Right now it’s the dead of Winter in New England and unlike other groups around the country, we can’t nip over to the park to practice or take open spaces for granted. What we work on in the winter is writing new fights for the spring and since we have finite work space this can be both a challenge and a boon.

ImageThis photo is an over-exaggerated spin from this winter’s practice. A good example of you may think you look cool but sometimes it’s just silly

Writing fights for most stage productions (according to one of our sword teachers) is a linear affair. The audience is generally on one side and the rest of the cast has to be out of the way of the action.  For film, the action is generally with several cameras and is bits built up into an action-packed fight.  For us, we build our fights to be 360 degrees because often our choreography takes place in a field or on a joust run.  The problem with writing fights is that everyone thinks they can write them-and they can, it’s a question of how it looks, moves and performs and how good it is in the end analysis.

So what do you really need if you want to be consistent and of a quality to perform it? (This is not a how-to so much as an overview)

We start with a common lexicon or terms and basic maneuvers. If you have ever seen a cut chart for sword manuals the positions on the body look similar to the positions of a clock. The people who are “dancing” together need to understand where the swords and bodies are going and that everyone is on the same team. At this point we have not even picked up weapons or wasters, we use a series of exercises taught to us by Tony Wolf, which he freely admits he cribbed from dancers. The first set of movements are two people, with a body chart of rights, lefts,  and they stand together palms just not touching. Initially we start with a clear aggressor and defender and they move around the room, always in complimentary position. This is harder than it sounds, it results in stomped toes, unbalanced falls and backing into objects.  This exercise  saves us a lot of explanation because when we say “be aware” it often goes in one ear and out the other.

We have basic drills, done solo, which teach targeting, review basic defense and attacks and build arm strength and stress balance.  I use the sparest form of this when I teach “sword lessons” to small children in under ten minutes. (Let me be clear, these are not long-term students, these are 5.00 sword lessons so small children can hold a metal sword)  I can teach a basic “fight” to your average  seven year-old pretty quickly. It is an extended version of this we use as our “primer” fight for troupe members. It is a series of drills strung together to make a fight.  And once the member has the basics of this memorized they are welcome to write their first fight.

Maybe it’s my Irish heritage but I believe three is the magical number for writing fights- two people to do a walk-through and another to document. (When reviewing historical manuals this trinity is ideal with a good physical practitioner, a scholar and a smart-ass with drive.  But that is a another blog entry) When we write fights the person documenting has to take into account, point-of view (We use the aggressor) the fighting style, the movement, the motivation and above all, safety.  Everyone has a tool of choice for this-Valkyrie swears by pen and paper, I use paper transcribed onto notepad, word and one of my teachers uses excel, and digitally recording.  You just need a medium that can be shared, tweaked and documented.  I can’t stress enough that a good fight does not rely on props or hidden items-this has a tendency to go wrong at the worst times. (Murphy’s Law is a troupe member everywhere)   having my own issues occur in performance, the troupe makes fun of me for going through worst-case scenarios but they laugh less when they have alternates in place.  I will use a specific example-one fight between a small and large group member involved leaping onto someone and drawing a boot dagger.  At my insistence, I asked that there be an alternative if that went wrong.  And it did (boot dagger made its own leap)and the player mimicked strangling her partner with hair extensions. The audience never knew the difference but we had a good laugh over it.

The other reason drills never go away: Yes, it happens, people blank during fights.  We have some keywords that indicate “Oh hey, brainfart!” and the fighters go through a quick set of drills until they are both  back on the same page.

Some general things that can go wrong that practice can smooth over

  • Weapons fumbles
  • Drastically changed performance space
  • People moving things they are not supposed to touch
  • Being thrown into a situation with other bodies unexpectedly (Oh we are part of a large-scale melee, huh, good to know…)
  • Sprains and accidents
  • Slippery ground

To me, a good fight needs about six to eight hours of development to be decent. I am not talking about six hours run together. We scale it as two weeks of development (more if you want) but four to six  weeks of doing it by memory with 360 critiques at 1-2 hour increments.

We joke that “first performance fights” are the fights most folks never forget, it’s their baby and it is also the one they have the most brain space available. They work it to death and it shows.  Years later we all look back and wince a bit but it has a certain integrity to it.  And no fight is so perfect it can’t be critiqued. And I’ve included a sample of a “first fight”  at the bottom.

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I won’t lie, it’s fun to do but if you are part of a working group-you need to change it up and occasionally try letting someone write fights FOR you. It will be illuminating on all sides.

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