Recycled Opinions

Due to a pending email system change at my day job, I’ve been archiving old emails, including those from my year as a graduate student there.  I came across a few things I wrote for a communication design class that I think could bear airing amongst the audience they were (at the time, hypothetically) addressed to.

This first one is an excerpt from a piece on organizational change and the challenges therein.  Obviously some of this is a bit out of date now, as the SAFD has taken some further steps in the last year:

The Society has come under increasing fire for what is becoming a glaring omission in its offerings: Firearms.  Even ignoring the weak pretense the SAFD makes of including film and television training under its auspices, relevance with modern live theatre still demands that stage combatants have at least some rudimentary understanding of prop firearms usage.  As someone who has been performing, choreographing, and most recently renting props for theatrical fight scenes for a decade, I can confidently say firearms are much more common on stage than quarterstaff, smallsword, or sword & shield, for example.

The problem has always been that firearms are different.
Unlike something like knife fighting, you can’t just take the basic structure of one of the sword tests and transpose gun moves onto the same framework.  Fights with firearms are very different in nature to fights with melee weapons, in terms of how they are staged safely, in the reality that they’re trying to portray, in the safety issues involved, and in the technical skills required.  It requires an entirely new type of test and a new type of training, and this challenge has stumped the SAFD for years.  It requires, as Heifetz puts it, a “shift in mindset” (p.13).

This is also an area where there is no readily identified group of ‘experts’ to consult; the SAFD are supposed to be the experts in theatrical combat, and this is something most of them have not dealt with extensively.  While there is firearms training and certification available through the National Rifle Association, NRA training is geared towards hunting and self-defense with real firearms.  Some SAFD instructors have gone that route for lack of options, but equating that to theatrical firearms training is like saying stage combat could be replaced by martial arts and fencing, or acting by just talking.  It ignores the artistic and technical challenges of effectively and safely staging unsafe-seeming actions.  The closest equivalent might be Hollywood armourers, but the resources and techniques available to Hollywood film productions are drastically different to those available to most live theatres.  To create an entire field of expertise in this case requires the blending of several existing fields, in a way that doesn’t have much precedent.

Another roadblock to progress in this has been the cultural differences.  To speak in generalizations, most members of the SAFD are theatre artists and/or college students, as that’s where the training is primarily available.  All of the classes I’ve been in or seen have been more than half female as well.  Artists, college students, and women, for a variety of reasons, are often uncomfortable with firearms.  I’ve seen many people who will happily revel in the perhaps more distant and therefore safe fantasy of swordplay violence, who recoil at the thought of working with guns.  It reveals a disconnect sometimes between the study of violence that’s integral to the field, and the abhorrence of violence that we often value in ourselves and others.

Shame nobody around here is about to offer a workshop on Firearms for the Stage & Screen, eh?
…and this one was from an Op/Ed assignment:

As someone with a child entering preschool, I cannot help but notice the buzz about standardized testing.  There’s an ongoing debate about standards-based learning, brought to the fore by ‘No Child Left Behind’, but as I think about my soon-to-expire again AA/C status and the classes that earned it, I think it’s worth asking ourselves about our SAFD tests…..

My first class in 1998-99 with Brad Waller opened my eyes to many things; Not only was stage combat about techniques, but the poetry of stringing them together into something beautiful… or horrific.  There was a rich history awaiting study in the martial arts of many cultures.  We experimented with choreography, analyzing phrases, and studied Marozzo’s Pressas and other European martial arts.  Many of us attended the Paddy Crean ‘99 workshop, and I’ve attended four more since.  They’ve impressed upon me the diverse knowledge that can be brought into our field.

On the other hand, nobody in our class ‘passed’.  My partner Melanie and I got closest, with two out of three weapons, but like others we felt cheated.  We felt we hadn’t been taught the adjudicator’s wants, or been properly prepared for that culmination of our class, the SPT.

In retrospect, I’m thankful to Brad for that.

I’ve taken classes with three CTs now, renewed with more, and worked with many A/Cs.  My impression is that many SAFD courses are geared towards acquisition of a title, such that people feel they or the class has failed if they don’t get it. The ultimate goal of the class: certification.  Anything else is
relegated to workshops.  Test requirements determine curriculum, with little time for other skills that help produce safe, skilled, creative actor/combatants and choreographers.

How do we encourage flexibility, creativity, and healthy attitudes towards continued learning?   As actors and choreographers we’re asked to make creative, bold, exciting choices for characters, yet the training and certification structure works against creativity, in students and teachers.  Some teachers use identical choreography year after year.  My truest joy in the field is choreography, but when you need the same standard moves for everyone, and don’t have time to explore many alternatives, a one-size-fits-all approach seems easiest.

The 1977 Articles of Incorporation mentioned stage and film, and our FDs are sanctioned for both, but the SAFD serves primarily theatre. If our classes are for film, they’re lacking- but even on stage, do we utilize the same skills?  Muscular men might play gritty armed warriors more frequently than operatic sopranos do.  Courses at Renaissance Faires might focus on demands of theatre-in-the-round work.  Many actresses I’ve choreographed portrayed sexual violence- rife with issues rarely covered.

One could also argue requiring existing dramatic literature makes SPTs harder on women, who have limited scene choices.  What would requirements be for an actress-oriented organization?  Our classes are often majority female, but many rarely get to use their weapons skills.

How do we balance standards and the need to train creative, innovative people, using safe techniques to step outside lines and paint without numbers?  How do we remind people it’s okay to do moves that aren’t named?

I don’t advocate elimination of standards- they ensure titles mean something consistent, we share basic vocabulary of notation and moves, and most importantly, help ensure actor safety.  I just worry that boxes we check off become hard to break out of.

Remind yourself, your students/teachers, what’s required of basic classes isn’t meant to be all there is!  Just because you’ve studied matched weapons from SAFD categories doesn’t mandate choreographing that way.  Generic stances from class aren’t right for every character.  Study historical and ethnic fighting styles!  Study dance, theatre, stunts!  Remind yourself learning is a lifelong journey, not just repeated at three-year renewals.  Who wants to stay standard?

Remember and share what drew you here and why you love this work; that joy will serve you and your organization well.

Written as though I were going to submit it to The Cutting Edge, the now online-only newsletter of the SAFD.  Not actually submitted, but keep an eye out this Fall for my article Dynamic Gunplay in the Fight Master, their journal published twice yearly.

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