If You Can Fight in America!: Interview with Broadway's Ron Piretti
By Gabby Etzel
In Act I Scene I of Romeo and Juliet, when Benvolio says, “Put up your swords. You know not what you do,” he was not talking about actor, fight director, and teacher, Ron Piretti.
This triple threat knows exactly what he’s doing, especially in the sword fighting realm.
I was able to sit down with Ron to talk all about his work with stage combat, his acting career, and his karaoke preferences. So, sheath your sword— Just for the time it takes you to enjoy this action-packed interview with the fight coordinator for Broadway productions like West Side Story (in which he also assumed the role of the ever-iconic Officer Krupke), In The Heights, The Last Ship, and more.
GABBY ETZEL Ron, you are both an accomplished actor and a fight director! Which came first for you?
RON PIRETTI Acting. I just fell into it. I always liked to sword fight, but I never thought about it until one of the first jobs that I ever had was as an apprentice at a Shakespeare company. They put a sword and shield in my hand, and I’ve been doing it ever since.
GE So your path to becoming a fight director started with the Shakespeare company?
RP Yeah, and then when I went to graduate school, I got more and more involved in it, and choreographed Romeo and Juliet. When I came to New York, I got involved in a company. We were called Fights-R-Us, and we did a lot of stuff around. At that time there were a lot of soap operas, so we worked on those. We used to fight in the park and pass the hat. We’d perform in different places and make up our own little skits.
GE Oh, so I’m sure then that a lot of what you know is what you picked up a lot of stuff along the way!
RP Yes, and then there’s a group called the Society of American Fight Directors, which I’m a member of. You go through their training as a teacher, so I did that.
GE You have worked choreographing fights on film sets, as well as live theater. Is that right?
RP Mostly for theater, but yes, some film, too.
GE Does your approach to choreography change depending on the medium?
RP Basically the main goal is always safety —You want to make it as safe as possible. Film is a little closer, a little faster, though, and you don’t have to worry about making sounds because they make sounds in post-production. Onstage, you have to make the “knap.” You have to make the sound, and you have to hide it from the audience.
GE The sound that they make for the fight scenes onstage is called the knap! Good to know. A few of your theater works like West Side Story, In The Heights, and the WPA Theater production of The Boys in the Band are works that have also been produced as films– Theoretically, if you had done the choreography for the film and theater production of the same story, do you think the final fight scenes would look much different from each other?
RP It depends on what the director wants. You know, in the In The Heights film, they didn’t do the fight. They did it in the show, but they didn’t do it in the film, which was a little disappointing, but at least I knew that it wasn’t because they didn’t want me! It just depends. With West Side Story, the last one that I did was in Tokyo, which was an amazing production because instead of the theater revolving, the audience revolves. It’s really amazing. The audience would go from set to set and come back, so there were all these different sets, and it was really incredible.
GE That does sound incredible! I’ve never heard of that before.
RP Yeah, there are only two or three theaters in the world that do that-- and this was West Side Story, and it was great because the sets were amazing. I got to work with water and throwing people in water, I got to work with a junkyard. It was great. It was really a lot of fun.
GE Now, when it comes to a work like West Side Story, that’s a story that’s been done in many forms before– when it comes to the fight scenes, do you try to replicate previous productions?
RP No, there are certain things that are set, but everything else is just what I put together. Every fight, they’re all different. In the very first renditions of the Broadway show, I don’t think that there was a fight director on it. I’m not sure how they did that, or if they had the cast do it, but I don’t know that there was a specific fight director because I don’t see one in the credits.
GE Where do you draw your inspiration from for your choreography?
RP I steal!
GE Don’t we all!
RP But it depends on what it is. If it’s sword fighting, I’ll watch a lot of sword fighting movies. There’s some really amazing sword fighting— I would watch Eroll Flynn, and William Hobbs was a really famous sword fighter. He did The Three Musketeers, The Four Musketeers. So I’d watch him, and go, “That looks kind of cool,” and then I’d try to do it. I mean there are certain moves that we’re trained to do. It’s like any kind of dance. It is a dance, basically. So you just put it together, and you try to make it make sense. You say, “What would follow? There’s this move here, what would I do there?” You work with the actors, too, to see what makes them comfortable. Any kind of fight, you know, you have something in mind, sometimes, but sometimes it’s what they feel comfortable with, or their ideas may even be better, so you work with what they have, and what the director wants.
The Three Musketeers (1973)
GE Of course. I like how you refer to it as a dance. I’ve also heard plenty of martial arts referred to as a dance before. How much do you refer to specific styles of martial arts to coordinate your fights?
RP Again, it depends. I’m not a martial artist, I’m a theater geek, basically, but I’ve trained in a little aikido here and there, a little tai chi, a little ninjitsu, so I could probably fake some of it. I had to do something on wrestling, so I looked at some wrestling, and I would look at particular forms. I think, if there’s a show that wants a specific form, they would hire somebody who knows that form.
GE That makes sense! So you take little snippets where you can for when you need them?
RP Sometimes what I’ll do is I’ll watch real fights on YouTube and see what they do. Usually, fights are a lot slower in theater than in the real world, where it doesn’t last very long—I don’t like [real] fighting, actually. I’ll get into the mind and try to figure out what starts it sometimes, too, and I might catch onto a real move that I never thought of.
GE Right, and sword fighting is very cool, so do you do the same thing for that? Studying videos?
RP Yeah, I’ll always watch, but I’ve done some fencing in my life and a lot of the moves are based on fencing. They’re a lot slower, though, because if you go that slow in a real fencing match, you’ll get stabbed. A lot of times you can’t see it, but the moves are the same. You make them bigger, sometimes. But yeah, I’ll look at different sword fights.
GE That’s awesome to reference, too. And obviously, your work doesn’t exist independently from the rest of the production, I’m sure the writers and the directors have plenty of influence on what you do– do you have a lot of interaction with set designers, wardrobe, and makeup to make sure that the more active scenes are functional for them, or does their work mostly accommodate yours?
RP We talk about it. A lot of times, I’ll have to know what the set is like, so I can choreograph the fight around the set. I have to know that. Costumes—What are they wearing? I need to know if they’re wearing something that will impede their movement. I did a fight for a show called The Performers which was on Broadway for a little bit. It was two women fighting—It involved porn stars, it was very funny show—but they were fighting over an award or something, and they had high heels on. So, you have to figure out what they’re going to do, and how they’re going to move so that they don’t hurt themselves. You have to try working in something that may be similar to what they’re going to wear.
Playbill for "The Performers"
GE Do you have any favorite fight scenes of what you’ve coordinated?
RP West Side Story, you know, there are a couple of things on my website that are from West Side Story. A sword fight that I did was down in Dallas, a guy named Rajiv Joseph wrote a play called Fly. It was based on Peter Pan.
RP It was so much fun! There were real kids and real adults, so I had a fourteen year old kid and a forty year old guy do a sword fight. It was fun. But you know, you have to train them. You have to train people to do that, so that it looks real, so it’s safe.
GE That does sound fun! Have you ever seen any fight scenes or sword fighting scenes that aren’t yours that just made you say, “Wow, that’s great!”
RP Yeah! The Duellists is a great film for sword fighting. It’s one of Ridley Scott’s first films, actually. The Three Musketeers is really great. The sword fight in Dangerous Liaisons is great. Rob Roy has a couple of really great sword fights. Those are the ones that I really liked.
The Duellists (1977)
GE Noted! How about in your acting career? Do you have any roles that are unforgettable to you?
RP It has to be Officer Krupke in West Side Story on Broadway. It’s not a big role, but it was the most major role that I ever had in my life. That’s the one that was really memorable. I’ve had some fun roles, you know, The 39 Steps was fun, playing like fifteen characters in that was a lot of fun. But you know, Officer Krupke has got to be the most amazing thing ever, because it was Broadway!
GE It is Broadway! I also feel like Officer Krupke is such an iconic character, regardless of stage time—Even if you don’t know much about West Side Story, you know about Officer Krupke.
RP Yeah, that’s the one that I worked for. I didn’t know it would ever happen, because it only happened around six years ago.
GE That’s great! I’m actually also glad that you brought up The 39 Steps. Alfred Hitchcock is my favorite filmmaker of all time, and I’m actually a Jersey Shore girl myself, so I was excited to see that you were in the Cape May Stage production! How was that experience, everything from the play to being in Cape May?
RP Cape May is beautiful. I love Cape May. It’s great, I mean, you wake up in the morning and ride your bike along the beach to the theater, and it was such a fun part that we got to play. It was hard because we had less than three weeks to put it on and it’s a very complicated production. It’s very funny, that was when we were clowns. It was a lot of fun to work on, and Cape May is gorgeous, I love Cape May! During the day when we were performing, we could just walk across the beach. It’s such a beautiful little town.
GE Absolutely! So, I’ve always found that teaching an art is an entirely different animal that requires a different thought process than participating in it does. What is your process like when it comes to teaching?
RP It depends on the people. Some people you have to teach from scratch, other people know what they’re doing and you can play a little bit more. If they have experience, the vocabulary is shorthand, especially if they’ve trained with the Society of American Fight Directors, and there’s a lot of training programs with them, so we come from the same language. It also depends on their ability. If you’re teaching from scratch, there’s a beginning, middle, and end.
GE That adds up! So now, some questions about you that we just have to know the answers to at Absolutely Anything! What’s your zodiac sign?
RP I’m a gemini!
GE A gemini, really?! I wouldn’t have guessed (I would have guessed Sagittarius)! I like it! Anyway, you work with a lot of fake fights where no one is actually getting hurt—But if you did happen to be a professional fighter, what would your walkout song be?
RP Oh my god, I don’t know! I just have to say one of my favorite songs, and it’s not really a walkout song, but it’s a Jimmy Cliff song called “Many Rivers to Cross.”
GE So, you’re definitely no stranger to complex choreography—But what’s your favorite line dance?
RP This is going to date me, but I worked on “Saturday Night Fever,” so that was my favorite line dance.
(There was some perfunctory imitation of the Saturday Night Fever dance on my end, and some brief yet flawless demonstrations by Ron)
GE Very cool! Also, it’s karaoke Thursday, and while I’m sure that you would nail some West Side Story or In The Heights tunes, what is your ideal karaoke song?
RP “Stand by Me!”
GE Oh, good one! But I’m sorry to tell you that this karaoke machine is actually broken, and it’s only playing “I Got You Babe” by Sonny and Cher. So, are you singing Sonny or Cher’s part, and who are you dueting with, out of anybody in the world?
RP I would be singing Sonny’s part. Who would I duet with… You ask hard questions! The woman who pops into my mind right away is Karen Ziemba. Who else would I want to partner with? I think Stevie Knicks would be fun!
GE Stevie Knicks! We adore Stevie, so I’m glad to hear that she’d be doing Cher’s part. In the realm of music, in Toss It (2019), a film that you appear in, “Best Day of my Life” by American Authors is in the soundtrack. In the movie of your life, what’s a song that would be used in your soundtrack?
GE That sets a good tone, I like that! Last question—In this movie about your life, who would play you?
RP Let’s see, actors nowadays?
GE They don’t have to be from nowadays – Time is a flat circle.
RP Time is a flat circle, is that what you said? Hm.. I think… Errol Flynn! That or one of the Marx brothers. Chico!
American comedian, musician, and actor, Chico Marx
GE Good answer! I definitely would watch the movie! I hear that it has a great soundtrack, too!
Wouldn’t you watch?
While Ron’s theoretical biopic may still be in the very early stages of production, you can find out how to get the next best Ron Piretti Experience (save for having a conversation with this lovely and talented man) here!
Thank you for speaking with us at and about Absolutely Anything, Ron!