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Learning Curves: where actors hone their rapier wits

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Brian LeTraunik teaches Chicagoans to stab, hit, and tackle each other without actually hurting anyone. The founder of the fledgling Chicago Stage Combat Academy, he's been fascinated by stage fighting since he saw a swashbuckling rendition of The Three Musketeers when he was 12. Nine years later, as an actor in another Three Musketeers production, the Hoffman Estates native saw a fellow cast member get hit by a sword and receive a nasty gash in his forehead.

"There are myriad stories of people getting injured," says LeTraunik, who's 25. "So I'd be lying if I said there's no risk of getting hurt. But that's why you study it, to minimize that risk."

LeTraunik, whose mother, Elayne LeTraunik, runs Red Hen Productions in Andersonville, began acting professionally when he was eight years old, doing commercials for companies such as Oscar Mayer and McDonald's. Also a cellist, at 14 he got a summer job with the Bristol Renaissance Faire as part of a string quartet.

"I spent that summer bothering everyone I could to find out about combat," he says. In the fall he found an actor in Chicago to teach him the basics: single-sword combat techniques such as cutting, thrusting, and parrying in addition to falling, punching, and kicking. The next summer he was hired for the fair's stunt show and performed four or five fights a day.

After that, LeTraunik's friends began to ask him for advice on how to properly knock other cast members down, or get knocked down themselves. When he started at Columbia College in 1994, he began training under David Woolley, one of 11 members of the Society of American Fight Directors to attain the organization's highest ranking, fight master; by his senior year LeTraunik was Woolley's teaching assistant.

LeTraunik started his professional combat career by offering his services to community theaters, and for four years he interspersed the occasional combat choreography gig with acting roles and work as Red Hen's company manager. Then, last year, realizing there was no competition in the city and that modern productions increasingly seem to incorporate violent acts, he decided to open his own studio.

"There's always something violent going on in modern plays because we live in a violent society and that's reflected in art," says LeTraunik. "It's the little things that little theaters forget to choreograph where people can get hurt, like when directors say, 'You try to get out the door and you guys are going to stop him.' Directors are finally starting to realize they need to go elsewhere for help."

LeTraunik opened the academy in October, in a Lincoln Square storefront. The 1,100-square-foot space, with 13-foot ceilings, provides plenty of room for actors to swing swords and axes without destroying anything. The skills LeTraunik teaches don't translate to the real world of martial arts and self-defense, but "you can learn all the tricks of the trade to be Errol Flynn or Douglas Fairbanks," he says. "If you ever wanted to be Robin Hood or a pirate, this is the place to learn."

The Chicago Stage Combat Academy is at 3856 N. Lincoln. The next eight-week round of evening and weekend classes starts April 8 and includes introductory courses in fighting with knives, quarterstaffs, and broadswords. For more information call 773-755-0525.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Cynthia Howe.

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