#22 Book Review: Meditations on Violence

#22 Book Review: Meditations on Violence

Today on episode #22 of the Violence Design Lab podcast, I’m discussing a book I think every violence designer and fight choreographer needs on their bookshelf: Meditations on Violence by Sergeant Rory Miller. I consider it a foundational work for those on our field, so I want to make sure you’re up to speed on it.

Out swords and to work withal!


Greetings! David here.

Thanks for tuning in. If you’re just joining the podcast, think of me as your personal violence design coach! I’ve been staging fights and violence for live theatre since 1992, and I want to use those 25 years of experience to encourage you to enter the world of stage combat, to coach you toward choreographing better fights, and to train you to tackle the challenges of theatrical violence design.

Because of our chosen theatrical specialty, directors and actors depend on us to know something about violence. A large part of our job, of course, is choreographing the technical moves of a fight scene, but to most theatres we are more than that. Just as the lighting designer or the costume designer of a production are to go-to authorities for anything related to their disciplines, we are perceived as the expert when it comes to all things related to violence. But violence is an incredibly complex aspect of human interaction, and even if your life has given you a familiarity with one or two aspects of violence, you can’t understand the entirety of the subject based on personal experience alone.

To acquire even a passing understanding of all the aspects of violence that arise in plays, then, we have to approach our field as scholars and not just as stage combat practitioners, because while gathering as much physical training as possible is highly beneficial, we also need to study the theoretical and philosophical natures of violence as well, in order to more realistically design the actions of violent characters and to help the actors emotionally portray them.

To that end, I will be periodically discussing books and other resources that I have found helpful in my studies that I think may benefit you. I’m not a literary critic and these won’t be book reviews per se, but I will tell you what I’ve found useful and what parts, if any, I view with some skepticism. Where it seems logical, I’ll post links on the show notes page so that you can track down what I’m talking about if it seems like something you’d like to get for yourself.

To kick things off, I want discuss a book I think should be on every violence designer’s shelf: Meditations on Violence by Sergeant Rory Miller. Miller is a corrections officer with decades of experience in violent confrontations with inmates and the use of force in other law enforcement setting. He is a senior officer with his facility’s CERT unit, or Corrections Emergency Response Team. Miller has written a number of book dealing with the nature of violence, and I own several of them, and he also maintains a blog that I will link to in the show notes as well. (http://chirontraining.blogspot.com/)

Now Sergeant Miller is in no way talking about stage combat in his writing; I want to be clear on that. He’s talking about real violence, but I come back to his theories and perspectives on violence all the time in my theatrical work.

So let’s get into his book.

Right out of the gate in the preface to Meditations on Violence, Miller reminds us that no one person has the lock on all aspects of violence—the topic is just too broad and diverse for one person to experience it all, and that individual violent experiences are too specific, too dependent on place and time and participants and nature of the violence to be useful to make about all violence everywhere. He also tells the reader to never override your own experience and common sense based on the say-so of some self-appointed expert, including himself. He points out that a list of author qualifications or scholarly degrees means precious little when you’ve never met the person or shared the same experiences.

The book is divided into seven parts. The first deals with the myths, metaphors, and expectations that we have relating to martial arts training of any kind. Then he takes that awareness of our thought processes and begins to expand them in part two to show how compartmentalized the various kinds of violence are, and he demonstrates how each category of fighting or martial style is focused on winning in the correct set of circumstances, and often crippled when the fight doesn’t equal what they expected or if the win conditions change.

There’s a great line from this section that I want to read to you. Quote: “Every style is for something, a collection of tactics and tools to deal with what the founder was afraid of.” I love this as a way of thinking about characters. Even though it’s unlikely the character whose fight you are designing was the founder of their particular brand of fighting, they have still trained in a particular way that has its strengths and weaknesses. Imagine a police officer character is placed in a situation where she must kill an enemy soldier but has no access to a firearm. She has been trained in an unarmed martial arts style and is used to the use of force to restrain suspects and protect herself against assault, but her training may have de-emphasized crippling strikes or lethal maneuvers, and despite her fight training she is disadvantaged against the soldier whose conditioning focused on killing moves.

In this section, the author also lays out what a combatant must do to “win” a violent or potentially violent encounter. Miller does this to show the complexity of violence, but in doing so he creates a kind of road map that any violence designer can use to move from a scene on the page to choreography on the stage.

He sets up a 7-step thought process. First is the goal: what is my “win” in this particular situation? Do I want to stop the bad guy from hurting me? Escape? Get to a phone to call 911? Next, what are my parameters, meaning what are the things I cannot do? Is killing the opponent off the table? Am I afraid of getting sued after the event? Is my response time severely limited and I have only seconds to deal with the threat? Or are there no limitations whatsoever?

The goal is what needs to happen; parameters are what you need to NOT do. Those two factors together decide my strategy, the third step in this process. Miller lists fight, run, and hide as the classic survival strategies, but also gives us a clue about how to analyze a fighting style on a deeper level when he points out that the core strategy of Karate is “do damage,” while “Disrupt balance” is the strategy of Judo. He points out that even animals have strategies: a wolf pack’s goal is meat; the parameter is not getting too injured to survive acquiring the meat, so the strategy is find the weakest animal in the herd that can kick least effectively, run it until it is worn down with exhaustion, and then take turns nipping it from behind until it is too weak to defend itself from the killing strike.

Next in the process is Environment: evaluating the terrain and available weapons. This is exactly why I ask the set designer at the first production meeting which parts of the set are sturdy to throw an actor into: the environment will sometimes provide opportunities for a character to gain advantage or to restrict movement. Strategy and Environment combine to give the Tactic, here meaning the “how” that you plan to use to enact your strategy. If my strategy is “fight to kill” and the environment includes a sword available to me, “Hit him with the sword” is a sound tactic.

The sixth part of the process Miller calls “Total of Circumstances, or TOC.” This is the in-the-moment evaluation of the opponent and the entire situation: is his weapon held high? Is he distracted? Does she seem hesitant or fearful? Are there witnesses? Etc. The tactic and the TOC decide the technique, which is the specific move I choose in the moment.

So: Goal, Parameter, Strategy, Environment, Tactic, ToC, Technique. Let’s walk through two of Miller’s example scenarios to show you how this works.

Example #1

Goal: stop bad guy from hurting me

Parameters: None

Strategy: Fight

Environment: Sticks available

Tactic: Hit him with a stick many times

ToC: Bad guy’s hands are low

Technique: Snap a strike to the exposed temple.

Or another one:

Example #

Goal: prevent two teenagers from attacking

Parameters: Limited time

Strategy: Get help, discourage them

Environment: have cell phone

Tactic: call for help

ToC: They can hear you and seem uncertain.

Technique: dial 911 and loudly ask for police assistance

In part 3 of the book, the author begins to talk about social violence, or violence whose goal is social dominance, punishment, or “education.” This is the kind of violence that happens in bars, in most domestic violence, and in groups against individuals. This is not to say that it can’t be brutal, but its root goal  is social positioning and the hierarchy of status rather than the death of the victim. This section also deals with the body chemistry changes that happen during high moments of stress such as that which intrapersonal violence creates. This is a useful section for the violence designer to begins to understand the mindset and the physiology that is driving many of the fights we stage for the theatre; I have used Miller’s breakdown of social fighting (which he calls “The Monkey Dance”) on several occasions, and actors seem to really understand and internalize it.

The next section deals with criminals and predatory violence. This is where Miller’s extensive experience in law enforcement really comes to bear. He begins by dividing criminals into three major categories: 1) people who made a mistake (relatively rare), 2) hustlers (low-level criminals involved in crime as a way of life, and 3) predators (those who see you as a resource rather than a person. He further differentiates predators into resource predators (who use violence to take what you have) to process predators (who enjoy violence for the thrill or the pleasure it gives them). I find this section very useful for getting a glimpse inside the motivations of people far different from me who use violence regularly to get what they want. Miller even writes an interesting discussion on the spectrum of evil.

The fifth and sixth sections of the book deal with how to train in anticipation of violence in as realistic and efficient a way as possible. This is interesting stuff and likely very solid theory, but it has less direct application to our art of theatrical violence.

The seventh section, on the other hand, is great. It deals with the psychology of dealing with the after effects of violence. Never get complacent and think your job as the violence designer ends with the last bit of choreography the characters perform. Your job is often also to help directors and actors understand the effects of violence on the human psyche so that those artists can then depict that on stage. Miller points out that each person is different so there are no hard and fast rules, but he gives some basic hallmarks of lingering effects of acute violence incidents as well an long-term exposure to violent situations. Good stuff.

All in all, this book is a great asset and if you haven’t read it, there’s an Amazon link at the bottom of the show notes to help you find it. I don’t claim that everything Miller says is gospel truth (and even he tells you to disregard things that fly in the face of your experience or common sense), but the book is worth the price just for the thoughts about the nature of violence that I guarantee it will provoke in you. And after all, thinking about the deeper levels of violence, its motivations, its goals, its execution, and its aftereffects, this is what will separate your work from the run-of-the-mill fight choreographer.


If you liked this episode and want me to review more books and resources like this, let me know! Post something on my Facebook page (get there fast by going to facebook.com/violencelab or email me, violencedesignlab@gmail.com. And please share the podcast with your friends and if you have a moment, go to iTunes and leave me some stars and leave a review so that others can find me. I’d really appreciate it.

So until next week, keep the fights onstage and peace in your life!

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