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Sordelet’s career packs a punch

Featured Player: Rick Sordelet

It seems like no one gets smacked in the face on a stage these days unless Rick Sordelet is there to supervise.

For more than 10 years, Sordelet has reigned as legit’s heavyweight champion of fight directing, punching up the battle plans for more than 30 Broadway shows, plus dozens of productions Off Broadway and through the regions.

His fight choreography currently is being slugged out onstage in Gotham productions of “Tarzan,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Suddenly Last Summer” and “Two Trains Running.” Coming months will find his pugilism getting in the ring in the Rialto bow of Kander and Ebb’s “Curtains” and Roundabout’s U.S. preem of Patrick Marber’s drama, “Howard Katz.”

Yet even though Sordelet is the heavyweight in his field, many of his colleagues still don’t know what to do with him. Fight directors are a relatively new breed, and there’s no industry standard on how or when they should be used in a production. What one team deems a necessary addition, another might dub a boutique expense.

So how do you manage a career that most people can’t define? Sordelet’s work often involves self-advocacy as much as stage combat. He says, “There are some producers who look at the line of ‘fight director’ and (read it as) ‘anybody can do it.’ It’s very frustrating to have a producer minimize the work by saying, ‘It’s just a slap. It’s just a punch.'”

Sordelet argues he’s not an athletic coordinator but a designer, choreographing physical movement to serve a director’s vision. He also imparts that sensibility to his students at Yale School of Drama, The New School, and Gotham’s Neighborhood Playhouse. In effect, he is training his own cadre of fight directors who view themselves as artists.

That thinking is what Sordelet believes his under-represented profession needs most. He explains, “My fervent prayer would be for the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers to envelop us into the union.”

At present, fight directors have no union and must negotiate their contracts without the benefit of base salary standards. Sordelet advocates unionization, but he left the Society of American Fight Directors, citing dissatisfaction with the leadership of the 30 year-old organization.

For now, as he puts his gloves on for increasingly lucrative gigs, Sordelet and his agent — he’s one of the few in his profession with representation — keep reinventing the contractual wheel. “Believe me,” he chuckles, “I’m in virgin territory.”

For instance, when Sordelet worked on “Suddenly Last Summer,” which has few fight scenes, he agreed to a reduced rate, even though the move could tempt other producers to demand equal price cuts. He did it, he says, because of his longstanding relationships with Roundabout and Mark Brokaw, the production’s director.

Sustained relationships are the cornerstone of Sordelet’s business. He’s had multiple collaborations with helmers like Brokaw, Doug Hughes and Scott Ellis. And Disney has already brought him on board for the stage version of “The Little Mermaid.”

He says long-term affiliations also got him hired as stunt coordinator on two current films, Touchstone’s “Dan in Real Life” (starring Steve Carell) and Disney’s “The Game Plan” (starring The Rock). Sordelet has worked with the directors of both pics (respectively Peter Hedges and Andy Fickman) on stage projects, providing him with an unusually lucrative double play for a legit fight director.

That also means getting a chance to earn union wages, since movie stunt coordinators are repped under SAG. Despite the concrete payday, however, Sordelet denies that he will jump from stage to screen.

He says one of his primary goals remains training new fight directors who can challenge his dominance in the field. Sordelet continues, “For all these young men and women that I’m training, I’m hoping I’ll be a rung on a ladder that they can use to take the next step.”