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Lawrence Benedict
Actor , Cinematographer / Camera Operator , Editor (Film)
52,477 views| 24  Posts

Swordplay or Playing with Swords

It's been pointed out to me that169 days have past since my last blog entry. Woof, I've had a busy summer! But boy, have I collected up a lot to say. :)

I am continuing my Final Cut Pro 7 instruction in Los Angeles at least through Jan 1, when i expect to be starting on a project currently in the writing stage. I have a number of blog entries below on my tutoring, which gives the student an ability to cut using the program, in two 4-hour sessions for a fee of $500 if anyone wants to check them out. Whether I'll be continuing to teach after that, will depend upon my other projects.

A few weeks ago, one of you tried to contact me inquiring about a seminar and i apologize for not getting back to you. I'm struggling to find that email even as I write this. Actually i do not give seminars because Final Cut really needs hands-on training to make any sense. The seminars I've attended basically leave the attendees bewildered.

Now the sword thing...

I have performed just about every job there is in show business at one time or another, and a friend of mine in England was intrigued by my ancient photo as me as a Musketeer at Stratford, Ontario.

Larry awaiting his entrance in "The Three Musketeers" He wanted to know if I'd had any unusual experiences during those days. Well, the answer to that is, uh, yeah.

So I wrote up this experience of a performance of Othello for him. Since it contains not only the story but some useful safety tips, as far as stage combat is concerned, i thought I'd share it with ANDers many of whom are filming martial arts and may, at least, get a laugh out of it.

Swordplay - or - Playing with SwordsDue to my extensive stage-fencing background, (having studied under

several masters, including a number of years with Paddy Crean, (Erroll Flynn's personal fencing coach, fight arranger and fight double), I am often appointed to two extra positions when hired to perform a role requiring swordplay. Fencing Master and Safety Officer.

There are a few immutable rules to staging swordplay. Break them at your peril, as was discovered during this ill-fated performance of Othello. :)

Cardinal rule: just as in dance, never change a move immediately before a performance

Always stage the fight, and lighting, so that the immediate area is well lit, even if the surrounding area is lit to present the illusion of darkness, or fog, or other hindrance to spotting a flashing blade. Make sure there are no slats or other set pieces to confuse the eye between bright light and total darkness. It can be done in such a way that the audience experiences the visual confusion, not the actors...

Always rehearse with the sword you will actually be using in performance, and, as soon as possible, wear the costume to be worn in performance.

As far as the actors performing the duel, or other battle sequence are concerned, they must remember that this is a dance, intended to it is a duel. The more muscle you put behind your thrusts and parries, the slower and, consequently, more fake, your "sword-fight" will appear to the audience.

Theatre is make-believe but the performers and audience members are real-life, flesh-and-blood, kill-able people. Actors on stage, or in film, can experience a sense of immortality. Beware of traffic, sharp knives, loaded weapons and wild animals. They are real, on or off, the set.

 If you want the stage lit with open-flame torches, it is the lighting and set designer's job to find a way to fake it.

If flames must be lit, something other than "strike anywhere matches" should be used.

Lastly, do not save on the budget by hiring out-of-work taxi drivers as extras and spear carriers, whose job it may also be, to light the torches.

By some miracle, we got through the entire run of this particular Othello without setting the ancient old historical building, where our theatre was housed, on fire.

However, I watched in dismay and harangued them about it to within an inch of my job. Matches should not be grabbed in bunches, some stuck through plastic "chain maille" and the rest strewn over the floor, where the females of the company would soon be running, in long dresses, to make their entrances on time.

But the biggest shock of all came on the day of public dress rehearsal, when the swords we would be using in performance, finally showed up. I will never forget the pride on the faces of those "scroungers" who had procured our swords, on loan, from the local armory, as they pulled out the honed-to-razor-sharp cavalry sabres for us all to see. My complaints were regarded as an ungrateful nuisance. Nobody, but me, saw anything wrong with it. I was being, as I recall, an "asshole."   

Our sword fight was a sabre fight between myself, playing Montano, and another actor (a dude bursting with machismo) cast as Cassio.

Stage sabres, when not in use, are slung slightly across one's back out of the way. Military scabbards hang down the side and can be caught between an actor's legs, particularly during a duel. How are we going get around with these long butcher knives in scabbards? The performance was now a couple of hours away.

The only possible thing to do, for the time being, was to tape the scabbards to our belts with gaffer's, (I mean plumber's) tape.  Gaffers tape costs an arm and a leg and can support the weight of a truck. Duct tape, (which looks the same, almost) is capable of supporting nothing; at least not for very long.

Performance.

Our lead playing Iago, you know, Shakespeare's most verbose villain, is having trouble with all those lines but we get through it.

Next day, no changes are made to our yard-long butcher knife situation, but despite Cassio's all-out determination to actually win the battle with Montano, we, again, get through it.

At this point it is important to give you some idea of our set: It is meant to be some kind of an abstract fortress; in Cyprus.

We have a mezzanine running around the entire stage. Stage right, across the upstage back, and stage-left. There are taxi drivers in tights and funny helmets holding lit torches spaced a few feet apart.

There is an open staircase with steps that have no backing, leading from the mez down to stage level. All around the stage are lattice flats, the kind you grow roses on, with torchlight flickering through, otherwise, the stage is very dark.

The sword-fight goes like this: We enter upstage left, behind the lattice and, staying above the lattice, battle our way across the stage. Visually, very impressive. Physically, very dangerous. Cassio is laying into me with all he's got. He could lop my head off with ease, should my own military sabre fail to deflect the blow.

We emerge downstage left, and cross the stage in a very impressive life and death melee. Once we reach the foot of the open staircase with firelight shining through the cracks, a thrust from Cassio sends me falling backwards onto the stairs, as I bind off his sword, regain my feet, and come at him with a lunge, which he parries and steps to stage right. I spin around and from there the fight continues with more of the same.

On stage left is Iago, played by our director, stumbling through a soliloquie intended to make Iago appear to be trying to stop the fight, although he isn't.

By this time we're about four or five nights into the run. Cassio and I both arrive at the theatre and he's very anxious to tell me something.

Says Cassio: "I've thought of a new move, it's going to be great! At the foot of the stairs, instead of me parrying and moving right, which I've never liked, I step straight downstage and deflect your sword,  second position to the outside."

"Stop right there," I say. "I don't want to hear another word. We'll come in at 10 am tomorrow, you can show me your idea and if it works, we'll rehearse it in."

Fine. Done. End of discussion.

Fight scene. Cassio is waling away on me as usual. Across the stage, we go, behind the lattice work. Blam! Blam! Clank! Clank! tempered steel crashing against tempered steel. We come out on stage proper. Iago is downstage left carrying on as if he actually knew the speech. The audience is packed. You could hear a pin drop from them. I think they were scared down to the last subscriber.

We reach the foot of the stairs. Wham! I go back on my back, onto the stairs. Vulnerable. I try to leap to my feet, to defend myself, but I can't get up. I'm frozen there. Am I paralyzed? Did I break my back? No pain. That's a good sign. Cassio has this weird look on his face and is jumping around like a chicken on a griddle. I'm afraid he's going to try to stab me just cause he can't think of what else to do.

I feel round with my left hand, while getting ready to counter whatever Cassio might attempt. The scabbard had gone between the steps, the duct tape had broken, and the scabbard bent into a hook pinning me to the step. I work it loose.

Cassio is standing there, mouth agape, his brain panickized. You can see no thinking is taking place in his head at all.

I'm now on my feet but Cassio has stepped downstage where his "new move" would have taken him. I think, "Oh no. He must think I'm switching to his new move." Now we're in front of 360 people who still think they're looking at a fortress in Cypress.

I lift my sword and begin the slowest thrust I can possibly make, as in his "new move" mouthing, "Bind it off! Bind it off! Second position to the outside!" What does he do? He lets his sword dangle limp, and thrusts his forearm (!) at my blade. I feel my sword go through his costume, then the sickly slowing as it continues through his fleshy forearm. I withdraw as quickly, yet delicately, as I can.

I think, okay. This show is over.

Cassio has slumped into my arms blood gushing out everywhere and I yell out to one of the taxi drivers in the wings, I need a "tourniquet!" One of them, a heavy-set guy that I didn't have all that much respect for, throws this absolutely filthy t-shirt out to me.    

Iago hasn't even noticed that the fight has stopped and the audience is gasping in horror, as I hold the Raggedy Andy Cassio in my arms.

"Hold friends, friends part, Put up thy swords" hollers Iago. The two people he's yelling about, have long since stopped playing with swords.

I'm yelling into the wings, "Somebody get an ambulance! Tell them someone's losing blood fast."

I say out to the audience, "Sorry folks, looks like we've had a little mishap. The show is over for tonight.

Iago is looking around like "Did I miss something?"

I hear the ambulance. "Man that was quick!" The extras are out on stage now. We carry Cassio into the wings, the paramedics take over.

The hospital is just a couple of blocks away, as it turns out. A bunch of us, in full costume, march down there, through the snow, and wait for Cassio to get stitched up. After some serious nail-biting, we are told he is going to be fine. or was it "live?" Well, something like that.   

Fortunately there was a store that sold cognac on the way to the hospital. I picked up a bottle and bought some red ribbon and tied a bow around it.

So, we are all standing there as Cassio emerges from the emergency room all patched up, arm in a sling, still in much of his costume. He is beaming like an idiot, flanked by a bunch of adoring little nurses. I present the bottle of cognac. Everybody yells Hip Hip Hooray,

And a fine time was had by all. 

almost 6 years ago 0 likes  1 comments  0 shares
Rottendoubt a4 patrick
man, that was a great story! i agree with all your safety precautions!!
almost 6 years ago

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Languages Spoken
english, french
Location (City, Country)
Los Angeles, United States
Gender
male
Member Since
April 30, 2008

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