John Stead Workshop
I can’t believe this workshop happened just over a month ago, because it feels like so much has happened since then. I guess that will teach me to wait a month before posting about something…
For starters, if you don’t know who John Stead is, he is awesome. He is a director, stunt performer, stunt coordinator and fight coordinator on a bajillion things, most recently on Dark Matter, Designated Survivor and Mary Kills People.
The workshop started at 9am on the Saturday, and we were asked to be warmed up and ready to go by then. I secretly haven’t entirely figured out what we are supposed to do to warm up and stretch, so I mostly do a variety of things I see (or have seen) other people do, and add in a dancer pose because I hope it makes me look like I know what I am doing.
When John arrived, he introduced himself a bit, then asked us if we were actors, stunt performers, both or neither. He specified that he wanted us to answer not based on success or experience, but by driven-ness and motivation. The smart thing for me would probably have been to say I was just an actress, so I wouldn’t be expected to be that great, I would just be there to learn camera angles and how to move rather than any actual fighting or choreography. But I didn’t. Even though I am years away from being a stunt performer, I raised my hand and said that I was both, because based on industry standards, I would be neither, but my determination and motivation warrant both.
We were introduced to Geoff and Anita, the stunt performers he had brought to help him teach, and we all got to watch as he created a choreography on the spot with them, changing things each time based on what worked and what best brought on the next move, although he also left things that didn’t quite work, so we would have to figure out how to perform a flawed choreography, on our own.
Once they made it to the end twice (with changes and adjustments each time) John asked who knew the choreography, and I was surprised when a bunch of people raised their hands. I mean, I could tell you the general outline, but nothing close to being specific enough to recreate it. I can tell you “punch, punch, kick, then turn” and what not, but I couldn’t tell you what kind of punch, or how the other person reacts.
John proceeded to pair us up based on whether we knew it, sort of knew it, or didn’t know it at all. This didn’t exactly put us with people of our same skill level, but with people who were on the same page choreography-wise.
They taught us the first move, disarming the one holding the gun, then we did it on our own. We were still working on that move, thinking they would continue teaching us the choreography, move by move, but this was not the case. We had to forge along on our own. Well, with help, obviously, but there wasn’t one person teaching for us to follow along to, we had to ask for help every time we needed to know the next move. They would make general announcements to explain or teach certain parts every few minutes, but we were usually nowhere near that point of the choreography yet.
At around 11, we lined up based on the part we were playing and got new partners. I was lucky enough to be with someone who had a lot of experience and understood the choreography. She was also probably used to teaching choreographies to actors with no fighting skills, because she was amazing at getting me through it.
At one point, she had just corrected this move, where I would go up when I was supposed to go down, and John came over to watch us. “Your rhythm is off.” He told me, which was probably true every single time I had run it, but I explained to him that we had just adjusted a mistake I was making in the choreography, so that’s what threw me off.
“Don’t worry about the choreography.” He told me. “Get the rhythm and be perfect in what you do. As long as you’re at half speed or more and doing it perfect, I can use it. It’s always better than full speed with bad technique.”
This was easier said than done, because I was convinced that I would be much better at the rhythm and all the other things once I got the choreography down, but he was right. This wasn’t a workshop to teach me that one choreography. Getting it perfect wouldn’t really mean anything if I didn’t learn the bigger picture things he was trying to teach us, like camera angles, rhythms, chambers, safety and working with a choreography that doesn’t feel perfect without changing it.
I got to the end of the choreography once with this partner, before we had to switch again. My new partner wasn’t entirely new, because every time John gave us a break, I would find at least one person to run the choreography with, so I could get used to different people and not just get accustomed to the way one person did it. (Which is good, because as a stunt performer, you will often have to do it with the other stunt double, and then do it with the actor as well)
We hit a couple of snags, mostly in the choreography, but we also modified some height and distance things to make it work with the two of us (another reason why it’s cool to run it with different people is that you can work on your safe distances and sells and stuff).
We were still working on the beginning of the choreography together when John said that everyone should have the choreography down by now. My partner was the only one who raised his hand to say he didn’t, so John asked me and I assured him that I did. I wasn’t perfect and probably didn’t have the rhythm yet, but at least I knew the steps.
We got some help running it to try and get to the end, but our stunt performers had to go do the choreography so that we could all film it and have something to watch to make sure we got it right. I knew I had a lot of work ahead of me for tomorrow.
As mentioned, once the workshop was done, Christine and I stayed for the boxing bootcamp class, then ran through the choreography together. This wasn’t super easy, because we were both playing the same part, and had to learn the other side of the choreography to be able to practice with each other. It meant more work, but I find this really fun, and it was nice to be able to do either side and practice with different people later on. It also helps you know the choreography better, and you probably always get to a point where you know the other person’s actions, just like you eventually learn the other actor’s lines, but we were actually getting to do them.
The open mat guys were shuffling in as we practiced, and one of them is a security guard, so he right away commented on the way I was disarming Christine, to show me how it should be done, which included some kind of an arm lock, some krav maga, and a takedown. I definitely appreciated his enthusiasm and desire to keep me safe, but I also needed to learn the actual choreography.
Once we were convinced we knew it, I had Christine give me notes, and we worked on all of my reactions, then went to a pool (where we ran it a few more times) and out for supper. At home, I rewatched the video of the choreography about a million times, looked online for videos of gunshot reactions, and tried to go through the moves in my head, without someone there to remind me what was coming.
The next morning, I had convinced Ayisha to open the gym earlier, so we got there at 9 to practice (the workshop started at 10). The rest of the workshop attendees weren’t far behind, and neither were the stunt performers. The one who’s part I (and everyone I know) was doing showed up a couple of minutes after me, and the other one arrived just as we finished warming up and he was trying to see if he remembered her side.
I did the choreo with 3 different people before John started the class by pairing us off with the people we would be filming it with. I was put back with my first partner, so we knew how to work together, and had time apart to learn from other people as well.
One thing about John’s choreography is that he is really a stickler about safety. This means that while I couldn’t tell you how to do certain moves, like the windmill, I could tell when we were doing something wrong, because if ever we accidentally bumped something, or narrowly avoided hitting each other, I knew we weren’t doing it right.
One issue we had was that she didn’t want to actually touch me. She has on set experience as a stunt performer, and I am new and don’t look like much, so she would stop inches away from me, which is good for certain things that don’t need contact to sell, but for others, you do. She asked if she could switch a punch to my stomach into a slap or something so she wouldn’t have to make contact, but Geoff instead taught her how to properly do the move without hurting me, and I repeatedly assured her that it was okay. She had earlier suggested she would keep going like this, then go all out once we were filming, and I told her that she had to be consistent and start going all out now, or I would be flustered and thrown once we did it in front of John.
Every time someone was having trouble with the choreography and using time to work on that rather than the things he was telling us to, John would remind us that this workshop isn’t about the choreography. Because that isn’t a transferable skill, it’s one choreography that exists only for this workshop. The things we are supposed to be adding to our repertoire is knowledge of camera angles and how to open up to camera, as well as how to make every moment work. This means a balance between fillers and not giving the other person time for fillers, showing pain and reactions, chambering…
I again ran it with different people when we had a break. This may have seemed pointless, since our partners had been assigned, but I wanted to take every chance I had to practice. Eventually, we broke for lunch, but it was a rolling lunch, where half the class could stay and work while the others went to eat, then they would come back and work while the others went to get food. He opted for this since there wasn’t enough floor space for everyone to be doing the entire choreography seamlessly without readjusting or skipping reactions.
My partner and I decided to keep going and then break, which was a great idea, because we got to work completely unimpeded, got direct feedback from John, then got to eat while talking shop and suggesting future workshops. I went back down to work on the notes John had given me, one of which being that I meet targets, but it wasn’t long before John came back and everyone decided to start back early.
Most people weren’t ready to film, so we had a rotation thing going on, where you would run it with Geoff until you got it, then practice on your own before going in front of John, who would film it, calling us all over to watch the successful takes, or the ones that needed improvement, so we could all get the notes.
One of my friends that I had asked about the workshop had told me that it was very important to take John’s notes and do them, so I was careful to pay attention and understand them and tried so hard to implement them. We did it once as a rehearsal, he gave us notes and we went again, where I did maybe half of his notes, and then adjusted myself for the others before he could. (As in he told me to land a foot to the left after this move, I landed in the same place I had before, but moved over a foot to the left before ending, without him telling me to)
We went through the same process for the French reverse, running it and filming it with Geoff before doing it for John.
I was the only one that day who got off course and accidentally kicked her partner, which completely mortified me and I felt terrible. John told me to breathe and play with the moments, so we went again and I didn’t let it get to my head, but I apologized profusely once we were done.
At the end, we all got to thank John and say goodbye, before he, Anita and Geoff headed home, and a few of us went to a nearby pub for some supper. I think everyone left feeling incredibly motivated to keep training and doing stuff like this. I know that I was going into the workshop with nearly zero skills, and I didn’t do much as far as impressing him goes, but I did show up and I was motivated and dedicated and eager to learn. Which I did. All kinds of things that I would have missed out on had I waited to be more skilled or more ready for the workshop. Hopefully John will teach another workshop, or I will run into him on set someday, and I will have improved exponentially, and be using the things he taught us, and that is when I will impress him.
All of these amazing pics are by Gozde Bocu (@lensofberlin)