Reflections on Seventh Graders’ stage combat

Last month, I had the great privilege to teach stage combat to a group of middle schoolers in Longmont as their gym class (wow wouldn’t that have been keen to have growing up? Stage Combat for gym?)–their teacher needed movement professionals to come in and teach them, well, movement, and as they were in the midst of studying the book (and watching the movie) The Princess Bride, she thought that my particular area of expertise would fit in nicely.

Now, as I’ve said on other social media sites, there is nothing more joyful and full of glee than a band of ragtag seventh graders learning how to fake slam each other’s heads into the walls, but more than that was the profound experience of watching them synthesize their other schoolwork with the skills they were being presented with at hand. When I teach basic stage combat to college age students, I allow them to, after teaching and drilling the basic moves, build their own fight scenes using these tools. Many fight directors and instructors will not do it this way, but rather the teacher will have choreographed a fight scene that incorporates the required moves for passing the test, and all students will perform this same fight, albeit with perhaps different scripts. The reasoning behind this (I assume) is to keep safety a priority, and to emphasize correct technique in the students, leaving the more complex task of choreography to the experts. I find, however, that students don’t come away with any real learning from a stage combat class structured like that. What happens is, they end up learning how to execute proper technique rote, like learning a dance, but don’t have any understanding as to why the moves are the way they are, what they have to do with the story and their character’s objectives. And, to be honest, in a class taught in this rote way, there usually isn’t anything connecting the fight to the story, as the choreography is designed to cover specific moves for a test and that’s it. Allowing beginners to choreograph their own fights may sound like a big risk (of low quality fight scenes at the very least), but I have found it pays off hugely, and in fact actually teaches the students more deeply about the techniques they’re drilling as part of their art. Asking them to figure out what move should go next makes them think about why: why is my character doing this now, what would be his reaction if… etc. Then later in their careers, they can see more readily why a choreographer may be giving them the moves they are, and be able to integrate it into their acting process more seamlessly, eradicating the dreaded “act, then fight, then act” syndrome one sees so often even in professional productions from people who’ve learned the techniques without learning the art.

But back to St. Vrain Community Montessori’s seventh graders: I taught them the basics of unarmed and the basics of sword stage fighting technique, just like I do with the college kids. And, just like the college kids, I let them construct their own fights. Also, since I wasn’t the one grading them on their projects, I didn’t have to restrict them to needing to include certain moves to pass an exam. They used the moves they needed to build the most effective scenes (all from The Princess Bride). I was impressed by their ability to not only soak up all the information like sponges, but their work ethic in rehearsing the techniques over and over again for precision. I gave them nit-picky feedback and they took it all in.

Not only that, but their choice of scenes were brilliant as well. There were eight kids in all, and they all performed two scenes as the culmination of their work: one all-group scene which I chose (but they choreographed), and one scene with a partner. Since The Princess Bride was the center of study, all the scenes came from that material. I chose the scene wherein our intrepid threesome storm the castle guarded by the brute squad, but the scenes they picked in their partners were so brilliantly made, I was floored. One group did a very precise Inigo vs. Westley swordfight (“I am not left-handed”), which they scaled to their own time frame and skill level; one group did a scene from the book, not the movie, between Buttercup and the Countess; one group did a hilarious parody of the famous Inigo vs. Westley swordfight, with an ironic script they wrote themselves; one group used the screenplay online to create a streamlined scene between Vizzini and Westley.

Would you assume that a twelve year old would have the capacity to learn a movement skill, compose a script, create and write original

I will beat up your children for a small fee.

I will beat up your children for a small fee.

choreography, and produce a product at performance level, all in ten weeks? Well, they did. And it wasn’t cute, nor “aw isn’t that nice that they tried so hard.” It was actually high quality work, executed well with both artistic integrity and good technique. And apparently one of the students has filmmaking skills, so I can’t wait to see what happens when they translate their live theatre scene to the medium of film.

Sorry I can’t share any video or much photo with you, lovely lurkers, but there are permission and security rules in this age of children and the Internet. I did, however, get permission to use one image, that of me demonstrating a punch technique with Claire. A blurred-action Impressionistic snapshot of the experience I had with these kids.

~Jenn

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