The MSU Denver Stage Combat students have concluded their first unit, which was Unarmed. Since Unarmed usually takes being closer together than pandemic rules allow, we decided to do one of those linked-clip videos you’ve seen so many other stunt groups do during social distancing mode. Here’s the final, knitted-together version for your enjoyment. And remember, if you’re moved to comment: these are beginners. And it’s a pandemic.
Honestly, need I say more?
Okay, okay, here’s the deal: there are still only 5 students signed up for MSU Denver’s stage combat class next semester. I’ve been regaling you with the things I’m adding, changing, and planning for with the pandemic rules in mind, and the class is looking like it’s going to be a heckuva lot of fun.
One of the changes I’m making is I’m going to mainly do weapons work, keeping our safe distance and etc. So I’m adding staffs back in to the curriculum, as I mentioned, and we’ll be doing not one, but three kinds of swords!
My technique for cool looking lightsaber fights for stage are not based on the Star Wars canon styles, but on Japanese katana technique. I do this for several reasons, the main two of which have to do with the fights needing to look real (instead of a twirly non-fight dance like in episode 1), and that originally? Star Wars is a combination of a western and a samurai flick, and the “elegant weapon for a more civilized age” lends itself very well to katana technique.
Also, katana technique is much more versatile—anyone who’s an anime fan can then use the basic style for any sort of Japanese-looking fights, and the drill is based off of actual swordsmanship/martial arts, as opposed to a fictional or purely theatrical system. Learn lightsabers from me and that’s not all it’s useful for (though it’s some of the funnest).
How can you resist? Let’s get more masked avengers signed up, so we have these experiences! What are you waiting for?
I’m writing these posts, lovely lurkers, for a few reasons: one is to share with my colleagues in the stage combat community what sorts of things I’m doing with stage combat instruction, with safety in the pandemic in mind. Masks and social distancing are the ways to guard against the plague, and as such, some of the things I used to teach (especially the types of techniques involving touch), will be tossed aside this year in favor of other, safer, things.
This year, I’m adding back one weapons system that I used to include as part of the regular syllabus (and it has a dedicated chapter in my book, Stage Combat): six foot staffs.
Since safe social distancing is six feet apart, I thought it was the perfect thing to once again teach in the beginning course at Metro. European style staffs of this type are called Quarterstaffs, and in the Japanese style (which I am most heavily trained in, from my years in Japanese martial arts) is called rokushaku-bo, or just bo staff.
Staffs are a super fun weapon to learn–I know it’s not nearly as commonly found in theatre as unarmed or swords are, but hey. It’s a pandemic, and needs must. Besides, “normal” theatre ain’t normal anymore, and won’t be anytime soon. So. Speak with projection, and carry a 6-foot stick.
If you’re a student at MSU Denver, UCD, or CCD, sign up for Stage Combat in the Pandemic this Spring semester. It’s gonna be a lot of fun.
My new movement guide, Yoga For Misanthropes, is now live on YouTube. I was asked to go online and be my brand of snarky yoga teacher for those who want to start a habit of health and happiness, but hate people enough that they don’t want to go to a class. No, really: I was literally asked this, on Twitter. And how could I refuse?
I will be posting videos of yoga and Pilates sequences and other combinations thereof, that you can follow at home, of all levels, starting with the first vid that’s up today.
This first vid is a long gooey stretch sequence, and the sound may be a little iffy, as I recorded it in stage combat class during warmups. I’m planning on putting up more starting today.
I’m not a big fan of these inspirational-poster-style meme type things in general, lovely lurkers, but this one in particular has bothered me for a long time. And I’d like to explain to you why, in a brief rant.
First, allow me to describe this image, both for the sake of any of my readers with visual impairment, but also so that we are all on the same page, as far as what we are looking at:
We’ve got a sepia-toned photograph, depicting a row of five little girls at a ballet barre. All five girls are dressed in ballet class garb (tutus, tights, etc.) and look to be around four years old. From left to right, four of the little girls are faced sideways to us, looking up at what we can assume is a dance instructor, in a neat row (well, neat for four-year-olds), all attempting some vestige of a ballet position. The fifth girl, on the far right as we look, however, is upside down, ass over teakettle, her knees hooked over the barre, hands holding on, smiling at the camera. A large caption adorns the top of the photo, declaring, “Be the girl on the right.”
I mean, no. Especially if you want to learn ballet.
Look, I understand the sentiment of this message (saccharine though it may be). What the creator of this image is trying to say is that standing out from the crowd is more important than being like all the others, and that self-expression is better than forcing oneself into a typical lockstep with everyone else. I get it, I do; and being a lifelong denizen of The Island of Misfit Toys myself, I, too, value the great gift of being weird.
Thing is, this picture is bullshit.
That little girl on the right is not engaging in joyous self-expression (well, maybe she is, but that’s not the point); that little girl is misbehaving. Her hanging on the barre is not just as valid as the ballet techniques being learned by the other girls, just because it comes from an authentic place. She’s not learning ballet, she’s not paying attention to the adult in charge of her learning (and her welfare), and, worst of all, she’s hindering the learning of the other girls, who are actually there trying to learn a technique. Believe me, I’ve taught many a dance and a martial arts class to little kids–that teacher who’s out of frame has to stop class to get that misbehaving girl to join the group and do as she’s supposed to. If the girl continues to be “the girl on the right,” her parents will be called in to remove her from class.
Don’t be the girl on the right.
The girl on the right is never going to learn how to dance ballet if this is what she does in class. If she grows up like this, she’ll be an entitled little nightmare with no respect for authority nor discipline in practice for whatever she does.
But, Jenn, we shouldn’t be blind followers of rigid rules and authority, I hear some of you protesting. The best artists are those who flout the rules and go their own way. Well, sure. And you’re right, except for one thing.
Those rule-breaking artists who thumb their noses at authority? Those iconoclasts of cutting edge creativity? How do you think they learned how to do their art?
The best artists learn the rules, thoroughly and completely, and from a teacher (or master, or authority figure of some kind), before they can then break them. The discipline that comes with training, that is: learning technique, comes first. Then, once the artist is a master of doing it the same as those masters who came before him, then and only then can he break those rules and make something unusual out of his art.
Art, any art, that lacks technique is nothing but a wet rag (read up on Grotowski, the great theatre movement technique disciplinarian, for more on this concept). Hirschfeld, the great Broadway caricaturist, said how he needed to learn the precise anatomy of an arm, and be able to draw it with scientific precision, before he then could draw an arm using one curving line. Pure self-expression, with no technique or structure, is not art. It’s healthy, and good for you, sure, but its audience should be limited to a therapist, if anyone.
I went to grad school for poetry at Naropa University (google it, kids). While I was pleasantly surprised at the academic and technical rigor present in that MFA training program, there was still so much of this: “it’s authentic, coming from my heart/experience, and therefore it’s good art.” No. No, it ain’t. It needs revision, and lots of it. And, seriously: editing your authentic bit of self-expression will do nothing to diminish the power of your true voice; quite the contrary. If you construct the messy vomit of your raw self-expression into a good poem, then it will echo and resonate to your readers, as opposed to being a selfish forcing of them to watch you masturbate.
If self-expression is to be art, it needs technique. To learn technique, one needs discipline. And Yes, Virginia, that discipline comes with training, which might just consist of rote repetitions, drills, and copying your teacher (and/or other masters). I mean, can you imagine a martial artist, who has never taken a class but likes playing around by punching her couch at home, getting into the sparring ring with another, who has a black belt (and you can imagine what training and discipline that requires)? I don’t care how well and powerfully that martial artist can punch her couch, she’s going to get her ass trounced in that ring. Why? No technique. Authenticity is great, but it actually doesn’t really matter to anyone but you. And art is supposed to be a communication, something that goes out from the artist into the world to be shared.
No other way to be a master oneself, unless one starts from square one, there at the barre, in a neat row, trying to imitate one’s teacher as exactly as possible.
Don’t be the girl on the right. Not until you’ve mastered ballet, by being the girls on the left.
And the reason this time is:
Strange and unusual weapons.
At Metro, the beginning Stage Combat class covers the basics of both unarmed and rapier techniques. And as you might imagine, the whole 16 weeks’ worth of time is necessary for the introduction and especially the practice, of the bare basics.
In the advanced class, everyone enters knowing the basics, basically (we of course do a review session on our first day), and so we can use that knowledge to move forward into other stuff. This coming semester, we’ll be doing broadswords and staffs, as you’ve already heard about.
But there’s other stuff we’ll cover, too: some have to do with harder versions of the basic weapons. For example, large group fights, sword fighting up and down stairs a la Errol Flynn, circular or erratic footwork in sword fighting, advanced taihenjutsu like dive rolls, simulated (and real) martial arts throws, falling from a height, etc. (See me below, playing around on a climbing wall with a past advanced class–we learned some aerial dance rope stuff as well as basic climbing, plus falling from a height.)
In the past, I’ve also done micro-units on martial arts styles and found weapons (which are normal everyday objects used as weapons–something that pops up in current theatre far more often than, say, swords), and then of course one can also use classic weapons techniques to inform other, more unusual ones.
For example, a knowledge of basic Japanese katana technique will make you pretty decent at wielding a lightsaber (and staff knowledge helps with that double-bladed number Darth Maul had).
This coming Fall (if I can get 12 students signed up), we will be doing a video-game fight unit. And wouldn’t it be cool if I got UCD’s renowned film department in on that project. Is mo-cap, animation, or film technique in our future? Will I bring this class (as I have done for one of our summer private courses) down to one of the Parkour studios in Denver for specialized training? Time will tell. That’s if I get the enrollment numbers.
A reminder: anyone can audit, but anyone attending the three schools on Auraria campus (MSU, CCD, and UCD) can sign up for this course. As of last time I checked, I had 6 enrolled, which is half the required number I need for the class to go.
So. What are you waiting for?
Reason Number 2 of thousands:
Six foot staffs.
Even in SAFD land, the six foot staff (what they call quarterstaff) is not often taught in the basic stage combat courses. This is certainly understandable to a certain extent, as it’s not one of those weapons that most actors will most often find themselves wielding.
This coming fall semester, however, I will be adding staff back into the Stage Combat curriculum. Fun fact: when I first designed the beginning Stage Combat course for Metro back in 2005, there were three weapons systems they all learned: Unarmed, Staff, and Sword (rapier). I later axed the staff unit, for to spend more time with the swords and the finals, and with the knowledge that the staff (though basic weapons training for me at the time in martial arts) wasn’t really a fundamental weapon most beginners would need to know about.
But it’s so very much fun!! And so this fall we will be wielding them again for the first time in about a dozen years. So if you’re an Auraria student or want to audit, get on your registration now so I can hit my minimum enrollment before cancellation. Do eet.
Make sure you go back to the previous FitS post, part 1, and read it thoroughly before you read this one. This is my contrasting example to the pointless fight scene that was in the Phantom Menace. It appears at the end of Return of the Jedi. Here it is:
Let’s look at the basics first: this, like the PM fight, is a master and apprentice vs. a solo opponent. What’s that? Oh yes, it is. If you are under the impression that the Emperor isn’t a part of this fight because he isn’t whipping out a lightsaber, that’s where you’re wrong, and that’s also where you’re falling into the same trap as so many storytellers out there, when it comes to fights. The Emperor is a major part of this fight, throughout. In fact, he starts it.
So. 1): Why here, why now, why these characters fighting? What’s everyone’s OBJECTIVE?
It’s quite clear: Luke’s OBJECTIVE: to bring his father back with him. Vader’s OBJECTIVE: same thing, basically: to keep his son here with him, enjoy blissful life in the Dark Side as a family. And our third fighter in this scene, the Emperor? He wants these two to fight to the death. Remember what Vader seems to have forgotten: there’s only a master and an apprentice Sith at any one time. Now for the Emperor, he’d obviously rather have Luke, as he’s younger and stronger with the Force, but hey, if Vader ends up killing his own son, well talk about Dark side, and he’s been a pretty gosh darn good viscount of terror for this many years. Really either way is fine. And no, you don’t have to have read novels or anything to get this from this fight scene–in fact, if you didn’t see any of the rest of the movie, this would still be clear as day.
So, how about 2)? Lots of clear TACTICS going on here, starting with Palpatine’s biggest TACTIC, the one he’s best at: to seduce. Notice that he’s using mainly words in this fight, up until the end, that is. Why? Because WORDS ARE HIS STRONGEST WEAPON! Palpatine has no need to resort to physical tactics through most of this fight. Why? Because HIS VERBAL TACTICS ARE WORKING. It’s his insidious tease and threat to Luke’s friends that spurs Luke to grab his lightsaber and attempt to kill him. And yeah, it’s obvious that that is what he’s trying to do–the way the first move is choreographed makes that apparent. Vader’s objective? To protect his master. Through the first part of that whole fight, every physical move Luke does (after the initial failed one) is to try and get away from his father, so he won’t have to fight him. Kicking him away, only blocking Vader’s blows, jumping up to the catwalk–all these things are attempts to STOP fighting Vader. Why does he start fighting him again? Well, Vader himself pulls out the verbal tactics, to get Luke to come out of hiding and continue the fight. He finds out about Leia, and threatens her safety. This TACTIC works: Luke is overwhelmed with anger and launches himself at Vader, his attacks now vicious.
This is where we see the fight take a major turn. And this is where the biggest fight scene mistake was made in ep. 2 (the ridiculous Yoda vs. Dooku lightsaber fight), when you compare.
Luke accidentally cuts off Vader’s hand. This shocks him, and makes him stop his barrage, remembering what his OBJECTIVE is and how this attack was NOT a TACTIC to get him that OBJECTIVE. Palpatine takes this opportunity to pounce: still using verbal TACTICS, he reveals his OBJECTIVE to the other fighters. He tells Luke to kill Vader and take his place. When Luke turns off his lightsaber, throws it away, and says, “No,” this is the moment when Palpatine’s verbal TACTICS have run out. Then, and only then, does Palpatine resort to physical violence. And he does so in a way appropriate to his character (unlike Yoda vs. Dooku). Does he whip out a lightsaber and supernaturally become agile real quick? No, of course not, that would make no sense. Instead, he uses a physical weapon much more apropos to him: the Force lightning. Luke has no idea this is even a thing, and has no defense against it–all he can do is collapse, screaming in agony. He does have one more verbal TACTIC left in him, though: he calls for his father to help him.
And boy does that TACTIC work: Vader then uses a physical TACTIC to stop the barrage. Because of this balance in the fight scene, it’s my professional opinion that Vader didn’t predict that he’d die from the lightning. It sure doesn’t look like he expected it, but once it was happening, he changed his OBJECTIVE into killing Palpatine, because he knows he won’t survive to collect his previous OBJECTIVE. And thus he succeeds. All of this is crystal clear, not from obscure back story, but FROM THE FIGHT ITSELF.
Not a whole lot of spinning in this fight scene, but what a more compelling, interesting, gripping, and exciting fight this was than the one in Phantom Menace. Well, the music in the other was pretty cool…..
Since I will only have a mere 15 minutes for my DCC presentation this year, I thought it’d behoove everyone interested if I posted my more detailed thoughts about what I’ll be discussing Saturday, so that folks with inquiring minds can get the full effect of my presentation. This year, I’ll be talking solely about The Three Rules for Actors, how they apply to plot, and how fight scenes fit in with that. For background on these rules, see the following two older posts, one about the Three Rules in writing, and one about the Three Rules in warriorship. Read these articles first, so you can be familiar with the concept of OBJECTIVE, TACTICS, and OBSTACLES.
The basic thesis of my presentation “The Fight is the Story” is twofold: 1) a fight scene needs to be an essential part of the overarching story itself; 2) a fight scene needs to tell a story alone, too: a fight should be physical storytelling. Too often, fight scenes are shoehorned into stories (especially in this Age Of The Superhero Blockbuster), where they have no place, aren’t interesting or necessary, and are completely gratuitous. Why does this happen? Why, because fight scenes are cool. Empirically. But let me explain further:
1) Whenever a character speaks, what that actually is is TACTICS. The only reason a character ever opens her mouth is as a TACTIC to obtain her OBJECTIVE. When she has run out of words–that is, when each one of her verbal tactics has failed, then and only then does she resort to physical ones. This is (or, should be) the only reason a fight scene occurs. When the words run out, that’s when the fight happens. Actually, it’s my opinion that this is why fights happen in real life, too. But I digress…
So when I’m choreographing a fight scene for a play, I look at the whole script. I ask myself (and often the director) the following vital questions: Why does this fight have to happen here, now? Why between these characters? Why these weapons? What about all these things are vital TACTICS, to bring the characters to what OBJECTIVE? What do the characters want, that they are fighting to get it? Often directors will be surprised at how little actual fighting needs to be seen onstage.
2) Each move within a fight scene is a TACTIC to gain an OBJECTIVE in and of itself. Each thing a character does physically is to move him closer to his OBJECTIVE. When a fight scene in cinema has too much CGI, or too many cuts, the viewer can’t see what the TACTICS actually are, and so loses the thread of what should be physical storytelling.
EXAMPLE ONE: The Phantom Menace
So, let’s talk about 1): Why these characters, here and now? What is Darth Maul’s OBJECTIVE? What is Qui-Gon Jinn’s? Obi-Wan seems to be rather tagging along with his teacher, but it’s unclear what his OBJECTIVE is, either, except for one brief and fleeting moment (which I’ll talk about in a minute). Are the Jedi protecting the Queen? Well, no, it doesn’t seem like Maul is really threatening her, and she’s off being a badass with her army somewhere else anyway. The only thing I can see here is Jedi vs. Sith. No reason for the fight to happen, here and now, and the only reason I can even tell who’re the good guys and who’s the bad guy is that the good guys are white men dressed in light earth tones, and the bad guy looks like an amalgam of multiple cultures’ portrayals of demons and devils through history. Sorry, but it’s true: nothing in this fight needs to be happening now, as far as the over-arching plot goes (such as it is). Are the Jedi wanting to kill the Sith, or disarm him? Doesn’t seem like either, at least not judging from any of the moves seen here. And what’s Maul trying to do? Besides show off his aerial cartwheel skills? Which brings me to:
2): NOBODY IS TRYING TO DO ANYTHING TO ANYONE ELSE. There are ZERO physical tactics going on here, and no OBJECTIVES to speak of at all. Seriously. Look at it. Now, a lightsaber is a pretty versatile weapon: you can stab, cut, sever, throw and catch, and even do stuff to the environment to advantage. Is any of that happening? No. Not for any tactical reason anyway. It’s all for show. There’s a lot of spinning going on, both of blades and of bodies, for no reason (and yes, Virginia, I am a martial artist and I do know what spins are actually for in martial arts. Nobody is spinning anything for any of those reasons). The lightsaber blades are literally meeting in the air between characters, like kids playing with sticks in the park.
There’s one brief moment of a clear OBJECTIVE: when Qui-Gon Jinn is killed. Obi-Wan then suddenly, clearly, and beautifully shows us (FINALLY!!) a reason he’s fighting. He doesn’t have to speak it for it to be apparent: “You killed my teacher; I’m going to kill you!” However, that OBJECTIVE promptly disappears into the purposeless, spinning choreography as soon as it starts up again, and Ewan MacGregor’s brilliant acting reverts once again to Dancer Face.
My conclusion? The only reason this fight scene is here is that the writers suddenly realized, “Oh shit! We don’t have a big spectacular lightsaber fight scene yet! The movie’s almost over! Quick, put one in!” Because fight scenes are cool, and lightsabers some of the coolest. Thing is: if the only lightsaber fight was that brief drive-by encounter on Tatooine, earlier, that would have been much more compelling, much more impactful, and would have made a whole lot more sense. Think about it: Maul has a specific OBJECTIVE for having done that quick fight. His purpose was to reveal himself, scare the midichlorians out of the Jedi, and leave them freaking out. That way, we wonder with the Jedi: what the heck is gonna happen in the next movie? Was that the master, or the apprentice? What will they do next? (Of course, those of us nerdy enough to remember that the Emperor’s name was Palpatine in ep. 6 would totally know this, but still!)
Stay tuned for Part Two, where I Roger-Ebert a *good* example of a lightsaber fight scene.
Back in my first martial arts training experience, I had the good fortune to train at a dojo that was intensely focused, complete, and rigorously disciplined in the instruction of its myriad arts. All the ryu-ha put together made for some high quality, authentic ninja training that has formed the base and foundation for many other practices in the many (many!) years of my life since then.
One of the documents I’ve come across as I cull my belongings is a page of musing re: making stage combat a facet of the trainings offered at the school. Before I recycle this (handwritten) document, allow me to share these thoughts of mine from 2004 with you, lovely lurkers.
When most people think about the martial arts these days, one of two things come to mind: sport tournaments, and the movies. Therefore, most non-martial-arts people have a completely distorted view of what real martial arts (read: actually used in combat or self-defense) are really about.
As practitioners of ninpo, I feel it’s important to know what the fake stuff constitutes, so that we can freely communicate the differences to those who inquire. Also, as practitioners of theatre, I feel stage combat is one of the most important and useful trainings one can get in the theatrical arts.
Fake fighting and real fighting go hand in hand in this culture. Mark Grove isn’t so crazy in his inclusion of stunt work and stage combat in his dojo. I’d like to embrace this cultural idea of martial arts as theatrical, and include a branch of training in this art. In reverse, too, hopefully those only trained in the fake stuff can then also come to us, to learn what a real punch feels like to throw, and especially to receive, and etc.