Archives for posts with tag: performance

Guest blog by Fenix-cofounder

History of the fire swords

Flaming F
Saturday morning while I was waiting for my wife to get up, I was watching a show on The History Channel called “Forged in Fire”.
They take blade smiths and have them make various different weapons that they then abuse and declare a winner based on who’s retains an edge, doesn’t break, etc.
(Cut coconuts, smash ice, hit rocks, etc.)

Looking at previous episodes of the show, I found that the very first person who won the first episode is a person who used to make swords for our sword troupe. That was back when he was the M in MP metalworks.

There was a time, more than 10 year ago now, where about half the swords the troupe used were made by him:

Of the 6 different fire swords the troupe has used over the last 14 years, he made 4 of them.
OK, it’s really 4 of 6 ½, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

It didn’t even start with us.
The sword group my wife and I were in before Phoenix Swords had broken apart badly. It was 14 years ago and there are still people mad at each other about it. (I’m one of them.)
At least 4 different groups formed out of the 35 members of that old troupe.
Phoenix Swords is the only one of those still going.

One of the others was one of the two founders of that previous group. He wanted to get into fire performance. He was a very good performer who came up with excellent ideas for ways to perform. (And, many bad ones too.)
But, he just wasn’t very good at running a group. Even when it was just him in the group.
So, we worked out something where he would perform with Phoenix Swords, but remain independent of our group.

He came up with the idea for the very first of our fire swords. He went to M at MP Metalworks with his idea and M built him a prototype.
It is a regular sword modified to be a fire sword. Other than the modifications, it looks just like a regular sword.
Our friend who designed it only had the one built. He didn’t sword fight with it, he just danced with it.
As far as I know, he only did one show with it:

Then, he quit performance. Sadly, we had booked several fire shows for him that he now didn’t want to do. So, that is how Phoenix Swords got into fire shows.
And, I did end up with that very first fire sword. Fire sword Zero is what we used to call it.

M liked the sword he had modified and decided to build a pair of fire swords from the ground up.
Two of our members (A & R) bought them and we added them to our growing fire show.

They looked cool. The hilts were bent up with little flame shapes. The pommels on the bottom were also cut to look like flames.
This made them horribly dangerous as it put a sharp point on the bottom edge of the swords. I can’t count how many times those bottom points cut someone using them.

A&R didn’t work out all that well for our troupe and ended up leaving.
They took their fire swords with them. They had paid for them, not us, and I didn’t like the design anyhow.

Tom had M make a new fire sword for him.
It was a monster. Almost 6 feet long (180cm) and covered in flame, not a lot of folks were willing to have him swing it at him. I usually ended up doing the sword fight with him using the original prototype myself.
At least it had a round pommel and not the pointy ends.

Sadly the swords really weren’t up for being used as fire swords. The heat of the fire caused them to warp.
Tom’s big one had a particularly bad bend one show where my wife had to run onto the field and take it away from him with the fire proof blanket. (It worked for the show as I was supposed to be fighting him for revenge for him beating my wife. So the audience loved her stealing his fire sword…)

There had been another sword group located in Kansas that we worked with from time to time until they broke up.
One of their members made swords. When he did some of the shows with us, he looked at the fire shows and said “I could do that better”.

So, in 2007 he made us two new fire swords. They were of the same basic concept of the previous swords, but more proportional to the swords we used in our regular shows.

The very first show we used them in, the one I was using broke off at the hilt on the second hit.
This led to the “I’m not Aragorn” incident at the post office:
He didn’t ask for the blade back, just the handle. So, I’m not sure if I should count that as a fire sword repaired or an additional fire sword. That’s why I say we’ve had 6 ½ of them in the troupe.

Either way, the broken one was replaced and it has held up very well for the last 9 years.

The hilt did break off last year, but Cosmicirony was able to fix it for us.

Looking back at it all, it is strange to me to see the person who made those original swords, that were dangerous to the user and bent when being used for what they were made to do, and see him win a sword making competition. Especially as the final test was they fired a bullet at the edge of the sword he made to see if the blade would split it in two without breaking.
It did!
I was surprised. His old swords would never have lived through that.
But, it has been more than a dozen years too.

I guess practice makes perfect.
12 years of practice seems to have helped!


turtle-in-shellI know that you really enjoy watching (insert “Being There” joke)  the acts at the faire but yes, you as a shy person or as an introvert (a person who needs alone time to recharge) or even a shy extrovert (A person who needs a social script but once that’s set there is no stopping you)  or and outgoing introvertmany of the people you see onstage are *just like you* the majority really are extroverts (that’s why they were drawn to this. )But like any slice of life, it’s not generally made up of just one type of person. With the success of books like “Quiet” it’s important to note that it’s not just the arm-flinging hams that have something to contribute to entertainment. And not just behind the scenes.

What an introvert does:
Because going into a situation is like a social obstacle course, most introverts are actually pretty good at reading people and they can especially do a low-key approach to personal interactions. Although a lot of folks are very good at being the center of attention, sometimes they can be overwhelming.  The introvert knows to bait the trap with an interesting hook, look or object that invites participation. This also lets the invited person set the pace of how much or little this scene will play out interactively. Although the extrovert gives permission to be  loud, the introvert knows how to target the more reticent audience member.

We listen to everything. And although the extrovert is funny, the introvert has been tweaking the joke for weeks and observing crowd reactions. The introvert saw the lady in row three wincing and the Bubba in row five cracking his knuckles. We are the ones who pull aside a main player and say.
“Dude, you need to stop doing ‘x’ it’s really getting to people.”
Sometimes that is the reaction you want, most times, even if it played well in Peoria, maybe not so much in Nantucket. (And that limerick is RIGHT OUT)

We make excellent “straight men” and “fall guys” because we don’t need the spotlight (usually)  We are happy to be the brunt of a joke or do non-speaking parts. We had an excellent introvert that told us
“Look I can never go on stage again, it was too much.” And we were all sad to hear it because he stole the show with gestures and mugging.  I think our hams were somewhat relieved. My super-secret power is being able to hit the dirt and sound like a sack of wet mice. And to “take a kick.” Sadly, we can’t do that any more because it’s too convincing. When you have to hold back a crowd after a stage fight, that fourth wall crashes in an unpleasant way. Now our fights have to be “less graphic.” Thanks pseudo-chivalry inspired by faires!

Often we are the more eloquent speakers-not because we are in any way better than an extrovert, but because we show our distain in a different way. Most extroverts are firecrackers-BOOM! Then it’s all over and they feel better. Sadly, a lot of damage can be done in very few seconds. Introverts (and well-trained extroverts) are accustomed to taking that extra few seconds to speak. Delaying the exact words “YOU ARE A DUMBASS”  and saying something a little less pointed can save jobs, lives and working. We  are the folks who are genuinely happy to have the show over. We don’t mind jobs like: watch my stuff, stay here and act as a point person, or be the unexpected quiet person that pops up unexpectedly at the sword rack when grabby hands think no one is around.  And generally we don’t have to tell everyone else what a rough day it was, because we assume everyone involved in it already knows.

So although we don’t get the loud accolades, knowing that it all went smoothly, that we had our moment onstage and people really enjoyed themselves, this is how we get our moments at the renfaire. And how we help the “hams” get theirs.


Picture: Paulus Hector Mair sickle

What we haven’t discussed yet is that Phoenix Swords actually does research, participates in and pays for translations of sword manuals. With digitization, the historical sword work community has *exploded* with new work, ideas, interpretations and demonstrations.  This is fantastic, few things bring more joy than an honest and informed discussion about swords. [additional comments redacted)

So what is involved with taking a sword manual from a digital copy or printed facsimile to a two-minute spot in a historical show at a renaissance faire?  First, time and the ability to love watching grass grow.  Not an exaggeration. Most manuals are NOT in English so first, as a primarily an English speaker, I need to find someone conversant in that language and HOPEFULLY familiar with sword terminology. Go ahead, find that on Craigslist.

We (the founders of PS) first did this with a study group run out of the now-defunct, Higgins Armory Museum. There was both a physical guild and a study guild and for a number of years I was in both.  As time went on, we had to change up how we learned to work out “plays” from these books and in some cases, like the sickle manual we reference, we paid members of ARMS at the UMass Renaissance Center to translate the  Latin and German so we would have a starting base. For a brief time we studied and worked with another group out of Cambridge, MA called CHEMAS(Cambridge Historical European Martial Arts Studies Group.)

So that was a long-winded way to say; First, you start with a manual, then you add in people who are scholars, physical practitioners, sword enthusiasts  and stubborn. I say stubborn because imagine reading two lines in German, debating what they mean and the physical direction, acting out those physical directions, have a discourse on everyone’s opinions of the directions, settling on one to start, doing the instruction and then saying “You, know, that doesn’t look/ sound right.” And do this for two-three hours and not even complete a two-paragraph selection within a book, that’s a hat tip to what it takes to go through sword manuals. And then the interpretation is colored by the background of the participants-longsword enthusiasts will have a different take than someone with a background in wrestling or Judo and literalists will not like some of these ideas “appended” to what the text says explicitly.  And there are different schools, and that would explode this into a flow chart so let’s skip ahead.

My personal experience is that I love being part of what is (avert your eyes my catholic friends) the holy trinity of an interpretation. I have two friends I especially enjoy working with one is a medievalist and linguistic scholar, the other physically great and a martial artist and they both have experience in demonstrations and sword work.  We crank out great stuff and I am not ashamed to say that I am the not the pretty or smart one-but I do ask questions that Everyman needs to ask so we all understand. In our troupe, Fenix is excellent at both interpretation and making something demonstration quality. And to be clear-sword manuals are meant to end fights quickly. Many moves consist of “move blade, cut opponents hand, gloat.” Okay I threw in ‘gloat’ but if anyone has seen competitive fencing it is over quickly and although the spectators will have plenty to say about technique and skill. A person who wandered in from the street will say “Clink, clink, done? What just happened?” So a good historical interpretation will often make for an insufficient entertainment.  (Somewhere in western MA one of my sword teachers is shaking his fist and shouting right now)

So how do you make a historical sword show palatable for a general audience? First, you need to set the expectation. We have a funny patter that states exactly what we are going to do up front. We swap out weapons types and gear the information flow to the median audience. If seeing our show at a college or library, it would be peppered with history and some in-jokes (What would Joachim Meyer say about this technique? Nothing he’s dead. Guffaw)  We often string several sequences together as though the fighters are evenly matched with maneuver and counter-maneuver. This is the way I learned at Higgins.

And one of the first mistakes to make with these items is to 1) make them too smooth 2) not target.  We try to hold off on teaching our members the historical items until they are comfortable with stage. I tell troupe members that learning the techniques will grind their mental gears because in stage one targets safely outside the body and with historical one targets to maim. It takes a lot of trust to do our historical show. When we do the initial cut with our George Silver segment, the defender either learns to move that leg or gets it. And that is how we worked it initially in interpretation as well. (Blunted blades mostly result in bruised legs for those of you who may have just swooned)

And we’ll mix and match once the troupe member is comfortable and understands the risk. We have one member we call “Mr. Murder Stroke” because he loves that longsword technique and you will see it in many of his fights.  I love a blade block and step-through which is used in rapier, backsword and some pollarms, it’s smexy. (1)

So yes, we have fights with what I call The Stevie Nicks Spin (see above) and clearly open-to-the-body moves for fun but we sneak in the meatier stuff with the pure historical show and some of our stage fights-it’s how we edu-tain at the festivals.

Places to start  finding your historical partners and schools

Sword Forum International

Meetup Groups


and from Guy Windsor


Some times of year it is easier to find inspiration than others. Here in New England the faire season is pretty much over but as soon as the snow stops blowing (and we’ve done gigs in blowing snow) you can bet that every person who can will be fleeing cabin fever and racing out in shorts when it hits 40 degrees. It’s easy to be inspired when the sun is shining and the events are happening. It’s more difficult to be thinking about new and amazing when Holiday food, staying indoors, snuggies and Netflix are producing a siren song. Here are some of the ways I choose to get inspired so that when Spring debuts, so does Phoenix Swords

We practice all winter. It is a slog and we will cancel practices if it is dangerous to travel or a consensus of members will not be attending (Christmas and New Year’s Eve for example)  Two weeks off is no big deal but a month impacts how nimble (mentally and physically) performers become. I like to point out what we call “Performance Math” –that is, you can take time off but it will take a LOT more effort to be up to speed when it is time to practice for an actual performance. In March we work the Gulf Coast Renaissance Faire  and six weeks out from that is the second week of January. I like to have six weeks to perfect a fight rather than write, tweak and then try to catch up to everything else.  Also, when you have time to goof around and take things slowly, your brain has more free time to wander and discover. Your muscles will also remember if you have not run around or held a sword in months.

Play, this is so undervalued in adults.  Time and again studies show that learning new skills, doing puzzles, playing music and even juggling will mentally stimulate adults. I’m not sure why  it has to be repeated again and again. Kids are a tremendous inspiration, I find their clarity that having fun and trying something now is a good kick in the keister for me. I work with young adults and sometimes some of the questions they ask make the top of my head shoot off with new ideas.  Most folks become involved with faires because the they  still love to pretend. I think shutting off this resource is a shame.

Reading and absorbing other media, for instance; art, or music.  My co-owner and I go to performances of all types and for the children’s skits, we read world folklore-we encourage troupe members to do the same.  If a troupe member tells me that they want to write a skit we do it-that’s how we ended up with Ilya of Murom,  The Firebird,  Nazrudin and Fox and Cat.  It not only personalizes performances and teaches new skills, but add investment to how we run the troupe.

Letting the mind wander. I can’t speak for anyone else but I like to just be open to experiences, let them wash over me and compost a while.  While watching a British detect show I saw a faire on the common and thought about what the show makers had done to give a character to the episode and why it made me be interested-what props did they use to draw in the viewer? What didn’t I “get” as an American and what was just plain interesting?  And making a purchase at a local store-I wandered the aisles and asked for red and green bottles for a new fuel we are trying out for shows-and that led me to thinking about how to compact and carry fire equipment. I was reading a fire forum and there is a toy I have only seen once before it disappeared and I not only want to replicate it but watching a Balinese dancer with fans back in November gave me an idea about how a bad staff spinner (me) could find ways around my skill to  make that movement interesting with that new toy.

So in short, what I am saying here is if you have not changed your act in years, I have no idea how you keep from being bored by it and translate that to your audience.  Be open to all the really interesting things around you and give it back to your audience as something  fresh and important to you.

ImageI am sure that as soon as one human stood up and made a joke, another human was banging rocks together and pointing at his own hoo-hoo, thus hecklers have always been with us.  There are countless venues who have written volumes on this subject but I’d like to take on how it can be handled at the Renaissance Faire. To start, this venue is generally one of the most friendly and intimate and often unless drinking is involved, it stays fairly polite.  As for our group, we live on East Coast where we get lots and lots of practice at insults, think skinned tolerance and too much human interaction. And if you wonder what the first three hobbies were, this is the only one I was willing to write about here.

Recently one of my personal  performing heroes, Dave Chappelle, was heckled locally and it all went sideways. This made me sad because he gave me the strength to persevere earlier in his career telling his story about bombing at the Apollo Theater.   I figured if someone with that much talent could take it, I had no excuses. But his odd response to these hecklers inspired this blog.

Still when one is onstage, it’s hard not to take it as a personal attack and in some ways it is-but if you are a performer it’s important to remember that there is no way a random person in the audience is aware of who you are as a person and that the attack is really more about  what is going on in the head of the attacker. And it some cases they have no idea that this is actually what they are doing.

Drunk Guy, this one is easy. Generally this can be ignored and someone can quickly run off and grab security. Chances are if this man/woman is a menace to you, it’s been a trail of social mess.

The “Helper.” this person has been to your shows and knows your lines and is spoiling every comedic moment you’ve worked years to perfect. This person probably sees it as “participation.” But to my knowledge, Rocky Horror or Repo the Genetic Opera are not playing at any local renfaires so this person is Open Season. I’m not saying call-and-response is discouraged, quite the opposite!  A long tradition for Panto, Punch and Judy, blogs and Church! But without solicitation this person is killing the timing. We often respond by going off-script. For some groups this is awful but with ours, whom we have to practically use cattle prods to keep on-line, it’s setting loose the hounds. And if you have friends who work in retail, food service or a government agency, I suggest you mine them for the comedy gold they could provide you in dealing with the public. They will gladly give you all of the inner dialogue they never shared with customers. This should be put down quickly and firmly. An excellent example: (Skip to 2:05 if you are impatient)

The person who has decided to hate you
You have no control over this, all you can do is move on and roll with the punches. Sadly, unless this person is actively causing problems to the audience you need to ignore or incorporate this individual. I’ve been forced to do both. It can really be a shock to experience. One friend who sub-contracts with us and has been doing faires for almost 20 years had a child decide that he hated, hated, hated his character for a faire.  Enough that the child in question stood up in a set of bleachers, and screamed
And I’ll admit, we all sort of blinked for a few moments, stunned. After all, we all want to break down the fourth wall but this was with a sledge hammer. Andt it was energizing too, that we had evoked so much strong emotion and now everyone would know Don Antonio, that jerk. Work with it as best you can and if it becomes more than an occasional annoyance, once again it may be a security issue.

Other-people come in a bewildering array of faces, places and choices. someone might be attempting to audition for your role. Someone who thinks they are more righteous, better, more entertaining  than you. Someone who just has no ^&*#ing social skills.  You have no way to know, you will never know.


  • You were paid to be here. If someone interrupts your show they have cast the first volley and now you can make your feelings plain, shoot them down and move on.
  • If they are persistent you can sometimes base your show on them, in the way they never planned, as the butt of your jokes.
  • If you are done, be done with them and just ignore them. If they sufficiently annoy your audience (who has paid to see you) things will occur. You probably don’t have to be involved.
  • Security is a last resort and chances are you are better off finishing your bit and THEN getting security. (or having a buddy)

And I’m happy to cede the subject to people who do it better than I do. I’m there for the swords and fire so here are some experts in the field (NOT Safe for work or small people)

How comedians deal with hecklers (video collection)

Christophe the Insultor, a man who does it professionally



As countless articles cited many times before,  if someone has decided to don those leather shoes and put on that jaunty cap, it is  not for a segment on E! or like many British actors in Hollywood, a stupidly huge paycheck.  It is because there is some aspect of personality that scratches the performing or personal itch. I can’t pretend I’ll cover them here but can share at least some of the reasons  given to me when asked.

Making the magic:
This is old and powerful, almost everyone has a pinch of this. Somewhere, sometime someone saw a performer, vendor, visitor  get up do a show or a talk or a tete-a-tete and the moment transcended dusty lanes and shiny clothes. In that moment, everyone in it was transported out of time, out of a place with cares and there was a gorgeous piece of intimacy that made everyone better for participating in it. We’ve witnessed these,  received these and in some cases we’ve made these.   These don’t just happen at renfaires  but because of the lack of technological distraction and the natural closeness of people, sights and smells I think they have a chance of staying with people longer. In most of the cases of our performers these happened at faires of all sizes but that bug bit badly because of this magic-making.

Reinvention of the Self:
Hopefully you’ve read my last blog entry, if not I’ll wait.
In many cases  a shy, introverted or simply a not fully realized person has the opportunity to go and expand, learn and enjoy some self-discovery. Or in the rather long end of the spectrum, chase some tail. (If you are too young to understand that, you probably should stop reading this blog.) In her book,  Wake Up I’m Fat, Camryn Manheim cites renfaires as a place where she blossomed. Penn and Teller began at faires  and Doctor Kaboom still does renfaires but generally not as a mud beggar any more.  I’m certain there are other examples but this is a blog not a research paper so let’s move on.

This is not to say that the “big time” or that the pinnacle of achievement is to leave off doing faires or other events. In fact, quite a few people do very well and genuinely enjoy the circuit because of its intimacy and atmosphere. And I’d rather watch a well-done live show any day of the week before sitting in a movie theater or turning on the television. In fact, working at faires has really spoiled me in many ways and it’s not uncommon for us to experience what a friend calls “faire hangover” when coming back from a job. When a performer spends a weekend expending energy like a Coast Guard Spotlight on a rescue mission, the day after with the dirty laundry, cleaning gear and getting up to do day-to-day things can be a bit adjustment. And sometimes the world seems a little less sparkly and innovative after seeing so much high-end talent and graciousness.

Finding like-minded people:
Much as the so-called “normal” world would like us to think that acceptance is the median state, it absolutely is not the case. With media bombarding people with “the new normal” of body types,  manscaping and ‘right kind of people’ as well as terrible stereotypes played for laughs, some of us find it wearying. I am not saying that renaissance faires are paragons of acceptance (and I see a future blog post coming on that subject) but they do tend to be more accepting of folks who do not march to the American Media goose-step.   For my own personality, I am, according to a common personality test given by employers, a type that is embraced by less than 1% of the population.  And at one point we had three of us in the troupe.  In day-to-day encounters most of us in Phoenix Swords have to rachet down our base personalities to get along and blend in with others.  This is not necessarily unhealthy, but it does mean that when the costume goes on,  the limiters come off and we can be out our loud, proud inner selves and get paid for it.  And  another nice thing about renaissance festivals-you may have nosy neighbors but everyone understands that there are fewer fences and closed blinds. The capitalist competition to be a cookie-cutter American falls flat when everyone is  relying on whatever is brought and shared for food and resources, and generally given without reservation.  Alternate lifestyles are also not generally under scrutiny (and working at renfaires falls under that VERY broad brush)  We still are not big after-hours participants but it’s nice to be part of a social group that isn’t discussing their latest coupe at the country club or celebrity misstep.

First and foremost-participants at a festival are artists. Everyone from the “squire” picking up trash, the rat-on-a-stick guy to the royalty wearing outfits that cost as much as my first car. They are all doing their part in creating a work of art. This is part of the magic, but is the backbone of the magic. Everyone’s good time is spoiled if we can’t take a pee in a clean toilet, eat food we know is generally safe or sit comfortably in a semi-shaded spot so we can focus on having fun.  Sure there is an element of danger but it’s not directed at the audience, they get to live vicariously through those of us kooky enough to entertain them in such a manner.   And that guy/gal who laughs at all your jokes and guffaws at your idiocy, they are the ones who open the floodgates for everyone to enjoy the work of art. Even the hecklers keep us on our game and *surprise* may end up in the act. This is my addiction-to create a piece, set it up and let it go. We approximate our shows to firing a cannon-we can clean it, load it, prime it and fire it but hopefully the targeting is good, once fired it’s in the air.  And still in the ‘creation’ aspect we are re-creating a tradition that goes back as far as when three people gathered and someone said “hold my beer.”

Final wrap-up last reasons with some quick statements of other reasons cited for working at the renfaire:
“What else would I do with my liberal arts degree?”
“No one asks if I’ve been convicted of a felony.” (Joking, kind of)
“I love making things look easy and bringing people along for that.”
“I love the camaraderie.”
“To meet chicks” (given that vernacular, I don’t think it’s a location issue.)
“To perform and be admired.”

But if you want to work at the festival you have to, in the words of Spamalot  you should ‘Find your Grail’ and work from there. Hopefully this gave you some insights.