“A Noise Within” Fight Choreographer Shares What It’s Like Using Physical Violence to Tell Stories

A Noise Within fight choreographer Ken Merckx tells stories with the vocabulary of physical violence.

By Daniel Tozier Image By Brooke Mason

From the tales of Greek mythology to the latest Marvel blockbuster, our stories have always been fraught with brutality and conflict. In fact, it seems impossible to talk about humans without telling stories about violence. ­ ThFe stage is no different. Romeo draws his sword against Tybalt, ­ the Jets and ­the Sharks square off beneath an overpass, Stanley strikes Stella across the cheek in a drunken rage. It is in these scenes that we see each character at their most exposed and glimpse, in an instant, who they truly are. As chaotic and frenetic as they may appear, every swipe, stab and slash was likely crafted with precision and practiced ad nauseam for months, well before opening night. On the stage of A Noise Within the task of crafting these illusions of violence falls to their resident fight choreographer, Ken Merckx.

Merckx grew up in a small town in the Pacific Northwest, home to just 35,000 people where he began his acting career in community theater, playing one of Fagin’s pickpockets in Oliver Twist. He was only nine, but the seed was planted and he’s been acting ever since.

He pursued theater at Washington University before heading out to the University of Illinois to earn his MFA in acting. During these formative years he took every opportunity to sharpen his skills, signing up for any stage combat class that was offered. He was a fast learner and when his instructors travelled to perform in Shakespeare festivals across the country, they would often ask Merckx perform (and fight) alongside them.

Others opportunities were less obvious.

While still at Washington University, Merckx took several dance classes. “I quickly learned that I was no dancer,” he says, laughing. However, the understanding of movement composition and physical form he developed in those classes never left him and would later prove crucial to creating fight scenes that let command and finesse coexist with chaos and violence.

Merckx’s first big break was serendipitous. Fresh out of grad school and living in San Francisco, he saw that ­the Oklahoma Shakespeare Festival was putting on Romeo and Juliet and Henry IV, Part 1, productions that featured a lot of fight scenes. His background made him a perfect fit and he sent in a demo reel that included scenes of himself showing o‑ several combat styles. When the casting director called, however, he was offered only a few bit parts. As the phone call went on, disappointment turned into bewilderment and, finally, excitement. ­ Thinking Merckx had choreographed the combat demos himself, the casting director offered him the position of head fight choreographer for both productions.

“I had only ever been someone’s assistant,” Merckx recalls. “So I was like, ‘You mean I’m not answering to anybody and I’m doing all the choreography and these are the two biggest, combat-heavy shows in Shakespeare’s cannon?!’”

He ended up taking the job, describing the experience as a trial by fire. ­ The demands of the production pushed the limits of Merckx’s training and knowledge of the craft, but in the end, his scenes were successful and he had found his calling.

But there’s more to it than just swords and shields. Unlike other choreographers who often come from a martial arts or historical weaponry background, Merckx began his career as an actor. ­ This is evident in his work as every scene he choreographs he does so with the careful purpose of a storyteller. A brave knight may carry a broadsword, confidently left in its sheath even as enemies advance, while a spy’s dagger is drawn at the first sign of danger. For Merckx, there are no arbitrary decisions. Each one tells the audience something about the characters and the world they inhabit.

“We always start with storytelling and then go from there,” Merckx explains. “­There are different styles [of fighting] and different personalities will show up in these scenes. Some characters may be more defensive and reactive while others are aggressive and out for destruction. Some will be a little more intellectual and strategic where others will use brute strength…Th­ere may even be nuances that the audience never consciously picks up on.”

Merckx came to A Noise Within in 1991 and has since put together hundreds of battles and brawls for them. If you had a chance to see their recent production of Henry V, then you saw him at his finest. ­ The battle scenes, challenged by an ever shifting set composed of massive three foot steps, are elaborate and gripping— numerous, but never repetitive. For a tale told as much through its combat as it is through dialogue, he had his work cut out for him.

But before these challenges could be addressed, there was another, much older one to be dealt with.

Henry V, the last of Shakespeare’s history plays, has always presented a unique problem for directors and fight choreographers who take it on. For some, the play is a patriotic text with war as the vehicle through which the glories of the British Empire are displayed. Others have seen it as a way to pull back the curtain, to show to the public the realities and horrors of war—the true, human cost of a kingdom. ­ The script lends itself to both interpretations.

Merckx worked closely with directors Julia Rodriguez-Elliot and Geo‑ Elliott to sort out this dichotomy. ­ The three were immediately drawn to the latter interpretation: a grounded, grim presentation of war’s futility.

Merckx explains how he brought this to life on the stage. “In the portrayal of the battles, I wanted it to be as percussive, as abusive as possible,” he says. “And that’s why we padded people up—we wanted the actors to hit the ground hard, I wanted them to get hit hard, as hard as they’re comfortable with, and I really wanted the feeling of brutality. ­ at was my message as the choreographer: ­ The brutality of war and its ugliness.”

As we begin setting up the photo shoot for this article, Merckx is moving around the stage throwing together a small skirmish for his team to act out in the background. Actors who have yet to be placed, practice at the edges, swinging their swords into each other’s shields, convulsing their bodies as the finishing blows stop just short of their chest. Merckx darts from fighter to fighter adjusting their stances and joking with them in low tones, patting their shoulder before moving onto the next. His son runs up and down the rows of empty seats behind us, a plastic sword in each hand. Finally happy with his miniature production, Merckx takes his place at the front of the stage, arms crossed, chest pushed out. His team waits patiently, weapons in mid-swing, as though frozen. On the photographer’s cue, time jolts forward. Swords clash, the camera res, and, for a few careful seconds, violence graces the stage.

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