Category: Design Theory

#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. (

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 or email me, 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!

#21 Working With Older Fighters

#21 Working With Older Fighters

Today I want to talk about something I never learned in a stage combat workshop or a college theatre class. In fact, it took over twenty years for me to really understand it. What is this mystery topic? Working with fighters who are middle-aged or older. Now that I’m a few months shy of 50, I have a whole different perspective on this issue compared to when I was twenty.

So pull up a chair, whippersnapper: let me tell you a story.

In this episode I give you seven tips for working with older actors who fight, some suggestions on how to help them become better fighters, and tips for how to tailor your choreography for older characters who are still fighting…after all: there’s a reason that a fighting character would survive to old age!

#19 Incorporating Story into Choreography

#19 Incorporating Story into Choreography

The topic for episode #19 of the Violence Design Lab podcast comes to us from a listener in the U.K. who wanted to know my approach to incorporating the story elements of a script into the fight choreography that I eventually give to the actors. It’s a great question, and it’s nice to focus in on a smaller scale after a few large-concept episodes like my series on melees.

I often talk about big-picture, high-level design concepts related to stage combat or HEMA or staging violence. Now, I love theory—that’s why I talk about it so much. And fluffy, artsy stuff is great if you’re at a place where you need a higher-level perspective to make your choreography go beyond simply stringing moves together. But what if you’re moving from a martial arts background where your fights were competitive, or from an acting background where you only performed other people’s choreography? You might need some advice that’s a little more small-scale, a little more detail focused.

So today, I’m putting on my choreographer hat! I know I mostly style myself a violence designer, but at the end of the day, I DO choreograph fights! In fact, it’s a large part of my job…just not all of it. I’m going to be talking today about the crunch and fluff of choreography: the scripted crunch of what must be in the fight and the artistic fluff that can be in it.

If you choreograph fights for a class or an exhibition or for fun but without a pre-written script, your options—your artistic canvas, if you will—are wide open. You can create anything you like, limited only by your available weapons and your athletic skill. The world is your oyster.

Violence in a play script or screenplay, however, does NOT happen in a vacuum. It’s not a blank canvas. There is highly specific work it must do in the script, and certain elements that must be included. This is the place to start planning your choreography—with what I call the Essential Elements….


Listen to the full episode below or via your favorite podcatcher. For a full transcript of today’s show and all my past episodes, sign up as a $2/month or higher supporter at!

#18 An Approach to Historical Stage Combat Training

#18 An Approach to Historical Stage Combat Training






This week I had the honor and privilege of chatting with Todd Campbell, Fight Master with Fight Directors Canada. He and I dove into some strategies on training actors to  fight–not only in traditional stage combat but also in historical styles. He explains the tiered training system of the FDC, and how HEMA research benefits and augments the kind of fights we can do on stage.

It’s a great interview and I learned a lot: give it a listen!

#16 Designing Melees, Part 1: The 3 Throughlines

#16 Designing Melees, Part 1: The 3 Throughlines

Today on episode #16 of the Violence Design Lab podcast, we’re talkin’ melees! That’s right: Group fights! Rumbles! Battles! How to define them, how to negotiate them with directors, and most of all, how the heck to design them!

This is Part One of a two-part series.

#15 Fight the True Fight (Not the Drill)

#15 Fight the True Fight (Not the Drill)

They say in theory, there’s no difference between theory and practice. But in practice, there always is.

In a competitive environment, you probably won’t see that obvious, single-intention attack like the treatise seems to show and you drilled so often. But if you’re paying attention to what the drill is really teaching you, after all the false starts and feints aborted attacks are done and you find yourself in that crossing, you’ll realize, “Hey, I know what to do here—it’s just like the drill!”

On stage, knowing what drills are really teaching will allow you to know WHY a particular action is safe, and to keep it that way even though you bury all those safeties under the character emotions and all the distractions meant to hide the cooperation from the audience.

This week, let’s discuss how a drill you do in class or a technique you’re learning from a treatise will look very different in a bout against an opponent in a bout…and how it should look different than what you put on stage. Different, and yet still theoretically the same.

How is this possible? Stay with me. Out swords and to work withal!

#14 Fight Inertia, or, Why Don’t We See Double Hits on Stage?

#14 Fight Inertia, or, Why Don’t We See Double Hits on Stage?

When I need a sound byte to convey my particular aesthetic of violence design, my default style if you will, I describe it as “personal, painful, desperate, and as real to an audience four feet away as it is at forty.” I often call it “Chicago Style,” because it developed during my 16 years of collaboration with Richard Gilbert of R&D Choreography in Chicago.

The Windy City has a longstanding–and not wholly undeserved–reputation for gritty, no-holds-barred back-alley fights in both politics and organized crime, and things aren’t much more genteel on our stages. Theatre is a rough-and-tumble business here. Rents are high and suitable performance spaces are scarce, so many companies adopt a “storefront” model: they literally lease an available retail space or a small warehouse and dragoon it into service as a theatre. Our now-famous Steppenwolf Theatre, for example, famously began performing in a church basement.

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#13 Hold the Beer: Allen Johnson

#13 Hold the Beer: Allen Johnson

HEMA vs. Stage Combat: Vampires & Werewolves?

Today on the show, we’re talking about things that theatre people wish HEMA practitioners knew about stage combat and things HEMA folks wish stage combatants understood about historical fighting. Notice I say “we” are talking about this, because I’m joined today by Allen Johnson, HEMA-ist, violence designer, stunt performer and produced screenwriter, who lends his unique perspective to the conversation.

We also talk about the time and place for the Hollywood style, how historical techniques may have to change to look right on camera, and more!

If you’re interested in learning more about Allen, visit his site at

For the full uncut video version of the episode, visit our Patreon site!

#12 Historical Realism vs. Drama

#12 Historical Realism vs. Drama

“Stage combat is bollocks! It doesn’t look like real sword fighting at all!”
“Theatre doesn’t have to show reality! We’re telling stories!”

These two perspectives often clash when fencers or students of Historical European Martial Arts talk about theatrical fighting with stage combat people. But the “realism” mindset and the “drama” perspective don’t have to be mutually exclusive. This episode explores the root causes of some of the friction and suggests ways both sides can compromise for everyone’s benefit.

For more violence design discussion, tips, and tutorials, visit
For a full transcript of this episode, go to our Patreon page.

#9 Finding Freedom From Stage Directions

#9 Finding Freedom From Stage Directions

This week’s episode is the final installment in a three-part series called Crafting the Compelling Fight. Last week I gave you an inspiration tool I call “Finding the Difference.” This week I want to discuss one of the ways that being a violence designer can go beyond fight choreography, that we can rise above the level of being a craftsman and become creators and artists. I’m talking about Finding Freedom From Stage Directions. Now there is a lot to unpack here, so this episode is probably going to be longer than my normal 15 minutes or so. You’re going to get your money’s worth. Oh wait…I don’t charge you. What a deal.

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