metal, that you find in your stock.

The University of Michigan recently banned the use of them in performances after their local OSHA representative researched their inherent danger. They also consulted with Monona Rossol, the President of Arts, Crafts, & Theater Safety, Inc., who agreed that retractable blades should be banned at schools of all levels. Perhaps the only type that could conceivably be safe is one with a flexible blade, like rubber, so when the mechanism fails, the blade can bend rather than plunge directly into your lung.

So ban and destroy your retractable knives.

Foam Firewood for Fighting

We just closed Deathtrap at Triad Stage. Anyone who has done or seen the show knows it has quite a few tricks, not to mention all the set dressing. One of the projects I made for the show was a piece of firewood that could safely be used to beat someone to death. I put together this video showing the process from start to finish.

I started off borrowing some techniques from LARPers; they build weapons out of foam intended for actual combat. I tried wrapping closed-cell foam around a piece of PVC, but that was too hard to hit someone with. I ended up using a core of polyurethane upholstery foam with three pieces of closed-cell foam around the outside.

The foam I used was a mix of anti-fatigue mats from Harbor Freight and Silly Winks foam from the craft store. Some people call this EVA foam. It’s more likely to be XLPE foam. I don’t think there’s enough of a difference to worry about, but it’s one of the things I’m investigating for the second edition of The Prop Building Guidebook.

Textured Foam
Textured Foam

To get the texture on the inside parts of the foam, I went over the whole surface with a wire wheel. Next, I scored the foam with a knife in the direction of the “grain” of the wood. One of the great tricks with this kind of foam is that when you score it, you can run a heat gun over the surface and the foam will open up, turning the scored lines into beveled grooves.


For the bark side of the log, I cut and tore apart chunks of thinner Silly Winks foam and hot glued them to the surface. I roughed them up with a surform and a knife; you can see that part of the process pretty well in the video.


Everything was coated with a layer of Rosco Flexcoat. This sealed everything in and gave a nice even layer to paint on. And as the name suggests, it remained flexible when dry.

When you watch the video, you will also see me adding some torn strips of paper towel with the Flexcoat on the bark side. This gave it a touch of texture and made it feel a bit more organic.

Finished Firewood
Finished Firewood

The whole thing was painted with a mix of scenic paint, acrylics, and Design Master, all of which remain pretty flexible when dry. We got the thing out on stage, and the lighting made it look very red, so I gave it another few coats of paint to make it look more realistic under the light.

Under natural lighting in the picture above, it looks very theatrical, but on stage it worked very well. The actor was able to beat the other actor without injuring him, and it produced a wonderful dull thud as he did so.

Weapon Safety is Nothing New

As a reminder that accidents with stage weapons are nothing new, I have two brief stories of mishaps from over a century ago. The first comes from The San Francisco Call, September 27, 1896:

A few weeks ago a tragic accident happened in London. The actors had to fight a duel on the mimic stage. They did not rehearse with swords, but on the night of the first performance the property-man gave them their weapons, which they used so realistically that the delighted audience wanted to give a recall. Rounds of applause came again and again, but the man who had fallen did not get up and bow before the footlights as dead actors are in the habit of doing. He was dead in real earnest, killed by a thrust of his comrade’s sword. When the horrible truth dawned upon his comrades the curtain was lowered and the audience dismissed from the play, which had ended in an unrehearsed tragedy. The next day the papers were full of lamentations over the sad event and blame was given to the management for the carelessness which had permitted sharp swords to be used without first testing them thoroughly at rehearsal.

No training, no rehearsal, weapons that should have been dulled… these are the exact same reasons accidents happen today.  This isn’t new technology or unknown knowledge; we know, and have known for well over a hundred years how to prevent accidents from stage combat weapons, yet they still happen.

The second comes from The New York Times, September 12, 1907:

Maz Davis, 30 years old, of 434 West Thirty-eight Street, a property man for David Belasco, was injured on the right hand last night by the accidental discharge of a stage gun, the “wad” of which pierced his hand, while the powder burned both his hands and face. Just before a rehearsal of the “Girl of the Golden West,” he was examining a revolver when he accidentally pulled the trigger. He was taken to the Roosevelt Hospital.

Ouch. Remember, stage guns are still dangerous, even if they are only “blank-firing”, “powder” or “toy cap” guns.

A Prop-er Sword Fight

The following strange tale comes from Salt Lake City, Utah, in 1893.

A Madman in a Theater

Terrible Tragedy Averted in a Salt Lake Playhouse

Special to the Record-Union. Salt Lake, Dec. 22.

By the presence of mind and prompt action on the part of several members of a theater company, a terrible tragedy was averted at the Salt Lake Theater this evening. About 9 o’clock Oscar B. Young, a crazy son of the Mormon prophet Brigham Young, burst open the door of the theater box office. Before the astonished Treasurer and Manager could collect themselves, Young strode into the theater, around to the stage door and dashed across the stage. The curtain was down and the actors were dressing for the second act. In the first dressing-room he broke and stood frothing in passion before Harry Connor. After trying to lock the door he demanded the key of Connor. “I’ll teach yon to go to New York and talk about Danites,” he said.

With a torrent of oaths the madman pressed upon Connor. Instantly recognizing that he was in the presence of a madman, Connor gave a quick leap out of tho door. The ladies in the adjoining rooms screamed.

At this moment propertyman Antone Mazzanovich, a match in strength and size for Young, leaped upon the mad man from behind and pinioned him. Just then a boy was passing with two swords used in the play. With a strength born of madness, Young released himself, grabbed a sword, and commenced plunging at those around him. Again the massive propertyman caught him from behind, and at the same time catching the hilt of the sword. Those ladies who had not fainted rushed to the room. “Don’t lynch me, don’t lynch me,” cried Young. He was forced into the street, a policeman called, and still raving, he was carried to the station.

Young has long been regarded as daft, and of late has shown dangerous tendencies. Those who know the man regard the lucky overcome in the stage encounter as little short of a miracle.

Young’s present spell is said to be the result of financial troubles. He had no acquaintance with anyone of the theater company.

This story originally appeared in the Record-Union, December 23, 1893. Sacramento, CA. pg 1