Fight Club

Faculty mentors nudge alumna toward the theatre
Benjamin Gleisser

Next time you’re challenged to a sword fight, call Ricki G. Ravitts ’70, a fight director who has taught stage actors around the world how to parry, thrust, and stab for almost 25 years.

Certified through the Society of American Fight Directors (SAFD), Ravitts is qualified to teach in eight different weapons styles, including broadsword, knife, rapier/dagger, and quarterstaff. In her class Found Weapons, she shows that anything you can wave at someone can be used as a weapon.

“Stage combat is very exciting; it’s a physical discipline that runs the gamut of triumph and tragedy — or even comedy,” says Ravitts, a member of the stage combat faculty at American Musical and Dramatic Academy, a performing arts conservatory in New York City. “It’s telling a story with a fight, while keeping the actors safe.”

As a youngster growing up in Illinois, Ravitts played pirates and Zorro with neighborhood kids and, later, acted in high school productions. At Grinnell she majored in English “to gain insights into different ways of thinking and problem-solving,” she says, and performed in plays by Shakespeare, Chekhov, and Brecht, among others. 

“I chose Grinnell because I wanted to study in a small liberal arts college, and I enjoyed being around so many smart, passionate students who were involved in theatre, writing, music, and political movements.

“Plus, Iowa is such a friendly state,” she adds with a laugh. “My grandfather was a country doctor in Montezuma, Iowa. I walked into a Grinnell drugstore once and when someone introduced me, the druggist asked, ‘Are you related to Doc Ravitts?’”

She credits her adviser James Kissane ’52, professor emeritus of English, guest artist Robert E. Ingham, and Pirkko Roecker, who taught folk dancing from 1966–74, with deepening her understanding of excellence and performance: “Pirkko had a gift for getting the best out of each student,” she says. “And Dr. Kissane was a role model in many ways; so when he encouraged me to pursue my passion for the theatre, it meant a lot. Or maybe he just didn’t want to read any more of my term papers,” she adds with a laugh.

In her junior year, with guidance from Ingham, Ravitts won an internship with the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre, her first chance to work with a professional company.  (Today, Grinnell continues to help fund students so they can accept unpaid or underpaid internships.)

Ravitts earned an MFA in acting at New York University. But it wasn’t until later, when a friend of hers broke his nose in a summer stock production of Picnic, that Ravitts found her way to stage combat. 

“The play has a fight scene, and during rehearsals, the director said, ‘Have a little tussle.’ But no one knew what they were doing,” she says. “On opening night, my friend broke his nose on stage and spent the rest of the performance trying not to bleed on the leading lady. Immediately after the show, he was off to the emergency room.”

Later that year, back in New York City, she took her first stage combat class, prompted by the realization that safety was needed onstage — and because fighting with swords just sounded like fun. “And it was!” she says. Ravitts continued taking stage combat courses from the SAFD and in 1995 became the third woman in the United States certified as an SAFD teacher of stage combat. Even now, she continues taking classes to learn new techniques.

All this combat knowledge has given her a keen eye — and when she watches a movie, she can’t help but to critique the action: “I’ll sit there and say, ‘Aw, you really don’t know how to use a sword, do you?’”

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