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Violent Illusions
by Kay Daly
Trained To Kill | The Technique | Conscientious | Throw A Punch | Take It Like A Man
Ever battled zombies at a barbecue gone awry? Or helped Xena the Warrior Princess vanquish the evil sorceress Alti? For Geoff Coates, it's all in a day's work.

As fight director for Chicago's Defiant Theatre, Geoff is a master at staging a punch that looks so real it makes the audience squirm. He turns ordinary actors into medieval swordsmen, and engineers huge free-for-alls that only look like they're out of control. Yet despite the fact that he can "imagine a million ways to kill an actor," Geoff is not a violent guy. He passionately believes in the paradox of his craft: in staging violence, he keeps actors safe and teaches his audiences not to bear arms.

Trained to Kill
For Geoff, the passion for creating theatrical illusion was a birthright. His father, a drama professor and conscientious objector who was discharged from the Air Force, raised his son in the theater. Geoff grew up appearing in his father's productions at the local community college.

Geoff continued his theatrical training at Peoria's Bradley University, but within two years, he had run through all the school's theater courses, so he transferred to Columbia College in Chicago. It turned out to be a brilliant move. "Columbia College had so many theater courses; I was in school for five years, and I still didn't get the chance to take them all," Geoff recalls.

It was there that he found his true calling. "When I got to stage combat, I found a field that connected all the things I'd been trying to do all of my life." Geoff also found a mentor: David Woolley, one of 13 "Fight Masters" certified by the Society of American Fight Directors (SAFD), the largest governing body for stage combat in the U.S. Geoff took two stage combat courses with Woolley, and served as his teaching assistant for a year.

In Woolley's courses, Geoff learned more than just how to throw a punch or wield a quarterstaff. "It's not just about being a fighter," Geoff explains, "You also have to be a good actor. There are a lot of people who can pick up a sword and look really cool, but if you can't act and pull off a realistic, fully realized character, it's no good."

Since graduation, Geoff has worked as an actor, fight director, and even as an armorer, tending to the prop weapons of Chicago Shakespeare Theater [www.chicagoshakes.com/]. Three years ago, he joined the company of Defiant Theatre, where he both stages and takes the punches as fight director and actor.

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