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Faculty Spotlight: David Woolley

April 10, 2012

By Sean McEntee (’14)

David Woolley fights for a living.

As a senior lecturer of the stage combat program in Columbia’s Theatre Department, Woolley teaches students how to act out violence in theatre and film, specializing in renaissance and medieval swordplay and contemporary violence.

“The thing about stage combat is it’s about taking care of your scene partners rather than be aggressive,” Woolley said.

Woolley came to Columbia in 1986 and choreographs all the fights for the main stage shows at Columbia. He said the program for stage combat at Columbia is the largest out of any university in the country. The violence he stages ranges anywhere from a small slap or push to an intense battle scene or domestic abuse. Woolley said that the exposure to cinematic violence has caused the “violent requirements” of live theatre to become a little more intense.

“Audiences are spoiled by movies and expect a certain level of violence to happen,” he said. “They want to be titillated by it.”

Woolley said he happened to fall into stage combat fighting when he was studying acting at DePaul University in the late 1970s.

“I discovered I was pretty good at it and people were letting me do it,” he said.

After graduating in ’81, Woolley began acting in a show that happened to need a fight director. Deciding to take on the position for the program credit, Woolley choreographed the fighting for the show while keeping his performing role. From that point on, he said he started to get more requests to conduct stage combat than to act.

But he still performs. In ’89, he created the comedic, swashbuckling duo Dirk and Guido the Swordsmen, an act he still performs to this day. Woolley travels the country performing in vaudeville houses and renaissance fairs 22 weeks out of the year.

One of Woolley’s most memorable moments was back in 2009 when he performed and designed the choreography in the play The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity. The show, and Woolley himself, won a Jeff award and went on to perform the show in New York and Los Angeles. He said this small, five-man-show production garnered him three to four years of work and provided a lot of fun times with a terrific cast.

For now, Woolley said, he’s up to do anything with Columbia or his traveling comedy show but doesn’t have much time for outside productions anymore.

“I’m sword fighting for a living, so I can’t complain,” he said.

Woolley said he’s been fortunate to continue stage combat as a career. He said he hopes to integrate more with the Film + Video Department to build fights for film classes and work more in-depth with the motion graphics department.