[Blackfriars' Journal]

Skirmishing and Theatre
by Gareth Thomas

      Having begun to establish what is known here on the West Coast as Skirmishing, I have been approached by fencers and fight choreographers alike who all ask the same question: What are the benefits of such an activity?

      Modern fencers regard the techniques as "unsafe fencing" (i.e., moves too hazardous to be allowed on the strip.)

      Choreographers have asked how the seemingly unsafe distancing in Skirmishing could be beneficial to theatrical combat.

      In the first case, I agree somewhat with modern fencers. It is an unsafe practice, where modern fencing competition rules are followed. Skirmishing returns the fighter to the rules and attitudes that spawned modern fence. With the protection required, Skirmishing is as safe for the fighter as modern fence is for the fencer. Granted, the two should never meet, as they are worlds apart. Skirmishing is designed for the student of Historical Fence, who wishes to experience the true feel of 16th-19th century duels, or at least as close as possible.

      As to the theatrical standpoint, it was discussed briefly on the Stage Combat Mailing List that while I enjoy a good swashbuckling routine, I prefer to choreograph for historical accuracy when I am allowed to do so. If an offensive or defensive move (e.g., moves like running half-way up a tree and attacking in midair; doing a backward summersault under your enemy's thrust; or leaping over a blade more than once) would not have been accomplished in a historical context, I cannot expect the audience to believe it.

      These moves have to be tried in unrehearsed combat to prove their validity. For example, in the movie "Rob Roy", I thought that grabbing the blade would have been ridiculous, until I tried it and found out how it would really have worked.

      Skirmishing allows fight choreographers the outlet to explore just exactly what would have happened in a given situation at swordpoint with rapiers. For as long as I have been choreographing, it has always been a benefit to actually try the moves out, within distance and with proper protection. Not only does this help a choreographer find out how successful the moves are when done right, but also helps to realize the exact consequences when the moves are done wrong and fail.

      Safety guidelines, in stage-combat, are designed to teach the performers how to SELL the move for itself, not for its historical accuracy. They have the defender moving out of line in anticipation, and the attacker aiming off-line or out of distance. While wearing protection and working in-distance, Skirmishing teaches how the move was supposed to have been done, successfully and unsuccessfully. My partner and I have performed moves, in-distance during sparring, with no warning, to test their validity under combat-like circumstances.

A good example of the translation of Skirmishing to Stage-Combat would be to practice period seizure/disarms in rapier play. Practicing in-distance with protection, my partner and I were "wounded" continuously until the exact footing and body placements were perfected. This is not the safe, out of distance, projected fighting of stage combat, but the actual in-fighting stance required to have performed it successfully in actual conflict. Then we developed the exact distance and angle to perform the movement safely in choreography, but maintain the "in-fighting" perception.

      This is by no means a step to replace any type of choreographic instruction. It is an option for those who have the training to try their hand at better understanding the attitude and mentality of the duelist by stepping into their boots and facing off against an opponent who is intent on hitting you with a weapon of correct weight and balance. As a result, the choreographer can translate that understanding to historical performance through this type of practical application.

-Gareth Thomas is a fight choreographer from Eugene, Oregon. He can be reached at pelhafyn@juno.com.

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