Month: June 2014

I Do My Own Stunts Part 1

**note: I recently had a much-compressed version of the three-parter I call “I Do My Own Stunts” in the Spring 2014 edition of The Fight Master journal. If you’re an SAFD person, check it out. The following is a re-post from the old blog of my “I Do My Own Stunts” series.   ~Jenn


I Do My Own Stunts

It’s an actorly sign of badassitude to claim to do one’s own stunts. It’s a mark of admiration (“Craig did all his own stunts in Casino Royale!” “Ooo.”) and praise in that world. I even subscribed to this attitude myself, until recently.

I had the opportunity to review Vic Armstrong’s autobiography recently on website Nerds in Babeland, and he had a perspective on the whole do-my-own-stunts concept that changed my mind about the whole thing. Mainly it was refreshing to hear his perspective as a stuntman only (as opposed to an actor-combatant, like me and many of my students), and his view was much different than the view from the giant ego of an actor.  He said that not only was it an unnecessarily reckless and dangerous choice for an actor, but it literally takes work away from the professionals when they make that choice.

Vic Armstrong and Harrison Ford on set for Raiders.

Vic Armstrong and Harrison Ford on set for Raiders.

A stuntman is trained specifically for the dangerous occupation, and actors very often aren’t. When an actor gets hurt, it can stop shooting (and certainly shows on camera, whereas a stuntman can easily hide his face, etc.) which costs a lot of money. Especially when the actor is a star–just imagine how much money it cost when Harrison Ford, for example, got hurt during Raiders of the Lost Ark. A stuntman is a) less likely to get injured, as he is trained for the work, and b) doesn’t stop a whole shooting schedule when he does get injured. I mean, if Harrison Ford, say, breaks his back, that’s the end of the movie until he recovers. If a stuntman breaks his back, another one steps in and the movie continues.

In one part of Armstrong’s book, he recounts having this very conversation with Christopher Reeve during Superman II–that Reeve would get so excited about doing his own stunts, but then when Armstrong would say, “Listen, you’re literally taking money away from me when you do this,” he changed his perspective and did only some of the stunts (albeit under Armstrong’s close supervision). Reeve already had top billing, Armstrong reminded him, and when he then also did his own stunts, the professionals were out of a job (and a star was at unnaturally big risk).*

We don’t get stunt doubles in live theatre, so I think actors like me (especially trained actor/combatants) tend to have this attitude about film acting that it’s a lazy or not as well trained actor that would let the stunt double do all the hard work for him. Theatre actors have to be highly trained in a huge volume and variety of different skills to be able to pull off some of these roles, because it’s all in real time and all done by the actors onstage, no cuts or do-overs either. So theatre actors tend to get pretty full of ourselves about the perceived skills of others in similar fields, just from ego and competition one-upsmanship. We theatrical egos just need to understand a bit more about how filmmaking and acting across the media actually work. Armstrong has a strong point: let the professionals do the stunt work.

Of course, there are exceptions to this: actors who are either first or just as completely trained in stuntwork of course can do stunts because they are also stunt professionals. Ray Park, for example, first worked in show business as a stuntman, before learning acting and landing roles himself (Darth Maul being his most famous to date).

*For more stunt stories from Raiders, see excellent documentary Raiding the Lost Ark. The discussion especially of the famous sword-vs.-gun scene is informative and highly entertaining.


The Fight is the Story

My Prezi from my ROMOCOCO presentation, both from 2013 and 2014, called “The Fight is the Story.”

I don't know where I found this. Online somewhere. Anyone have a credit I can give this to?

I don’t remember where I found this. Online somewhere. Anyone have a credit I can give this to?

Three Rules: The Monomyth Revisited

Since I’m starting this blog over again, I’m reposting (as opposed to riposting) some of the meatier posts from the past. This is actually a re-repost, as it is an old lecturette for a now-defunct DU course I designed and taught back in the day, called Writers on Writing. I’s my take on Campbell’s theory of the monomyth. Please to enjoy.   ~Jenn


Three Rules for Protagonists: the Monomyth Revisited               

Every morning I jump out of bed and step on a landmine. The landmine is me. After the explosion, I spend the rest of the day putting the pieces together.[1]

Back in acting school, we learned a magic Three Rules that we were to adhere to whenever we performed a new character (which was often a couple times a week).  No matter how big a role, the Three Rules for Actors worked to make a performance authentic, dynamic, and compelling.

When an actor plays a mood, she dissolves instantly into sham.  Mood spelled backwards is Doom for the actor.[2]In other words, if one “plays sad” the performance will seem false and cheesy to an audience. If one plays a verb, an objective, then one is playing an action instead of an emotion.

Three Rules for Actors:

“What do I want?” (objective)

“What do I do to get what I want?” (tactics)

“What stands in my way?”  (obstacles)

Actors ask these three questions of themselves as the character they’ve been assigned, and often will write verbs in the margins of their scripts (tactics = action words) to guide them along the scenes.  Any story can be boiled down to this formula. A character does actions to get her objective. When one action doesn’t work, she’ll try another. And the audience will want to know what she’ll do next, and if she’ll end up achieving her objective. When the character either achieves her objective, or discovers it can’t be achieved, the story is over. A new objective is a new story.

These three rules, though taught to actors, I have found to be essential in the understanding of story structure. A writer can ask their protagonist these three questions and the narrative nearly writes itself. Ray Bradbury probably never heard the Actor’s Rules, but his story-writing instructions are a direct reiteration of the objective/tactics/obstacles formula:

Find a character, like yourself, who will want something or not want something, with all his heart. Give him running orders. Shoot him off. Then follow as fast as you can go. The character, in his great love, or hate, will rush you through to the end of the story.[3]

This formula works for anything narrative—fiction, non-fiction, or (obviously) drama. Poetry is about image and sound, so it doesn’t go by the Actor’s Rules. But anything that has events, things happening, a central character (even the writer-as-narrator of a personal essay) has added dynamism and a clean plot if the Three Rules are kept in mind.


Being shown the ropes. At Metro’s theatre department, 2014. See what I did there?

This is where a lot of what’s called “literary fiction” falls into traps, and genre fiction writers get carried away.

Writers are faced with so much that is less than artistic sitting on the bookshelves, many wonder what they can do to be noticed by an inundated publisher or agent, and, not wanting to “sell out,” they try and write really, really good stuff. This is the problem. If a writer adds too much to the Three Rules above, it’s like adding too much stuff to a base skeleton: it becomes an overweight monstrosity that’s dressed in too many clashing layers of clothes. As Philip Pullman said in his Carnegie Medal Acceptance Speech,

…in adult literary fiction, stories are there on sufferance. Other things are felt to be more important: technique, style, literary knowingness. Adult writers who deal in straightforward stories find themselves sidelined into a genre such as crime or science fiction, where no one expects literary craftsmanship.”[4]

And what happens to the genre writers? They put the same flesh and clothes on the skeleton that hundreds have done before them, but those hundreds did it better. What results from the genre writers is a cheaply made clone that’s not any better than fan-fiction (and worse than some).

What to do?

Really, the answer is simple (which is what makes it so frakking difficult to execute). It has to do with Mamet’s statement of simplicity in storytelling:

As long as the protagonist wants something, the audience will want something. As long as the protagonist is clearly going out and attempting to get that something, the audience will wonder whether or not he’s going to succeed. The moment the protagonist, or the auteur of the movie, stops trying to get something and starts trying to influence someone, the audience will go to sleep.[5]

In other words, stop trying to be a good writer. Just follow your character’s strong desire, and it will become a compelling story. That’s it. Don’t write a masterpiece of linguistic gymnastics with “a prophylactic garnish of irony.”[6] That’s not what people who want books want to read. People want stories, they’ll watch movies or play video games to get stories; or as the pithy Pullman says again, “We need stories so much that we’re even willing to read bad books to get them, if the good books won’t supply them.”[7]

I’ve had writing students struggle against this: they cry, “But if all stories are just the Three Rules, then anything I write won’t be original?!” Writers shouldn’t be afraid of this, the Three Rules for All Story, any more than they should be afraid of their own skeletons. I mean, think about it: if you stand my skeleton and your skeleton next to each other, there’d be hardly any noticeable difference. It’s the flesh and clothes and actions we take that make us different from each other, original works of art.



[1] Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing

[2] Uttered by many of my previous acting profs, at CU Boulder and a couple UNC seminars.

[3] From Zen in the Art of Writing

[4] From

[5] From Mamet’s On Directing Film

[6] Pullman’s speech again

[7] Ibid.



Bradbury, Ray, Zen in the Art of Writing. Joshua Odell Editions. Santa Barbara, CA: 1994.

Mamet, David. On Directing Film. Penguin. New York: 1992.

Pullman, Philip. “Carnegie Medal Acceptance Speech,” His Dark Materials. 2008. Accessed 11/9/09. Available: <;


The More You Holmes

Back on the old blog, I had a weekly series called The More You Holmes, which was me pointing out Doyle canon references in BBC’s series Sherlock (and sometimes CBS’s Elementary). I am hereby starting this habit again. This week, it’s what I call “The Attic Speech.”

From: Sherlock ep. 1.3, Elementary ep. 1.2


E!Sherlock:  “Attic theory. I’ve always believed the human brain is like an attic: storage space, facts, but because that space is finite, it must be filled only with things one needs to be the best version of oneself. It’s important, therefore, not to have useless facts: the natterings that comprised your support meeting, for example, crowding out

Thanks Matt Korda for my very own logo!

Thanks Matt Korda for my very own logo!

useful ones.”

S!Sherlock:  Listen. (He points to his head with one finger.) This is my hard drive, and it only makes sense to put things in there that are useful … really useful. Ordinary people fill their heads with all kinds of rubbish, and that makes it hard to get at the stuff that matters. Do you see?
JOHN: But it’s the solar system!
SHERLOCK: Oh, hell! What does that matter? So we go round the Sun! If we went round the Moon, or round and round the garden like a teddy bear, it wouldn’t make any difference. All that matters to me is the work. Without that, my brain rots.

Reference: The original “attic speech” is from the very first Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet. Here is the speech from the horse’s mouth, as it were:

“You see,” he explained, “I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skilful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones.”

“But the Solar System!” I protested.

“What the deuce is it to me?” he interrupted impatiently; “you say that we go round the sun. If we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work.”

Thanks to Ariane for the stellar Sherlock transcripts!

Acting the Fight

Acting the Fight*

Dale Girard mentions in Actors on Guard that very often staged combat is woefully under-rehearsed; tacked on to a rehearsal schedule, very often near the end of the rehearsal process. What this does is make the fight scenes look as though they are inserted roughly and artificially into an already pretty much complete product, because they are. This leads to the all too often seen “act-then fight-then act” syndrome, especially when the fight scenes are towards the end, or near the climax of the story, like in Hamlet. The actors are jolted out of their authentic experience and therefore so is the audience.

Now this happens for for a specific reason: Staged combat is difficult to do. It takes a lot of training to to be able to stay safe and and keep up the illusion of violence, all while still remaining in character. This is why early and frequent fight rehearsals are so important: If an actor can become comfortable with the physical techniques as techniques, she can then move beyond the techniques as such, and make them instead tactics, which her character does to gain her objective. Fight rehearsals need to be scheduled at least as early as the regular rehearsals, so that the fights are part of the acting process, not an accessory. The actors can then grow with the fights not as moves to execute rote, but as a part of their characters’ journey.

Because that’s why characters (and I’d aver: real people, too) resort to physical violence: Because words alone aren’t getting them what they want. When words fail as tactics, that’s when a character uses physical tactics instead. ~Jenn

*This phrase comes from Fight Master Dale Girard’s book on Stage Combat, called Actors on Guard. His chapter on, well, acting the fight is called this, and I was honored to be given permission by him to title my next book by his phrase. I highly recommend his book, by the way–it’s essential for any theatre or martial arts library, especially for those of you particularly interested in stage combat. My first book, Stage Combat, too, of course.


(Image is Jeremy Brett’s Sherlock Holmes about to deliver “a straight left to a slogging ruffian,” in The Solitary Cyclist. If you created this image, let me know please, so I can give you credit.)

A Fresh Start

A forced fresh start, though I am attempting to be all Zen about it, regardless.


Several of you finding your way to this brand-spankin’-new blog will remember, the erstwhile repository for all things stage combat, theatre, martial arts, and also literary arts related. It was called Daily Cross-Swords then, too, but most of our readers knew it as anyway. Before that, it was on Blogger. Yeah, that was a while ago, remember?

Well suffice to say that unfortunately lapsed, and before I could recover it, the domain got bought out from under me. Did I back up the blog before this happened? No. No I didn’t. So all that material spanning from 2008 till last year? Gone. Poof.

My personal life is taking some major fresh starts as well, so I guess it’s as good a time as any to use this forcibly cleaned off slate and start over again. 

In other words, welcome to the new! improved! Daily Cross-Swords blog. To quote an esteemed Time Lord: Allons-y!