The many whimpers and groans that were audible on our first morning with The Action Emporium would be a distant memory by the end of the six day course, and the South West Thirteen will have successfully completed their basic and intermediate exams with The APC (Academy of Performance Combat).
It was by pure chance that I learnt about a week’s stage combat course being held right on my doorstep; that APC training was going regional and therefore more accessible. Earlier in August, having donned my PerspecTim Productions hat, I interviewed the chairman of the Gloucestershire Theatre Association, Phil McCormick, about the refurbishment of the Olympus Theatre in Gloucester. During our interview over a nice cup of tea, Phil listed off the many eclectic events that would be happening at the Olympus between now and Christmas… “A stage combat course here in Gloucester?” I said, to which he replied, “Why yes, Tim! And this is just the beginning!” …picking up the teaspoon that I had dropped, I made that additional mental note and returned home to edit Phil’s piece ready for broadcast before then hopping online to read more about The Action Emporium.
The following Sunday morning I found my body protesting profusely as it was pushed through what very quickly became my new favourite discipline. Stage combat has always been a specialist subject that I have wished to learn as an actor, but the opportunities had not previously been as accessible until local professional fight director Tom Jordan established The Action Emporium, teaching stage combat across the UK.
While the intermediates were instructed by Tom in quarterstaff and broadsword, five attendees (including myself) were taught by Sam Davies in single sword, knife and unarmed combat.
- Single Sword, an introductory generalised syllabus that draws on technique from use of a variety of fencing-type weapons, including most notably rapier, small sword and sabre.
- Knife, which whilst also representative of use of a dagger, draws greatly on modern knife fighting techniques.
- Unarmed, which whilst drawing on several styles of unarmed combat, basic level is again relatively generalised.
Disclosure: any attempt at describing stage combat moves in this blog are my own thoughts and not the explanation given by the instructor, and should therefore not be put into practice without official instruction from The APC.
We started with unarmed combat! Or, how to hit someone without actually harming them and still making it look good. Having such a small group of “basics” meant that Sam was able to focus on each of us individually during his instruction.
Much of our training in this skill was spent napping! Okay, there may be some misunderstanding here… I should probably attempt to explain that a “nap” is when you create the sound of hitting your opponent by instead hitting yourself at the exact same moment of the audience’s perceived contact.
Timing and precision is everything in stage combat, both partners in a fight sequence are in control, and unarmed combat particularly requires a lot of cooperation so that each hit, kick, slap or hair-pull, whether it makes contact or pretends to, is performed safely, “Speed is not your friend.” – some further wise-words from Mr. Sam!
When we were introduced to the gritty nature of knife-fighting, the basic and intermediate groups merged, as we were all learning the same skill. Bringing a knife to a fight is a nasty thing to do… knife = death. It might seem logical that a knife will do a lot of damage, but there is a huge difference between someone swinging a closed-fist at your head or body and someone slashing or stabbing at you with a knife. Knife-fights include a great deal more movement; ducking and dodging out of the way of your opponent; your defence is your attack. It was faster and more agile, and as we were so eloquently told it required a lot of GTFOOTW (getting the f*** out of the way).
My favourite weapon of the week though was the single sword, mostly because I found it the most challenging. Much like the elegant art of fencing, except (again) being entirely choreographed! This was also the most painful on the legs… knees bent so your centre of gravity was held much lower, moving back and forth within the grid. Advance, retreat, advance, lunge, traverse, on guard, retreat, advance, volte, etcetera. All in a day’s work! Again, precision is key – not merely because if either partner performs the wrong movement you may get poked or smacked, but your audience need to see the danger.
Our exam was essentially a performance… In pairs we learnt a choreographed sequence using single sword, to then be disarmed and drawing knifes, and then being disarmed again. We had to find a published play text and perform a scene that would be appropriate to include a fight sequence, and perhaps end in one character being killed. I partnered up with Josh and, after the challenge of finding a relevant piece, chose the final pages of Nick Dear’s Frankenstein adaptation; I portrayed the Creature while Josh played Victor. A highly emotional scene, taken slightly out of context (for the lines were suitable even though it was not a fight sequence), that we altered slightly so that Frankenstein ends up killing his creation. The energy of the scene was a perfect choice, and our examined performance was very well received. With the workshop that followed a little later on, focussing on our use of single sword, I received a First for each skill, making me a very happy lad! The most inspiring, intense and empowering week I have ever experienced, AND an amazing fitness regime. No moaning or groaning from anyone by the end of the week.
UPDATE: I have since been attending weekly informal stage combat sessions with The Action Emporium. For two hours a week on Wednesday mornings at the Olympus Theatre, Tom has been teaching others and myself new skills and weapons, as well as improving on our techniques. Rapier and dagger has proven to be the most challenging, but we have also looked at some broadsword and shield work as a brief taster before the Winter Weekender course at the start of December.