A couple of decades ago one of my room mates press-ganged me into taking a class with her. She was already taking fencing, but her teacher had decided to offer stage combat, and needed more students. “It’ll be great! You can write it off as research!” Since I was then working on The Stone War, an urban fantasy that takes place in New York City, circa 2018, I didn’t see any present use for such research, but I love me a good swashbuckler, so I signed up. And it was love at first swash.
Stage combat, which can comprise everything from Elizabethan fencing to West Side Story-style knife rumbling, is a cooperative effort by partners, to create the appearance of terrific peril. Unlike combat forms from fencing to tae kwon do, the goal of stage combat is to look dangerous while remaining entirely safe. Not so easy to do when you’re hefting an eight-pound broadsword at a friend. You start by imagining that your partner has a six inch bubble, or halo, around her, that must on no account be broken. That means even if you’re bring that eight-pound broadsword over your head to crash down on the head of your partner, you should be able to lock your elbows and stop the blade six inches from her head. You also want to be sure that your partner will do the same for you. I saw a guy dislocate his own shoulder to pull back on a broadsword cut when his partner had forgotten the choreography and zigged when he shoulda zagged. First law of stage combat: do no harm.
Stage combat is in part about visual misdirection: if I have my back to the audience as I draw my right fist back (think John Wayne and you’ll know what I mean), the audience won’t see the six inches between my partner’s jaw and my fist. And if my partner sells the punch–rocks his head back and looks like he’s just been slugged–then the illusion is complete. Turn the positions by 90 degrees and the illusion is blown. Which is another reason this stuff is so carefully choreographed. And that big drawing back of the fist? That’s my partner’s cue that I’m about to throw that punch, so he knows to react–and not to lean in to the point that my fist might actually connect.
So I took one class, then another, then another, and got hooked in with a group of people (including the room mate who had dragged me in in the first place) doing stage combat scenes, May Day celebrations, Renfest performances. We’d do floor drills, advancing and chanting in unison: “Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die!” I got certified as an actor-combatant by SAFD (the Society of American Fight Directors) in rapier, rapier-and-dagger, broadsword, quarterstaff, and hand-to-hand combat. I was briefly a part of a company that did Shakespeare-with-mayhem performances for high schools. And I was, not at all parenthetically, in the best shape of my life: I could do a running dive with a rapier in my hand and come up on my feet and on point. Sadly, I shall not look upon those days again.
What happened next? Well, I had a child, which cut back on my available run-around-with swords time. And I got swept into other things, had a second child, and…while I am still in touch with many of my stage-combat buddies, I drifted away from the business. Then, when we moved out to San Francisco, I started taking fencing. No choreography, no fakery, no safety. And I was terrible at it because, despite experience which you’d think would help, all my instinct is not to hit the other person–who isn’t my partner but my opponent. Still, for about two years I kept at it, until a cyst in my wrist made it hard to hold a foil, let alone do damage with it.
Well, my SAFD certification is long lapsed, but I still love sword-fighting. Give me a well-choreographed fencing sequence in a play or movie and I’m in heaven. Give me a stupidly choreographed fencing sequence–and, alas, Sturgeon’s law applies to stage combat as well as anything else–and I will blow raspberries and mutter darkly until the cows come home. Don’t get me started on the stupidity of 360° turns when fighting with a rapier–while you’re swooping around all pretty, the other guy is cutting your spine.* I am either a delight, or a pain in the neck, to go to swashbuckling movies with.
And what about research, the ostensible reason for my foray into combat? As it happened, stage combat has been useful for me in damned near everything I write. I can choreograph a fight between one or more people, walking through it, figuring out the angles and the timing, and thinking of all the intangibles like mud or fog or furniture or bystanders, that might effect the fight. I have a greater appreciation for the compression and expansion of time during a fight–that feeling that it all goes too fast to know what’s happening, and the feeling that time suddenly slows to a crawl. Also an appreciation for the sweat and bruises and exhaustion that comes along with getting good at a physical activity.
A dozen years or so after I started taking stage combat I started writing Point of Honour, the first of my Sarah Tolerance books. Miss Tolerance is a fencer, and when I write about her I get to dust off my rapier technique and whirl around in the backyard stepping through a fight, to the great confusion of the dog. My room-mate was right: it was good research.
*don’t get me started on Highlander, which is one of the most egregious offenders in the 360° turn department. Snarl.
Madeleine Robins is the author of Point of Honour and Petty Treason, swashbuckling Regency noir mysteries. She blogs regularly at madrobins.livejournal.com; deepgenre.com; and bi-monthly at here at the Book View Cafe Blog.