by Ben Togut
In our new series, Unsung Roles of the Theater, Broadway’s Best Shows takes a peek behind the curtain to showcase the work of underappreciated Broadway professionals and their contributions to the theatrical ecosystem.
This week, we will be highlighting the work of Thomas Schall, a veteran fight director with over 100 Broadway credits to his name, including Waitress, Angels in America, and the 2023 revival of Purlie Victorious: A Non-Confederate Romp Through the Cotton Patch. He has won two Drama Desk Awards: one as an actor for Outstanding Ensemble Performance (Stuff Happens, 2005), and another for Outstanding Fight Choreography (A Soldier’s Play, 2020).
As a fight director, Schall is intimately concerned with violence as a device of narrative storytelling. When building a scene, Schall considers three main narrative elements: the emotional arc of the characters in the show, the physical story of the violence, and the communication between actors during a fight scene. With these elements in mind, Schall must choreograph fight scenes that serve the narrative of the show at large, ensuring that the violence is readable to the audience and safe for the actors to perform every night.
Schall’s passion for fight directing emerged while training to be an actor in college. After enjoying stage combat classes in school, Schall followed his passion, working as both an actor and an in-house fight captain for productions at the Folger Shakespeare Theater in Washington D.C. There, he studied with several choreographers who whetted his interest in the art form and trained with the Society of American Fight Directors. Schall soon began choreographing fights of his own while continuing to work as an actor.
When Schall moved to New York City in the mid-1980s, he feared his work as a fight director would limit his acting opportunities.
“I was a little bit afraid of being pigeonholed as an actor who was a ‘fight guy,’” Schall said. “And [hearing] ‘there is no role for a fight guy in this show’ and having my resume set aside. So I stopped doing it completely, and was just an actor and did pretty well in New York over the years.”
After putting aside fight work for a few years, Schall put acting on the back burner and began pursuing fight work full-time as gigs became more regular in the late ‘90s.
In the current revival of Purlie Victorious, Schall choreographed a scene where Ol’ Cap’n Cotchipee is about to whip protagonist Purlie, considering each character’s emotional arc throughout the show and the history of their relationship to make the scene work onstage. For Schall, bringing this scene to life onstage was challenging as it required finding the comedy in a moment of real violence.
“It’s the game that the entire play plays,” Schall said. “It’s talking about very serious themes, and very serious pieces of history in the country, but at the same time, it’s also a comedy, it’s a farce, and it’s a romp. And playing those two notes against each other is a very tricky, subtle game.”
Schall worked closely with director Kenny Leon and star/producer Leslie Odom Jr. in order to strike the right balance between seriousness and humor. By examining the overstory, or emotional arc of the scene, the trio found that the crack of Ol’ Cap’n’s bullwhip, a charged piece of imagery for the audience and the cast alike, was the perfect catalyst for the scene’s tonal transformation.
“That whip crack became like a button, a sort of a switch for when things went from serious to comedic,” Schall said. “And so we shifted a line so that everything happens, sort of all the threatening things happened up to the whip crack. And then we were free to have fun.”
For Schall, it is these moments of collaboration that he values most. In his work as a fight director, Schall seeks to build a room of trust, asking his collaborators to trust him with their safety and have faith that they won’t feel embarrassed or stupid performing fight sequences onstage. While building trust is often challenging, it is also the most rewarding part of Schall’s job, as it allows him to form close relationships with his collaborators. After decades of working as a Broadway fight director, Schall has had several repeat collaborators, many of whom he calls friends.
“Every show and rehearsal on some level is a celebration of community,” Schall said. “And I love being part of a community of people. There comes a point in your career, hopefully, where you come into one of these rehearsal rooms, and you see people you’ve worked with before and they’re friends, and that, for me, is the most gratifying part.”
Purlie Victorious: A Non-Confederate Romp Through the Cotton Patch runs at the Music Box Theatre through February 4, 2024.