At the same time twice a week, 16 students meet to close their eyes, take a deep breath and try to clear their minds of the day’s distractions. They listen to the steadied breathing of their classmates and prepare for an hour of being punched, kicked, flipped and thrown.
This process is the essence of one very unique class on campus: Stage Combat.
Stage Combat is an advanced theater performance class that focuses on combining elements of martial arts with techniques used in stage fighting.
The class integrates a moving form of meditation called Tai Chi with the Jo staff form, a centering technique used in the defense martial art form of Aikido.
The staff — which the students are taught is an extension of the body — helps them develop control with weapons. This also might explain why many students can be seen carrying wooden sticks throughout campus.
Adjunct professor Steve Kazakoff has been studying Tai Chi and the Jo staff for more than 20 years. Though his appearance is deceiving, this 5-foot-5-inch teacher has an internal strength that has overwhelmed even the toughest student in class.
With a master’s degree in Fine Arts from the Mason-Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers, Kaz, as his students like to call him, weaves martial arts into every aspect of stage combat.
Before students even throw a punch, Kaz has walked them through a delicate process of finding a sense of balance, calm and center strength.
“The centering exercises are our foundation,” Kaz said. “We build the stage combat house on top of that foundation.”
Kaz constructs a study of stage combat that requires mind and body integration. He believes that focus and balance, not strength, become the catalysts that create a realistic fight. Furthermore, the class teaches students how to establish trust.
Once the foundation is established, the real fun begins. The cries of pain that reverberate throughout The Spitz, the studio theater in Fine Arts, are the result of stomach punches and well-placed kicks to the groin.
Some of the students have even begun to think that others could gain a greater appreciation of the theater through learning the principles and techniques taught in stage combat.
“A lot of people think theater is actors in tights learning Shakespeare,” said Joe Sabatino, a senior fine arts major taking Kaz’s class. “It’s not. This is the cool part of theater.”
It may well be true. What student wouldn’t love to learn how to choreograph a fight like those they see in Fight Club or Kill Bill?
It’s not surprising that the theories behind stage combat extend well beyond the classroom. In many cases they can be applied to all aspects of student life, both on and off campus.
For example, Sabatino claimed that the high level of group involvement in Stage Combat has helped to keep his short attention span at bay by capturing his attention and encouraging him to become more involved. Instead of only concentrating on getting passing grades, most students actually listen to and comprehend the material presented in class.
According to Kaz, making stage combat available to general students might provide a broader understanding of theater arts and would allow students to reap the benefits of aikido and Tai Chi: discipline, memorization, control and focus.
Ideally, Kaz believes these techniques are present in everyday activities such as taking a walk or having a conversation.
“It is the unity of a person and what they’re doing that reminds us of our perfect place in the universe,” he said.