Eli (they/them) is a trans* non-binary actor, fight director, Intimacy Director, dancer, musician, and artist based in Philadelphia. We were lucky enough to catch up with Eli and ask them a few questions about their career, and about being a recent Guest Artist at Swarthmore Theater. Eli supported Raya Tuffaha '23 in her creation of Fight Scenes Night, an evening of fight choreography from various plays including Macbeth, West Side Story, and Treasure Island.
What was your journey in becoming a fight choreographer? What inspired you to start?
Since I was a wee child, I've been a big fantasy nerd who drew a lot of pictures of swords and fought trees with sticks. My slightly more formal movement training began in high school when I started taking dance classes, which immediately became my whole life. I also fenced a tiny amount, and then when I was 17 or so I was in the ensemble of a community theatre production of Romeo & Juliet - it wasn't gonna win anyone a Tony, but I got to wear a sword and swing it around a little bit and I was absolutely delighted. I started looking for workshops in stage combat (I think I literally Googled "sword fight theatre class") and found the Society of American Fight Directors, who had a three-week intensive workshop where all you did was stage combat all day every day. I went to the workshop my sophomore summer of college, and was immediately hooked. I started going to every fight workshop I could find - the SAFD has lots of smaller regional ones in addition to the big summer one - and once I had enough experience, I started applying to be an intern, which means you spend a lot of time cleaning swords but you also get to be there for free and be in rooms with a lot of different teachers. I also started choreographing shows and student productions at my university.
After college, I worked at the PA Renaissance Faire for four years, where I got some live stunt training - including falling off of buildings - and was the Assistant Fight Director for a year, which meant I got to help build a whole bunch of fights in all kinds of circumstances. I was also driving into Philly every Monday to take classes with Fight Master Ian Rose, and when my partner and I moved into the city, I started assisting Ian in classes and rehearsal rooms and following him to Canadian workshops.
Once in Philly, I applied to choreograph fights for a little Fringe show, and slowly through my connections to Ian and as an actor in the local theatre community, I started being brought in for larger and larger projects. I've been super lucky to choreograph violence for some of the largest theatres in the region, and I keep trying to learn more and expand my movement toolbox every day, because the journey never stops!
What is a favorite fight scene that you have staged in the past?
I really enjoyed getting to both be in and stage the final fight scene in The Sea Voyage with Philadelphia Artists' Collective - it was a sprawling cutlass battle staged in the round, with all these props and audience interaction and other actors to play with. What was so fun about it was that the two characters fighting are taking it ABSOLUTELY SERIOUSLY, and my partner was a terrific fighter, so we got to do lots of slick and super impressive things with swords, but we also had tons of moments of comedy in the fight. My favorite part was where my character was backed into a table, so they turned around and grabbed a coffee pot and threw it at the other character. He caught it and threw it back at me. Then we both stopped swordfighting and had a moment where we indignantly threw this coffee pot back and forth until finally another character walked through the fight and caught the prop, and we immediately burst back into a very serious swordfight.
I also loved staging the fights for Shakespeare In Love at People's Light, because they cover so many different kinds of stories. There were very serious rapier fights as well as huge silly brawls, one of which featured biscuits being thrown. So apparently I have a fondness for throwing stuff.
What was the process of working with Raya on this show?
It's really wonderful to watch someone at the very beginning of their stage combat journey who is so passionate about the art - it makes me legitimately gleeful. It's also relaxing, honestly, to not be the person responsible for generating all the ideas in the room. Raya came in with very clear concepts for every piece and how they might be structured in the space, which meant that my job was mostly clarifying and teaching technique and helping brainstorm movement to connect some of the storytelling dots. I think the best theatre is highly collaborative, and Raya did a great job of using the strengths of all the people in the room to generate ideas and solve problems.
Fight Scenes Night runs Feb 17th, 18th and 19th at 7 pm in Upper Tarble.