Stage, Craft & Combat

“When I was a young lad, I was always playing with sticks, pretending they were swords, and getting into mischief,” says Alexander James Holloway. “Now I get to do it for real and get paid for it!”


Alexander is chatting via video from Melbourne where he’s touring with the Pop-Up Globe in his role as stunt coordinator and fight director — a gig he secured following an audition for an acting part for the company while in Auckland. The Birmingham-born performer and director has previously trod the boards in his home town, as well as London’s West End, in productions such as Shawshank Redemption, and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Now, based in Auckland, he runs the New Zealand Stage Combat School.


“Hardly anyone was doing this kind of thing when I first arrived four years ago,” Alexander says, “so, when I offered my services I was snapped up by the big institutions like the Auckland Theatre Company, the Auckland Performing Arts Centre, and the Actors’ Program. Plus, being the only person in New Zealand with a degree in stage combat was a huge benefit.”


Alexander was inspired to take the career path when former pupil Scott Adkins, who played Boyka in Undisputed 2 and had roles in the second Expendables and The Bourne Ultimatum, came back to talk at his college: “I did some research and discovered East 15 drama school. They only accept 15 applicants a year out of hundreds, but luckily I got in, graduated pretty high, and have been working ever since.”


The drama school is the only one of its kind in the world, with students leaving with a combined degree in both acting and stage combat. “It’s very intensive training over three years,” Alexander says. “It includes things like horse riding, archery, parkour, and weapons training. You learn how to fight and act.”


At the Pop-Up Globe, Alexander has applied such skills to choreograph hangings, the firing of flaming arrows and pyrotechnics. “We can also use sugar glass to smash ‘bottles’ over people, it all depends on what each individual production wants,” he says. “It’s a lot of fun.”


How do you come up with the choreography?
“The director will usually tell me what they want from the scene and a little bit about the characters. I’ll see how the scene is without a fight, then go from there. It must always be character-driven, otherwise it doesn’t make sense — you can’t give swords to, say, two nerdy characters that otherwise wouldn’t fight.”


Are there ever real accidental strikes?
“Accidents are highly unlikely because of the sheer number of safety precautions, and even if something did happen, the injury would never be anything more than a very minor scrape.”

Classes at the New Zealand Stage Combat School attract actors “looking to upskill”, and writers and directors “wanting to see what’s possible regarding stunts”, along with “builders and bouncers and people from all walks of life”. But Alexander says women make up most of his student base, seeking to “get fit and have fun while kicking some guy’s ass!” “Whether it be the Amazonian women, Boudicca, or Cleopatra, history is littered with stories of strong, warrior women,” says the director. “Hollywood has cottoned on to that and begun to shine a light on them, which has been very empowering and encouraged women to become more interested in the industry.”

Alexander has previously had a handful of movie roles (“straight-to-DVD films such as Top Dog and Green Street 3”), and it is path he would certainly like to pursue further. “Features are definitely where I want to head next,” he says. “As much as I love the theatre, there’s greater spectacle in film. Comedies interest me the most. There’s great scope for comedy fights — I defy anyone not to have the whole audience laughing at the sight of an unlikable character getting a good kick in the balls.”

He’s trained plenty of ladies to do just that.


Words: Jamie Christian Desplaces