We took a few smiling ones, and then I believe the direction we were given was "victorious" which apparently to a group of fighters means aggressively violent. (I'm just to the right of center about two rows back exchanging hair pulls with my dear friend Carlotta.) Photo credit: Theik Smith Photography

Summer Sling 2016 has come to an end. It was a whirlwind four days, in which I got far more than I bargained for. I got to put faces to many names I'd been hearing for years, work with a collection of some of the best fight guys in the business, and stretch myself to work further and faster than I ever thought I could. The fight community, for as much as we love blood and guts and killing each other, is full of some of the most supportive people I've ever met, and I am proud to stand among their ranks, even if I might stab them while I'm there. It's all a learning process!

The beginning of each day was an open period, in which I took advanced classes in knife, sword & shield, broadsword, and rapier & dagger. The latter three were aimed at teaching some less-commonly used techniques that really opened up how I thought about the weapons at hand. (Swetnam style R&D is so different to the traditional stage combat method of fighting that I could practically feel my brain clunking around to rewire itself to the new form.) Several of these classes took place in large, un-air conditioned gyms, which got a good sweat going early in the day (in case the walk from the train in 90% humidity wasn't enough).

The rest of my day was devoted to choreographer track itself, which is like a condensed version of an entire semester of theatre school accomplished in four days. Our fearless leaders on this jam-packed journey were my first and most frequent teacher, J. David Brimmer (who has many Broadway credits to his name) and Lewis Shaw (a D.C.-based choreographer and expert swordmaker). The remarkable thing about our group of nine was that six of us were women - nice to be diversifying the old boys' club. On day one we chose scenes to choreograph and in groups of three we served as actors for the other two choreographer's scenes. By halfway through day four we showed the scenes one final time (video of my choreography is at the end of this post). 

Throughout each day we worked through a combination of lectures from working professionals about the job of a fight choreographer, practical classes in which we sometimes had only fifteen minutes to choreograph a fight and then either place it in a set to destroy or figure out how to film it for a self-tape audition etc., working with found objects or set pieces to tell a story, and of course periods in which we worked on the actual choreography of our scenes.

While regular participants in the sling had five individual class periods each day, choreo track students had this over-arching project to accomplish by day four, so we spent lunch periods thinking about our scripts and evenings trying to solve problems in our choreography. I spent a good twenty minutes on Saturday night with my roommate helping me figure out how to kill someone (and then ended up using neither of the ideas I came up with at the time). On our last day, we all cut lunch short to get in a little more time brushing up our scenes. It was an incredible challenge - take a script you make have never read before (and your actors probably haven't, either), and create a fight in essentially three days, which is actually only about two hours of time for you to work on your scene with your actors. But I did it; we all did. It was remarkable to see the work of my fellow choreographers grow so much so quickly.

Our second period class on the last day ended up being a single sword class with fight master Mike Chin (who has played every Asian character in the background of every show on TV, at this point, I think) - and I took a moment to realize how quickly people can grow, from needing an entire semester to learn a simple fight for a test, to a few years later being able to learn the same amount of choreography in an hour - and actually act and perform it rather than just walking through the moves. Mikey doesn't go easy on his students and he pushed us through a lot of moves quickly. I was in fact a bit surprised at my own ability to take in so much choreo in such a short time. I realized I had probably never been given that opportunity before.

Throwing dirt in Sterling's face in the middle of our single sword fight.

Throwing dirt in Sterling's face in the middle of our single sword fight.

When we presented our scenes in our final choreography class, my scene ended and there was silence. Stunned silence, that for a moment made me nervous. Then David, who has seen every fight test I've ever done (because he adjudicated the one class I took that he didn't teach), who has coached me through self-choreographing fights in the past, who has known me longer than anyone else in this business as a fighter, said "wow." He said "I don't think I've got a negative comment," which I've never heard him say before, even about fights he has really liked. I learned then that my ability is in being an outside eye to hone the instincts of my actors into compelling stage pictures and visceral moments. I know as a director (and so as a fight director too) that my strength is in sewing together the ideas of my collaborators to fit my vision, rather than forcing my vision upon others so that they feel constrained, and I think that's where the success of my scene came through.

I was immensely proud of the nuanced acting of my performers (we did the scenes without dialogue because nobody had time to memorize two scenes in three days while also creating their own fights and maybe sleeping); I was proud of myself for letting go of bad ideas and pushing past where I was stuck; I was proud that my mentor got to see my work and was impressed. Lewis too said he got chills at how much the scene had improved from the day before and how I had worked myself out of my challenges, and that he teared up a bit watching the scene. To have someone who just met me see my growth, and to make my mentor proud, was more than I could have expected or asked for coming into this process.

I owe deepest debts of gratitude to Brimmer and Lewis, and also to Robb Hunter for an hour and a half of chaos that taught me more than he meant it to, to Mike Chin for reminding me about how much of fighting is acting (yes, duh, but still), to MJ Johnson (pictured above about to pull me over a table) for found objects and attitude, to Rick Sordelet for teaching me more about camera angles and filming myself in fifteen minutes than I ever learned in four years of very expensive theatre school (which was nothing), and to Mitch McCoy, who has been my dear friend for years and who, in addition to being more obsessed with broadsword than I am, helped heal my back with Reiki so I could actually make it through the whole workshop. I am also unspeakably grateful to all the interns who brought us weapons, kept time, and helped us figure out where we were going, and to my fellow choreo track students, who shared all my anxieties and fears and strengths and got through this all together. May we all work together again soon.

Hey, hire me to fight you! Or fight for you! Or tell other people how to fight each other! I know a few things now. (Not many. But some good ones.)

Fight video - Duchess of Malfi by John Webster, Act IV scene II; Duchess played by Gaby Labotka, Bosola played by Nic Coccaro.