Kayla and I ready ourselves to spar, confidently taking stances opposite each other. A few words suffice to quietly introduce the scene, then I resolutely attack, swinging my makeshift sword towards her right shoulder with all the power I can muster. She promptly parries, yet is effectively forced backwards as I bitterly shoot a mock glare at her. For we are no longer Jennifer and Kayla, friends of old, but powerful archenemies, firmly locked into a duel which could ultimately decide the fate of an entire continent.
Gracefully deflecting her returning blow, I spin to the side, lithely swinging down to the right in a move I know Kayla can rarely block. But she quickly sidesteps, narrowly averting the blow with the tip of her sword. I let out a sigh of frustration even as I briefly acknowledge with a nod her skill, and fluidly swing to the side to effortlessly strike once more.
Yet as the battle steadily wears on, I slowly tire, and Kayla gradually begins to seem ubiquitous as her endurance solidly proves its worth. Though I can still neatly sidestep, deflect, or dodge most of her blows, I am now on the defensive, my strikes becoming progressively more timorous as she smoothly attacks with audacious accuracy. My blocks are evanescent now, only momentary barriers.
I back away frantically, in an attempt to gain strength through a pause, but obtain only a fleeting second to rest. Swiftly gathering all of my power, I lunge without warning, aiming to precisely duplicate the force and alacrity of my initial attack. Our swords meet brusquely with a loud crash.
The tension is abruptly severed, and we suddenly burst into friendly laughter, watching the washcloth insulation on the tip of my sword go flying sharply off, gently sailing through the air, and landing lightly in the boughs of a tree a few yards away.
[From a “vivid language assignment” – which I obviously interpreted as “use lots and lots and lots of long adjectives/adverbs!” – for an online English class with Stanford, written in Sept. 2005, age 12.]
Who first conceived of the idea I do not remember, though I think the tent poles were probably my fault. At any rate, my first memories of anything resembling swordfighting date to my good friend R’s [or “Kayla’s”] backyard, and various surrounding parks, where two fantasy-novel-enthralled pre-teens battered away at each other with heavy, rusty, metal tent poles that had been salvaged from my garage, with a couple of segments slotted together to form “swords” about four feet long. They were topped with our mothers’ obligatory safety precaution – padding, in the form of washcloths attached with duct tape to the tips. (This was supposed to prevent us from stabbing each other in the eye. Practically speaking, the washcloths usually flew off in the first few minutes of a fight.)
Now, R and I were both possessed of a certain amount of common sense – and, even at that age, first-aid training: I don’t recall a conversation in which we explicitly said “head/neck strikes are not allowed” – but I also don’t recall either of us ever trying to land a strike above the shoulders. We weren’t trying to hurt seriously each other – we knew quite well that our parents would ban swordfighting practice if that happened! – and we were both quite good at “tapping” or “tagging” each other, rather than swinging a “sword” full force into anyone. And as we both quickly became competent at parrying, successful attacks usually only happened towards the end of a fight.
Nonetheless, we were swinging around heavy metal poles, trying to actually hit each other, so some bruises did inevitably result. After all, we had no training, no protective equipment, no vocabulary to describe different types of attacks or parries, and no knowledge of how parries were even supposed to be done – aside from the obvious fact that if you’d stopped your opponent’s blade from hitting you, something was clearly working.
Anyone with any background in stage combat or risk management is probably cringing in dismay.
I did learn a little bit of stage combat in high school, in drama club over lunch breaks. This was with foam swords, and basically consisted of learning five main attacks and the corresponding parries – conveniently numbered 1 through 5 (idiosyncratic numbering system, though: I’m not sure where the teacher had trained, but her numbering system was consistent neither with FDC, modern fencing, nor any organization I’ve trained with since). And I did, for one memorable assignment in Grade 11 Drama, write, choreograph, and perform a script that included the Macbeth/Macduff duel. (The script was a conversation between Shakespeare and Burbage, set in the middle of a rehearsal of Macbeth. A few liberties with historical casting were taken: Shakespeare, aka me, played Macduff.)
This total lack of serious fight training did not stop the JR Theatre Group from creating a film version of the prologue of The Golden Crown when I was about fifteen: we knew a little bit about film editing, less about cameras, and nothing about lighting, but we nevertheless betook ourselves – armed with storyboards, homemade costumes, swords, pages of written choreography, and handheld digital cameras – to a convenient nearby forest, to film a chapter that revolved almost entirely around a duel between the novel’s primary antagonist, Morcel (played by R – the inevitable result of a theatrical group composed of four girls was that every male character was always cross-gender cast), and his archenemy, the elven swordswoman and sorceress Kerowin (me).
For a couple of kids with no training, it was moderately ambitious – among other things, the filmed choreography includes a contest of strength that ends with R doing a back roll with sword in hand, the two of us duelling while standing a couple metres in the air on a slanted tree trunk, and then me jumping out of said tree and rolling. (Not with sword in hand – I didn’t have a clue how to do that at the time, so I simply threw the sword down, jumped, rolled, and then picked it up afterwards!) I also didn’t know aikido or shoulder rolls at the time, so it’s much closer to a gymnastics dive roll than anything that would pass FDC safety standards. I think our parents were simply glad that no one was injured. But the choreography also lacked sophistication, or any real sense of how a fight would actually go: in retrospect, I set up whole sequences of attack #1-2-5-4-2-3-1-etc. without any consideration for whether that would make sense in a real-life scenario. (Where are the openings? Why is the character making that move?)
It was not until I was seventeen that I first made my first foray into the world of stage combat training for professional actors – via a decidedly backwards route.
Full disclosure: despite being an enthusiastic amateur actor, I wasn’t originally looking to use stage combat in the theatre at all. I’d recently finished the first draft of a prequel – Southern Stars – to The Golden Crown, and in the process of writing said draft, had come face to face with the fact that I didn’t really have the first clue how to write a fight scene. (A bit of a problem for a fantasy novellist!) Archery, yes – the scenes where (a much younger) Kerowin and Morcel run around trying to teach themselves how to make and shoot bows and arrows are probably some of the better scenes in that draft, because I was drawing directly on – at the time – some fourteen years of archery background, a lot of relevant memories of childhood escapades, and enough experience teaching beginners to know exactly what mistakes were inevitable. But the moment my characters had to pick up a sword – or, much worse, throw a punch? I was thoroughly out of my depth, relying on vague clichés from other books, and I knew it.
Solution? Well, the logical solution seemed to be straightforward: if I wanted to be able to write a fight scene, then I needed to learn how to fight. Internet research ensued, and the result was an email to the coordinator of the Fight Directors’ Canada National Workshop, asking whether I would be allowed to take the Basic Actor-Combatant course in August – a two-week intensive workshop that covered unarmed, quarterstaff, and single sword. (The website said you were supposed to be eighteen. I was going to be several months shy of that.)
A few emails later – and with the requisite parental permission/signatures acquired – I was officially signed up. A few months later, my mother dropped me off at Concordia University in Montreal, for two weeks dedicated to nothing but fight training, where I quickly discovered how much I didn’t know about stage combat:
a) My fellow participants were, for the most part, professional actors, or professional-actors-in-training at reputable conservatories, and all of them were substantially older than I.
b) Any experience I had pre-FDC involved a sword in my hand. And I had never been in a “real fight”. No playful wrestling, no schoolyard scuffles (homeschooled!), no martial arts classes – nothing. Not surprisingly, unarmed required a much greater learning curve than single sword.
c) Dance background was almost as much of a hindrance as a help: on the one hand, I was used to learning choreography, I was reasonably flexible and not terribly out of shape, and lots of pilés do make holding a fighting stance for long periods of time much easier. On the other hand, in any fighting style (unarmed!) that required ‘getting down and dirty’, I stuck out like a sore thumb: the quality or style of movement required to actually-make-the-audience-believe-that-you’re-in-a-fight-and-getting-hit-and-trying-to-hurt-someone is obviously very different from the graceful, elegant, balletic movement that had prompted so many new acquaintances in my teens to ask “Do you do ballet, by any chance?” or “By the way, are you a dancer?”
d) When they described it as an “intensive”, they meant it. The basic and intermediate classes were in the studios from 9 until 6 (8:30 until 6 if you wanted time for an individual warm-up before the main group one; practically speaking, due to aforementioned ballet training, I always did want to do my own warmup – one of the reasons I got into the habit of showing up absurdly early for theatre-related things was the necessity of doing my own twenty-minute warmup before any rehearsal, since acting warm-ups never seem to involve anywhere near enough stretching). The advanced students had class in the evenings as well, until 9pm. Our evenings were dedicated to either private practice (I probably did more than five hundred lunges in my bedroom), to homework, to masterclasses, or – later on – to practicing the choreography for the test fights with our fight partners.
e) It was also, of course, incredibly exciting, and way, way too much fun.
When I arrived back in Ottawa (and promptly started first-year university), I was eager to continue training, but quickly ran up against the minor detail that FDC did not offer regular classes in Ottawa – where the theatre scene is much smaller than in Toronto or Montreal. So I managed to get down to Rapier Wit – Canada’s oldest stage combat school – in Toronto for a couple of weekends in the fall, and then signed myself up for fencing lessons through the university.
Starting fencing after stage combat was yet another amusing transition – while I already knew the names of all the parries, attacks, disengagements, and so forth, and while some things (parries) stayed exactly the same, stage combat attacks are generally designed to not actually touch/hit one’s opponent. The adage usually cited is “cut for stage, parry for real” – for example, if the choreography calls for me to do a cut with a rapier to a fight partner’s right shoulder, and for them to parry it, I do the cut in such a way that even if my partner completely forgets to parry, or parries ineffectively, or freezes, forgets the choreography completely, and stands there blinking, I will not hit them: my blade should always stop 6-12 inches (basic) or perhaps 4-6 inches (intermediate) away from their shoulder.
Needless to say, this does not work in fencing, where if one expects to touch one’s opponent (and thereby score any points!), one must thrust and cut on-line, i.e. actually aiming at the other person.
The other minor detail that I discovered, particularly after switching into the theatre program at the University of Ottawa: I was suddenly one of a reasonably short list of people in the city with any professional training in stage combat. This generally meant that if I was in a show that had fight scenes, the fight director(s) would appoint me as the fight captain – regardless of whether my character actually had to fight or not. (Cordelia, in King Lear, for instance, never picks up a sword onstage. That did not stop me from helping the fight director demonstrate techniques, running broadsword warm-ups and fight calls in a floor-length white gown, or orchestrating a series of handoffs so that the twenty-odd combatants in the final battle could share twelve swords between them.)
As I became more involved in the theatre scene in Ottawa, I discovered that the city did have fight directors around, and very good ones too, which led to the opportunity to tag along and assist with a series of shows, and to keep up my own training with private lessons in new weapon systems, like rapier & dagger, knives, and broadsword. I had every intention of finding a way to get my intermediate & advanced certifications, but it seemed as though I’d need to be in Toronto in order to do that: while going to the FDC Nationals intensive again was a possibility, the next few incarnations were held quite far away from Ottawa – Newfoundland and Alberta, to be precise – and that would have been expensive, especially when there was no guarantee that I would manage to learn everything quickly enough in a two-week intensive to pass. (As you move up the levels with FDC, the number of fights & weapons required for tests also increases – and two weeks is not a long time to acquire all the necessary habits and muscle memory.)
So while I had many good reasons to accept the University of Toronto’s offer of admission to their MA program, this was one that I don’t think anyone in the English department imagined! Pretty much as soon as I arrived in Toronto, I started intermediate classes at Rapier Wit, and since I’d been looking at their weekend firearms courses for a couple of years without managing to find a date that would let me get down to Toronto, I quickly signed up for those as well.
Oddly enough, I didn’t do a lot of theatre at the University of Toronto – but on the other hand, I’d chosen to put the emphasis for the fall semester firmly on stage combat training, which meant four hours a night for two-to-four nights per week, and effectively precluded performing in (or teching!) evening shows until January. I was also suddenly back to being one of the least experienced/knowledgeable fish in a much larger pond – a position which is a) good for me, b) means I learn more, and c) inspiring.
In January, with Intermediate completed, the five of us from the class then set our sights on doing Advanced the very next year – which led to, among other things, regular group gym sessions in preparation for a certain instructor’s infamously difficult warm-ups. (This is notable only because it’s the only time I’ve ever spent in a gym – between ballet, tap, jazz, archery, swimming, canoeing, figure skating, and backpacking, “exercise” has never been something I’ve bothered making separate time for!)
But while everyone else did indeed take Advanced the next fall, I moved to Oxford. And back into a student theatre scene with even less awareness of stage combat training than Ottawa’s – there aren’t many professional fight directors in Ottawa, but they do exist (and unsurprisingly, end up working on a lot of shows as a result!) and directors – as a general rule – were used to working with a fight director, knew when they needed to employ one, knew to listen to said fight director, knew that fight calls needed to happen, and didn’t do silly things like telling the actors to ‘just slap each other – it’ll be fine’.
Oxford has no resident stage combat instructors or directors that I’ve been able to find in two years of diligent searching. If a student show wants to employ one, they’re paying travel expenses (and perhaps accommodation) for someone to come from London. Which is not easy for regular rehearsals, or for student budgets.
On my first show in Oxford, however, for which I was assistant stage manager, an actor went to A&E (emergency room). The character needed to walk onstage and pretend to slip and fall. No one thought about trying to choreograph this, or teaching the actor how to do a stage fall, or anything … until we got to the scene in tech, about 36 hours before the show opened. That is the wrong time to try to teach a (physically uncoordinated, unfortunately) actor with no background in stage combat how to do a front fall. It is equally the wrong time for the director to be insisting that the actor can just hurl themselves at the floor face-first and they’ll be fine. (Or for the director to be insisting that yes, it absolutely has to be a front fall – not a side fall, or a back fall, or anything normally teachable to uncoordinated beginners.)
Long story short, hurling yourself at a hard floor repeatedly is in fact a bad idea, and led to this particular actor thinking he’d managed to dislocate his elbow – hence the trip to emergency. (It wasn’t dislocated – merely badly bruised – but the point stands.)
Thus began what became a bit of a one-woman crusade to fix or at least drastically alter the Oxford student approach to stage combat – and instill a few principles that had seemed obvious to me but were mostly unheard of when I arrived: If you’re doing a fight scene, you need a trained fight choreographer. You need to teach your actors choreography, use proper techniques, tailor it to their physical abilities (i.e. don’t give them things they can’t do safely!), and rehearse your fight slowly in advance, gradually building up speed, so that when it comes time to perform the show, your actors have been doing the movements for weeks, know them inside out and backwards, and can convincingly act and sell the scene while remaining in complete control.
Somewhat as a result, I’ve ended up doing a lot of fight choreography while in Oxford. At the two largest student venues, I’ve been the fight choreographer for almost every student show that’s needed one for the last year and a half. It’s an imperfect solution – I’m very much aware that (with my Intermediate) I’m not a certified Fight Director or Instructor, and in the interests of not misrepresenting myself have thus had to start many, many conversations with this information: ‘So, I’m not a certified fight director – I only have my Intermediate Actor-Combatant – but … [insert advice here]’. In most cases, though, it’s been quite clear that if I don’t try to teach the actors, the director (with no background in stage combat) will do it themselves. Which has, quite literally, led to things like people getting punched in the face hard enough to knock them out mid-performance. (I was not working on that show.) In a few cases, where what the director or production team wants is clearly beyond what I’m comfortable teaching, I have said ‘You need to hire a professional – I can’t be responsible for teaching or supervising that’ , but in the main, it’s been simple stuff – straight out of the basic unarmed or basic single sword playbook: The Effect (unarmed), King Lear (unarmed & knives), Living Together (unarmed), His Dark Materials: Part II (unarmed & knives), Hamlet (smallsword), Pentecost (unarmed & blank firing gun), The Three Musketeers (smallsword), RENT (unarmed & found weapons), The Arbor (knives), Richard II (unarmed & broadsword), Twelfth Night (smallsword).
And I’d like to think that as a result of insisting on them, over and over and over again, some of the underlying principles have become more widely known: when a show needs a fight choreographer, how to work productively with one, straightforward things that productions can do to help keep their actors safe.
I’d also like to think that shows have been able to realize more interesting and complex and dramatic fight scenes as a result. Certainly I’ve done work that I’ve been proud to see onstage. For The Three Musketeers (and Hamlet), we brought an instructor from London for a week before term started, and ran a intensive smallsword certification course under the BASSC for most of the cast. They – and the stage manager – passed their fight performance test, and thus had professional, industry-recognized certification before we even started choreography or rehearsals proper. Philip Pullman specifically complemented the fight scenes in His Dark Materials: Part II. The actors in King Lear and RENT and Richard II rose magnificently to the challenges they were given.
Most recently, working on The Ruby in the Smoke (a world premiere theatrical adaptation of Philip Pullman’s novel of the same name) has been a joy. Perhaps partly because the director, one of the actors, and the lighting designer all have existing basic certification, I’ve not had to expend any energy at all explaining (or having to continually argue for) how the process should work, but have simply been able to get on with creating the fights with the actors. And at least in my biased opinion, they’ve done a very good job.
So while I still need to work out how to get my Advanced certification while in the wrong country, that hasn’t stopped the fun, the challenges, or the fight scenes!