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Stage Business: the fight's the thing

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Two of the men onstage are fighting with swords while two others watch. Each clink of the broadswords is clear, distinct; this is a simple two-man, two-sword fight. Suddenly, the observers unsheath their weapons and join in, stepping between the other two. The newcomers stand back-to-back as the other two circle them. In the heat of battle, they occasionally change partners. Every so often, one of them reels backward, injured, and the fight is two against one. The simple fight has become impressive and complicated, and the separate clinks are now a chorus.

These four actors aren't just fooling around. They're rehearsing carefully choreographed directions; for every ten seconds of action, there's roughly half a page of notation.

The fight is part of Time in a Battle, currently running at the Organic Theater. The play was produced by a group of four friends--all lovers of stage combat--who go by the unlikely name of Cat, Horse, & Phoenix Productions. Dean Calin, one of the four and the show's director, says, "We've been saying for a long time how nice it would be to do a show about stage combat." Calin first met Julia Dewey, Richard Rupkalvis, and David Szum through their common interest: a passion for old-fashioned weapons.

"There's something about stage combat that you really don't get from other forms of creative expression," Dewey says. "It has elements of dance in it and it's intricately choreographed, with an element of danger--that if you forget the choreography, you can get hurt. There's a lot of acting involved in it. There's a sense of power that you get doing it that I don't think you can get from other kinds of art. I'd rather be doing it than anything else."

Dewey, Calin, and Rupkalvis have worked at King Richard's Faire, and all four were also members of the Ring of Steel, a large group that studied, practiced, and demonstrated sword fighting and other stage combat. When the Ring of Steel folded last year, Dewey, Rupkalvis, and Szum formed their own group; Calin joined later.

Their goal was to produce a play centered around convincing onstage battles, one that would educate the audience about what they considered to be an underappreciated art. So they wrote one. Time in a Battle has a story reminiscent of both Dungeons and Dragons and Doctor Who. It's about three futuristic time travelers: a bad guy wreaking havoc on history and two government agents trying to stop him.

In most plays, Dewey says, fight scenes are choreographed after the play is written. Fight directors work with actors onstage, where they can see what does and doesn't work. These four, instead of improvising fights onstage, wrote the choreography into the script. "We'd visualize how we wanted the fight to go, sometimes in a bar, sometimes at home, and we'd write the moves down," Rupkalvis says. "I've found that actors are more comfortable if you have the fight on paper." They also hoped their method would produce more original fight choreography than is found in most plays.

The first fight scenes were written back in October, and the four of them performed the play at a sci-fi convention in February. Each of them wrote the dialogue for one scene and the fight choreography for another; later, Calin polished the dialogue and Rupkalvis the choreography.

The first month of rehearsal was devoted to fight practice. "There are different styles of stage combat, and you have to make sure everyone's using the same techinque," Rupkalvis says, "For instance, some people are of the school that you block the cut with the edge of the sword. I am of the school that you block with the flat of the sword. Historically, both techniques have been used."

The play's time-travel element allowed them to stage fights using weapons from different eras: three sizes of broadswords, the largest a two-handed model that is five feet, six inches long and weighs eight pounds; rapiers from France, Italy, and Japan, including a French shell-hilt rapier, whose blade consists of two perpendicular surfaces; various daggers, among them an aikuchi, a type of Japanese suicide knife; a lead pipe; and a gun. One farcical scene mixes weapon and costume styles; French rapiers whirl around the head of a Japanese politician who is too distracted to notice because he is busy composing poetry. "We needed humorous elements," Calin says. "Fights are great, but they're very tense, and you need something there to offset them."

All of the weapons used in the show belong to one of the four. These are replicas; real weapons are heavier and more expensive. Most of them were made in either Italy or California.

Stage weapons, like real ones, require maintenance. Dewey and Rupkalvis keep their swords filed down and cleaned, to eliminate the steel splinters that accumulate from repeated use and would catch on skin. They also dull the blades--although even a dull blade can take a finger off if there's enough force behind the blow. "There's a lot of trust involved in stage combat," Rupkalvis remarks. But careful blocking, he says, usually prevents mishaps. Even though we create the illusion that we're hitting hard, there's actually a lot of control."

In Time in a Battle, the group hoped to solve some of the problems they'd seen in other plays. A lot of stage combat is very stylized. It's too dancey looking," Calin says. Cat, Horse, & Phoenix tried to design fights that would look more realistic. Most shows don't put enough time into fight choreography either, Dewey says. "What happens is the fight director comes in and shows them the choreography, works with them for one or two rehearsals, and then he goes on to do another show and leaves them to rehearse on their own." Plus, in order to make the fights safe, "The fight directors make them simple, so that they're not difficult to learn. But then they look simple."

For most actors, the ability to fight convincingly onstage is just a supplement to their other skills. Calin was looking for a different breed. "You can be a very good actor and have very good stage combat skills, but they have to be taught equally," Calin says. "We saw a lot of people audition, both fighters who couldn't act and actors who couldn't fight. We preferred to have someone whose fighting was just this much better [he makes a pinching motion] than their acting, because if you blow a line, no one gets hurt."

Time in a Battle runs through July 3 at the Organic Theater's main stage, 3319 N. Clark; performances are at 11 PM Friday and Saturday and 3 PM Sunday. Tickets are $6, $4 with a student ID or Organic donor card. Call 327-5588 for reservations.

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

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