Among one of the Five First Women to attend the launch at Palace House of our new exhibition on Valentine’s Day was Alison de Burgh.
Alison, a former British Long Bow Champion, became the first female Fight Director on the Equity register in 2000. The first woman to do so in history since Equity was formed in 1930. On the eve of the Anita Corbin’s First Women exhibition we chatted to Alison about her story and what it felt like to be chosen and photographed by Anita.
How did you become the first ever Female Fight Director?
By accident really, it have never been my intention, I thought I wanted to act, I went to drama school and part of your training is in stage fighting. I was obviously quite good at it because the other people at the drama school asked me to give them coaching and then asked me to arrange fights for plays which they were involved in.
At which point my fight instructor at drama school said ‘you shouldn’t be doing that unless you’re a fight director’. He said there has never been a female Fight director before, so I thought, right, niche market. I realised acting wasn’t for me, I wasn’t self-confident enough to go on the stage.
I love all this sword fighting stuff and loved watching all the Saturday swashbucklers with Errol Flynn I had grown up in the country side in a small village so girls did the boys stuff so it wasn’t weird for me to do the fighting.
I then trained, got all the different qualifications I had to do martial arts, fencing in all three disciplines; Foil, epee and sabre, up to the level of a coach, you have to be an apprentice to a fight director for four years, first aid certificate and you had to have done some acting so you were able to talk to actors in a way that they would understand. The training took 8 years.
And what happened next?
Once I had the qualifications I kept getting blocked. I had several people who were on the register who were male, say to they didn’t want me on the register because I was a woman.
Finally I had to demand that equity assessed me. I said I have all the qualifications why I am not being assessed, so assess me. I got on the register in 2000.
How many fight directors are there in this country?
It goes up and down but about 36 but I am told that only 5 of us actually earn a living from the job.
How many Female Fight Directors are there?
There are not that many. About four years after I became a Fight Director another female came on. Bearing in mind I have been on the register eighteen years only the third joined us last year but there are not many coming through.
Where are you working at the moment and in what area do you spend the majority of your time?
I am currently working on a production of Romeo and Juliet for Shakespeare’s Globe in London, I have also got a tour in rehearsals and I am about to start work on Jekyll and Hyde for Birmingham Rep. I am juggling several shows at the same time.
Its’ nearly all theatre work because on stage you can’t get away from it, on film you can cheat. On film you can film two moves and then teach them another two, while on stage it’s the entire fight and you can’t use a stunt double. In the movies you can cheat and use a stunt double. So several times it’s been my arm whose swinging the sword rather than the actor but I am not allowed to tell you who!
I have trained several actors to go and work on Game of Thornes but my main theme is stage; operas, musicals, straight plays anything where people get violent.
I can be anywhere at all in this country and have also worked in Ireland and Frankfurt doing opera.
Which famous actresses and actors have you’re worked with?
I have worked with Kiera Knightley, Damien Lewis, Jude Law, Sienna Miller and Bob Hoskins. Bob Hoskins was adorable. My favourite was Henry Winkler, who some people may remember as the The Fonz. His first ever theatrical job in this country was when he came to be Captain Hook in Peter Pan. I taught him how to do the sword fights for Peter Pan. He was so nice, such a normal human being. You wouldn’t know he was this famous actor at all. He was an Absolute lovely man, really really nice.
What did it mean to be asked by Anita and to be included in First Women?
It one of those things that really makes you step back and think because I don’t suppose I had ever thought of myself as being such a first. I am told that I am inspiration to younger women. It never really occurred to me that that’s what I had done. To be part of this with these other wonderful women to have been first in their line is quite humbling. It’s really emotional when you all of you get together in a room.
One hundred of us nearly all still alive wow what an age. All these women suddenly have been able to finally break through and move on. That glass ceiling has been smashed in so many areas.
Have you got any connection with horses?
When I was a youngster my uncle used to breed horses, not for racing or anything like that so I grew up around horses. I wasn’t you typical horsey girl I didn’t ride or anything. In fact it wasn’t until I went to University and then had riding lessons.
I then came home and my uncle asked me to break some horses in and helping him I had an accident and fractured my ankle. So that kind of put me off it then!
Have you got any local connections?
My brother is the vicar in Sudbury but is shortly to move to Swavesey.
What do you remember about the day when Anita took your photograph?
I was so nervous. I hate having my photograph taken, I am naturally very shy and so anyone trying to take a picture of me struggles because I tend to pull funny faces or blink! She was so good and patient. She must have chatted to me for about two hours and we had tea on my boat. She then encouraged me to string my bow. You can just see a window and chimney of my narrow boat in the background.
I am dressed traditionally for archery for the British Long Bow Society. You wear either green or white and because it was summer I was dressed in white. It must have been a nice warm day.
The photo was taken in May 2014.
Blog by Stephen Wallis, Visitor Services.