As a Mercer theater student in the 1980s, Scot Mann was handed a flyer that set the stage for his future. Paul Oppy, his mentor and the University’s theater director at the time, introduced him to a professional organization called the Society of American Fight Directors (SAFD). From there, Mann built a career specializing in stage combat.
Today, Mann is an internationally recognized theatrical fight master and master firearms safety instructor, in addition to being an associate professor and the director of theater at Mercer for the last 16 years.
“For me, the most interesting part is the journey this took. It started at the Back Door Theatre in Mercer in the 1980s when I came to a summer workshop. That’s what brought me to school here, and that’s what started this whole journey. If I hadn’t come to school here, none of this would have happened,” said Mann, who holds a communications and theater degree from Mercer and a Master of Fine Arts from the University of Alabama’s Alabama Shakespeare Festival Professional Actor Training Program.
Mann did freelance theater work for 18 years, including years of stage combat training, before joining Mercer’s faculty. With a focus on classical theater and Shakespeare, Mann traveled the country to perform and choreograph theatrical violence in shows with heavy stage combat elements, like “Romeo and Juliet” and “Macbeth.” He’s done 36 and 28 productions of those two shows, respectively.
He started training with SAFD in 1990 and became a certified fight director seven years later and achieved the society’s highest rank, fight master, after another eight years. He’s one of only 22 people in the United States, Australia and England to hold that title, he said.
Also a master firearms safety instructor, Mann helped develop a two-day firearm training for SAFD that is now taught across the country. The course focuses on the safe handling of weapons on the set and stage, covering everything from professional workplace regulations to creating realistic illusions.
“The number one reason for (these roles) is the safety of the performers and the audience. That has to come first before everything,” Mann said. “Number two is making it aesthetically effective, so it looks like we actually want it to look like. We are a bit like magicians. We can’t hit people in the face, but we have to make it look like it.”
Directors can make some odd requests when it comes to scenes in their shows, and weapon/fight experts keep accidents from happening and ensure the actors stay safe.
Throughout his career, Mann has also done TV and film projects and continues to train actors in Atlanta. Among his many credits are rigging stunts for actor Danny Trejo in sci-fi film “Eyeborgs,” serving as the on-set sword master in India for Bollywood film “Drona,” and training an actor for a Marvel film shot in Atlanta.
“When I work professionally, it’s the vision of the director for the shows. It’s always a problem-solving process,” he said.
At Mercer, Mann teaches weapons and fighting techniques that his students can build upon and that will strengthen their resumes. Sometimes it takes a little while for them to understand that they’re not actually fighting but performing choreographed movements, he said.
Mercer students learned how to handle Japanese swords, known as katanas, in a “Romeo and Juliet” show that was set in an anime universe in 2018, and they used medieval weapons like swords and shields in a popular, fight-heavy show called “She Kills Monsters” in 2016.
Mann leads a stage combat course every year that touches on a variety of fighting styles, and classes in specific styles are offered every few years on a rotating basis. For the latter, students perform a skills test in front of an outside adjudicator at the end to become a certified actor combatant in that style.
There are eight weapons styles for which actors can receive certification, all of which require 30 hours of training, and those styles provide a base knowledge that can then be applied to other unique weapons. Mann has trained in all of these styles and travels to about 25 universities each year to serve as an adjudicator for student skills tests.
“Scot’s background and expertise in stage combat allows the Mercer Theatre program to provide training and education in a very specific and highly sought-after area of performance where safety and storytelling go hand in hand,” said Frani Rollins, assistant professor of theater. “Students learning from Scot’s stage combat classes have the unique opportunity to focus on how to ensure that any violence within a story, from a slap across the face to a 30-person battle with swords and shields, is performed with a focus and emphasis on safety and storytelling — two things that ensure the choreography supports a production’s aesthetic intentions.”
In his professional career, Mann has mastered additional skills that he now trains others in. He taught eight Mercer students how to twirl fire for the outdoor show, “The Phoenix Project: Renewal” last spring, and he worked with a student on stilt walking for Mercer Theatre’s most recent show, “Eurydice.” He’s also coached and choreographed bullwhip illusions, such as wrapping a person with a bullwhip or flicking a cigarette out of a person’s mouth with one.
It takes most people 30-40 hours of practice in skills like these before they are comfortable doing them in front of an audience.
Mann said his work is always different, and that’s part of what’s kept him in the field for so long. Teaching students is, by far, the most rewarding part of his job.
“I’m amazed at what this training does for their confidence as a performer,” he said. “No one is born into the world knowing these techniques. They have to learn them. I think it makes them feel like, ‘If I can do this, then I can do anything on stage.’ And when you take the weapons away, they’re much better performers. They focus, they listen, they react.”