She's been attacked by zombies, set on fire, launched through walls and fallen from great heights. She's coached actors in pulling off hand-to-hand combat without hurting themselves, and on using weapons of all kinds convincingly.
Her frequent flier miles, racked up from a dizzying schedule of weekends in Hollywood and Toronto, are in the hundreds of thousands. But most days you can find Kara Wooten at Queens, teaching undergraduates in the English, Drama, and Creative Writing Department.
"Physical dialogue is what I'm teaching," she says. "Take the words out of the equation and movement has to tell the whole story."
Wooten, who graduated from Queens in 1994, is an impressive figure at six feet one. For the past few years, she's been teaching Queens students all aspects of theater including stage production, acting and combat. She was the first woman to become a certified fight instructor and fight director in Canada, and her book, Acted Aggression, has become a popular stage combat manual for actors.
"I love the storytelling above every other aspect of any job," says the 38-year-old assistant professor of English. "It's often violent, and being able to get a reaction out of people, making them feel something, is incredible."
Recent projects have included stunt driving for the upcoming Disney movie, Sharpay's Fabulous Adventure; choreographing fight scenes for a stage production of Reservoir Dogs, based on the 1992 debut crime film of Quentin Tarantino; and performing stunts in the Disney XD television series Aaron Stone.
Wooten shies away from name dropping-it takes her a few minutes to come up with names of famous people she's worked with or of projects she's worked on. She shrugs and grins.
"Gosh, I can tell you that I've worked with Lou Diamond Phillips and Jim Caviezel if I really stop and think about it, but what I really remember is how each of them moves and thinks," she says. "Like what sort of instincts they have when it comes to movement and whether they took direction respectfully." (And, she says, both did.) She taught Caviezel to fight with a sword for the 2002 film, The Count of Monte Cristo.
She wears many hats professionally, primarily that of teacher, but she is also a stunt coordinator, stunt performer, stunt rigger, stunt safety supervisor, actor and fight director for theater, TV and film. She trained stunt performers who later performed in the 2007 big-budget action movie, 300, about Spartans who defended Greece in the Battle of Thermopylae. She's worked with Michael Madsen, Stuart Townsend and John Shea (for Mutant X).
She choreographs physical altercations, coaching actors in performing them and working with other crew members to make it all convey realistically on stage and screen. As a stunt safety coordinator, she assesses how to protect performers during 40-foot falls or fights with weapons. She rigs stunts, too, pulling actors through walls and doors to simulate body blows and explosions. On one recent job, she supervised suspending an actor in the air while a CGI monster attacked her (that's a monster created by computer animation).
It's a job she discusses at home over dinner-when she and husband Steve Wilsher are actually in the same city. He is an accomplished stunt coordinator/performer and mentor to dozens of popular actors. He lives full-time in Toronto, which also adds to her frequent flier miles. In addition to stunt performing (driving motorcycles under big rigs at warp speeds), he's taught for such companies as The English Shakespeare Company, BBC, Discovery Channel and MTV.
Wooten flashes her 100-watt smile when asked whether it's harder being a woman in the business.
"Yeah, because some performers assume that I'm teaching something I've never actually done professionally," she says. "But it doesn't take long for them to understand that I know what I'm talking about."
Wooten, who grew up in Charleston, West Virginia, was a studio art and math major at Queens when the theater bug bit her. She was spending all of her out-of-class time playing volleyball when a classmate dared her to audition for a show. "I was happy playing volleyball and doing really well-I had the highest hitting percentage nationally-but was up for a new challenge so I auditioned."
She aced it, landing a lead role as an ingénue.
"It was a disaster because I don't do 'weak woman' very well," she says with a hearty laugh. "But it got me completely hooked on performing."
She threw herself into theater, learning about performance and technical production. "I took every class I could from Charles Hadley," she recalls. The eminent professor of English, who retired in 2006 after 50 years at Queens, also shared the ins and outs of the business, setting high standards for his students. "He made it fun to learn, but kept very high standards and taught me how to be a professional," she says.
While at Queens she immersed herself in acting and then went on to graduate studies that took her deeper into the art and science of movement. "I learned so much about acting as an undergrad, and then about movement in my graduate studies," she explains. "The very first time I got to take a class on stage combat it absolutely set me on fire, and I knew right then that it was exactly what I was meant to be doing."
Wooten graduated in 1994 with a BA in English/drama and studio art. She went on to earn a master's in directing and technical theater from the University of Kentucky in 1996 and a PhD in acting and directing/the history of criticism from Texas Tech in 2000. All the while she was a teaching assistant, and she grew to love sharing her craft in that role.
"My plan was always to work professionally and then return to teaching," she says. "I wanted to be fully versed in the industry, knowing it inside and out before trying to pass any knowledge along to students. And I knew I wanted to teach at a school like Queens, where good and passionate teachers are valued."
She spent the next 12 years working professionally in theater and film, both as a director and actor. She also studied with leading experts including Richard Ryan (The Dark Knight, Troy and Sherlock Holmes), John Stead (Cyborg Soldier, Mutant X and The Incredible Hulk) and Steve Wilsher (Aaron Stone and several other TV shows). She and Wilsher married in 2003.
She came to Queens a few years later and says she's enjoying sharing what she's learned. She's also reconnected with Hadley and his wife Jane, a long-time theater professor at Queens-last fall they worked together on the production of Our Town. Her teaching techniques include videotaping students. Once she runs through exercises with them, she mimics their movements to show them what they're doing. Body awareness has to be learned, she explains, and often even professional actors are surprised to realize that what they're doing isn't convincing in the least.
She becomes animated while talking about the things she teaches, such as how to use adrenaline as a tool, harnessing its energy to add depth to a performance. That's easier when it's a theater project and the cast has weeks to rehearse. Often, for movies and TV, Wooten has just a few hours with the actors and has to cover safety measures in addition to teaching choreography.
"I'm teaching actors to push and push until they react based on adrenaline and then control it instead of letting it control them and influence their reactions," she says. "It's dealing with your fight or flight response on a conscious level."
To teach something as simple as throwing a punch at someone's face, she demonstrates the movement at full speed and then again in slow motion. The actors rehearse the movements with her first, then together. The attacker must learn nuances, including shifting a gaze from the victim's face to above their shoulder to signal when and where the blow will be delivered-in a safe zone.
"The closest thing choreographed fighting comes to is dance," she says. And surprisingly, it's not as dangerous as it looks.
"Honestly, I got hurt more playing volleyball than I ever have working in stunts," she says. "Sure, you get battered and bruised, but you're being extremely focused and intentional about moving so it looks like you're getting injured but you're actually in control every second."
To do that, in addition to acting and technical training, she's studied martial arts and the physics of body movement.
"Aikido has taught me how to fall to the ground and roll so that it dissipates the energy and spreads the impact across my body," she explains. "I tell actors all the time that you shouldn't have to get hurt to be able to convey what's going on in a scene. That's the easy way out. It's a heck of a lot harder than it looks-to make it appear as though you're getting hurt, and making the audience have a visceral reaction when you're actually controlling it all."
The mind is the best weapon of all.