by Elana Luo
Perhaps it’s been too long since LA theatre has seen a good bloody fight to the death on stage.
School of Night remedies that with “Battlesong of Boudica”, an “epic revenge tragedy” based on the real-life Iceni Warrior Chief Boudica’s uprising against the Roman empire in 61AD. Multi-hyphenate Jen Albert produces, fight choreographs, and stars as the queen herself. Onstage, Jen as Boudica slashes, stabs, and beheads her way through one epic battle after another. Offstage, we chatted a bit about her work as a fight choreographer, being a woman with rage, and stage fighting as catharsis.
Elana Luo: How did you get into fight choreography?
Jen Albert: I went to school in Chicago, I went to Columbia College [for acting]. One of the classes on offer was stage combat, and I immediately knew I wanted to take that . I loved it, and every semester I just kept taking more and more classes and weapons : ‘Now I’ve learned swords, okay, now I’ve learned quarterstaff, okay, now I’ve learned shield.’ I just kept going.
Elana: Why did you want to take that class in the first place?
Jen: I think just as part of being an actor. You watch movies, you watch plays, you see all these actors doing these cool cool stunts and things, and you’re like, ‘I wanna do that.’ And I also think at that time I was an angry person, and I liked to hit things. I think the opportunity to hit things and create a cool fight sequence was just a way to get my rage out.
Elana: I feel like the stereotype is that men are the ones who are angry, or it’s mostly men who want to fight. Do you work with a lot of women who are also full of rage, or this fighting drive?
Jen: Yeah. I don’t know that people see how much rage women actually have. I’m surrounded by women who have rage, for a multitude of reasons. It’s not over being less equal than other folks, it’s the violence. I’m certainly tired of being scared all the time or worried about my life because somebody’s just going to be angry and do something to me. Just in general, you know, we all have rage. The idea that women don’t have rage is silly. I know a lot of very, very, angry women.
Elana: Does the character of Boudica have any special significance to you?
Jen: There’s a scene in the beginning of the play where she’s sort of beating her daughter a little bit. When I read that, I was like, ooh, that’s a lot. And Chris [longtime collaborator Christopher William Johnson, Battlesong of Boudica writer and director] was like, ‘Well, I kind of wrote it to be a bit like your mother.’ And not that my mother was abusive, but she didn’t know any better. That’s how she disciplined. Back in the 80s and 90s, that was not weird, that was standard. And [in the play] it’s 61AD. There was no line about what’s abusive and what’s not. There’s no line about animal sacrifice. These are humans at the beginning of time, doing what they do with what they know how to do.
Elana: So that initial response of ‘oh, I don’t know about that,’ was that modern-day you thinking?
Jen: That was me being the actor going, ‘people are not going to like her.’ And on top of that, later in the play, she burns down entire towns of civilians. She’s not actually a nice person. And so I don’t think we really knew how people were going to receive that.
Elana: When you were playing her, did you feel unlikeable? Did you want people to root for her?
Jen: Honestly, after I read it and started playing it, I didn’t really think about it, nor did I care. I’m playing a human being going through whatever she’s going through, it doesn’t really matter what anybody thinks about it. And if they don’t like her, great! And I think it makes for more interesting drama if we’re [having] feelings about the character. Yes, she’s in the right, but also… not.
Elana: She’s complex!
Jen: I used to… I still get a little irritated when people are like, ‘You’re playing a strong female character.’ I don’t want to play a strong female character. I want to play a complex character. I don’t need her to be strong. Women are not always strong. We get to give in to our vices. We get to be bad. We get to be evil. You know, like, we’re not saints and I don’t want to play a saint. I want to play somebody who’s complicated. She’s not perfect. She’s so not. She gets bloodthirsty!
What do you see as the importance of showing violence on the stage?
I think in our normal lives we don’t normally get to react with violence. And so I think that [the] stage is sort of an outlet for that. I think theater in general is an outlet for feelings and emotions or thoughts, situations that we don’t normally get to have or be a part of. So I think that translates to stage combat as well. It’s just like watching an action movie. We all want to be able to do that or participate in that. It gets our adrenaline going, it gets us excited.
It’s just like musical theater. When the emotions get to be too much, you sing. So when the emotions get to be too much, you are violent. And I always say that an actor has to have a reason to fight. So if it’s executed well, then it supports the emotional context of the show. It’s telling the story as it should be told.
What were your goals with choreographing the fights on this show?
Jen: My goal is always to tell the story. What is the story, what are we trying to say with it? Like with the fight with Camulos [one of Boudica’s many enemies, played by Jesse James Thomas], my goal was to build tension. What I really wanted out of that was for her to make him angry, because that’s her strategy. If he’s angry, he’s gonna be off balance. And Jesse and I talked about this, because we worked on this fight together. And he [as Camulos] plays up the anger of it. Then I [as Boudica] can calm down and go, ‘Okay, great. Now you’re now you’re going to do something stupid.’ So each fight has its own sort of story.
Go see Jen destroy the need to be well-liked, as well as a respectable chunk of the Roman Empire, in School of Night’s Battlesong of Boudica at The Hudson Backstage, running for one more weekend, April 28-30. Click Here for Tickets. For more information about School of Night and what the company is up to next, visit schoolofnight.org.