What’s In My Stage Combat Bag?

What's In My Stage Combat Bag?

As I do more and more stage combat work, I’ve found that it’s super useful to have a bag or kit with my stage combat supplies in it, so I can grab it and get to rehearsals! As an independent artist with a lot of commitments on my plate (directing, teaching, writing and blogging, stage combat, just to name a few!), I don’t have time to be searching around for my supplies. This way I have everything I need, all in one handy place.

This is definitely not all my stage combat items (can’t fit swords in this bag, LOL!) but it has the basics that I use the most often. Let’s see what’s inside, shall we?

The bag itself is a Zip-Top Organizing Utility Tote from Thirty-One Gifts (I promise that this post is not sponsored – yes I have a lot of Thirty-One products but I purchased them all myself because they’re functional AND pretty!). There are lots of pockets on the outside that I can toss my keys, phone, snacks or water bottle into, and not have to dig through the bag to find them quickly. I got the crossed arrows embroidered on the bag so I know it’s my stage combat bag, but it doesn’t scream to the world “I AM CARRYING A WHOLE BUNCH OF WEAPONS IN HERE.” I can also repurpose the bag later, should I need it for something else. If you look closely, you’ll see I have a Mjölnir (aka Thor’s hammer) keychain on the zipper.

In the bag itself are the following items:

  • A first aid kit (more details below)
  • A camouflage print Zipper Pouch for training knives
  • A dotted print Zipper Pouch for prop guns (bullet holes, get it?)
  • Two bandanas (for tying up hair, as a makeshift holster, to wipe up sweat, cleaning rags, or to use as a sling)
  • Extra socks (for sweaty feet)
  • Two sets of thick shoelaces in black and brown (I have used these to tie weapons to belts, as an emergency corset tie, to hold a pad on a wound, and as a shoelace. Go figure.)
  • An iPod (for filming/photographing choreography and for music for warm-ups)
  • A box of business cards
  • Two sets of bracers (leather wristbands) in black and brown, made for me by my mom’s friend, as well as some stage combat patches that will get sewn on my bag soon
  • Two scripts – Juvie (the last show I choreographed) and A Permanent Image (a show I’m working on in the fall)
  • A large notebook (for writing notes/choreography)

Let’s get into more details about the pouches in the bag. Here’s a closer look at what’s in my first aid pouch (from Weezi in London):

First Aid Pouch

  • Safety pins (easily accessed on the zipper)
  • A safe CPR kit
  • Lots of bandages
  • A battery operated book light (for someone who has been through multiple power outages during shows, I always like to have an extra little light source available)
  • Feminine supplies and wipes
  • BioFreeze (for sore muscles)
  • Facial tissues
  • Tweezers
  • Pens (two blue, one red)
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Halls throat lozenges
  • Moleskin pads

This is a simple, homemade first aid kit, so clearly it doesn’t have EVERYTHING, but in a pinch, it’s useful! (And so far [knock on wood] I haven’t had to use it.)

Let’s take a peek into my gun pouch.

I have an assortment of prop guns, varying from nice metal replicas to crappy plastic dollar store cheapos. They all fit in the dotted pouch nicely. Since I work with youth a lot, I keep the orange tips visible on the guns, unless the director requests something more realistic looking. In that case, I have a little kit at home with different paints and markers that I can use to touch up the guns. (That might be another post for the future!) You can get in a lot of trouble for possessing weapons in public (even if they are fake) so that’s another reason why I keep the orange tips visible for as long as possible.

Here’s the contents of my knife pouch:

Knife Pouch

I currently have six Cold Steel trainers, which every actor I’ve ever worked with absolutely loves. I got these ones from Reliks. Before I got the trainers, I used cheap rubber daggers from McCulloch’s, which are still decent for the price ($4 each – you get what you pay for, so I reinforce them with Gorilla Tape), and I use them a lot with my younger or more inexperienced actors. However, the Cold Steel ones are everyone’s favourite, and they frequently got fought over so I’ve been slowly building up my collection.

I also currently have an oversized prop razor from The Conchologist in there. I haven’t used it since but it’s good to have and I’m sure I’ll get some use out of it in the future – maybe I’ll get to work on a production of Sweeney Todd or something.

Even with all those items in the bag, I still have space for a pair of sneakers and a change of clothes, as well as a water bottle and deodorant. I can also easily remove a pouch if I don’t need those specific weapons at the moment.

I have a few more items to add to my bag. I want to get a tensor bandage for the first aid kit, some small scissors, some hair ties, and a folder with printouts from Shrew’d Business (they are SO useful). I’m also going to have some resumes on hand, just in case.

While this isn’t every piece of stage combat equipment I have (believe me, my collection is growing quickly!), these are my most-used items, and I’ve found it so handy to have this kit available to grab and go. It makes me feel much more professional too. 😉

Do you have a stage combat bag? What do you keep in yours?
Do you have suggestions for what I should add to mine?
Share your tips with me on FacebookTwitter, or in the comments below!

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10 Things I’ve Done as a Fight Captain

10 Things I've Done as a Fight Captain

Everyone who knows me knows that I absolutely love stage combat. My first foray into stage combat was during an eighth-grade production of The Taming of the Shrew, where my character Bianca was tied up and horsewhipped by her older sister. My appetite for violence was re-ignited in 2010 when I was cast in a production of The Three Musketeers, and the rest, as they say, is history.

In 2011 I joined the crew of Treasure Island and got the opportunity to be Fight Captain for that production. If you want to become a Fight Director someday, being Fight Captain for a production is a step in the right direction! Read on for a description of what a Fight Captain’s role is, as well as some of the things I’ve done as a Fight Captain. All the examples listed below are actual tasks I’ve completed in past productions!

1. During rehearsals, acting as the Fight Director’s right-hand-man-or-woman.

The Fight Captain assists the Fight Director and Assistant Fight Director (if there is one), and is in charge of combat once the show opens. Sometimes the AFD is also the Fight Captain. He or she runs fight calls before the show, maintains the weapons, and acts as liaison if there are any issues that need to be addressed with the FD. They act as a leader for the rest of the actor-combatants, displaying proper rehearsal etiquette and making themselves useful as much as possible. Which leads to our second point…

2. Getting the FD what they need (pencil, paper, weapons, video recording device, coffee…).

As the FD’s right-hand-man-or-woman, the Fight Captain needs to be ready for whatever needs doing, to maximize the time available with the FD. There never seems to be enough time to get stage combat done and choreographed as we’d like, so using the time efficiently is of the utmost importance. Try to anticipate your FD’s needs and have items ready that they need: pencil and paper or a camera to notate and record choreography, weapons in good condition and ready to hand out to actors, water or coffee for when they’re pulling their hair out trying to fix choreography…

3. Helping to review the Fight Director’s choreography.

Fight Captains do not alter or teach choreography, but they can and should help other actor-combatants review their moves, under supervision.

4. Cleaning and care of the deck.

Yup, Fight Captains deal with the dirty work. Before and after rehearsal and before every performance, the rehearsal area and/or stage must be cleared of debris, and then raked/swept/mopped as required. The Fight Captain may assign these duties to someone else (with the FD’s approval) but it is the responsibility of the Fight Captain to ensure these duties are completed.

10 Things I've Done as a Fight Captain

5. Maintaining weapons and other combat equipment.

All stage combat equipment must be kept locked up when not in performance. For each performance, the Fight Captain will unlock the storage, check all items for damage, set up and/or distribute items where they need to be and to who needs them. This could also involve creating blood packs, loading blanks or caps into guns, checking and pre-setting special effects items, or replacing consumable or one-time-use effects (such as blood-filled pies or spaghetti squashes to be hacked with a tomahawk).

When I was the Fight Captain for Treasure Island, we had a great system for weapon tracking. We had a long table for the weapons and covered it in butcher paper. All the weapons were placed on the paper and I traced the outline of each weapon onto the paper. Then, each outline was labelled with what the weapon was (“brass handled cutlass” for example) and who used the weapon. Actors would take their weapon off the table as it was needed, and returned the weapon when they were done with them. It was easy to see what weapons were accounted for, and who we needed to track down if their sword was missing!

After the show, the Fight Captain collects and counts all weapons, checks them again for damage or maintenance (no splinters, rust, dirt, etc), wipes down all bladed weapons, returns everything to storage, and locks up.

6. Completing safety checks.

As well as presetting combat equipment, Fight Captains need to ensure that all safety equipment is set and in order. This is EXTREMELY important. My worst experience as a Fight Captain occurred when I forgot to set a crash mat into the proper position for a stunt, and the actor rolled off a four-foot platform directly onto the wooden deck. Stage combat of any kind involves risk to some extent, but when doing bigger stunts, it’s absolutely imperative that everything is safe. Make sure crash mats are in place, there are no tripping hazards, rigging is in working order, and so on. Equipment is replaceable… people aren’t.

7. Leading warm-ups.

It’s important that actors be warmed up and limber before doing any kind of strenuous activity onstage, including combat. Some actors like to warm up on their own, but I think warming up as a group helps to improve morale and create a team atmosphere, particularly when you’re working together so closely and have to take care of each other. Learn a simple warm-up routine that targets each part of the body and get the cast together to get ready as a group.

8. Running fight call.

Before every performance, all fights and violence must be run twice — once at a slow, “tai chi” speed to get the moves back into your body, then at performance speed. The Fight Captain ensures that all the fights are rehearsed correctly and safely, and maintains order during that time. If there are any issues that arise, the Fight Captain addresses them during fight call.

9. Doing backstage effects.

When not actually performing, the Fight Captain is generally the first person who will be assigned to take care of effects such as third-person knaps, magical appearing knife effects, broken bone sound effects with water bottles, blood squirts, and so on. (I have done all those in performances before!) Stage combat definitely encompasses more than just flashy sword moves onstage!

10. Listening and learning.

As Fight Captain, you have been given a great opportunity to learn from the experience. You are not there to brag about the combat experience you already have, or to say “that’s not how so-and-so does it.” You are there to assist the FD and make their life easier. Listen, listen, and listen some more, and learn everything you can. Be the solution, not the problem.

10 Things I've Done as a Fight Captain

Have you been a Fight Captain before? What were your tasks?
Is this something you might like to learn about more or try someday?

Share your experiences on Facebook, Twitter, or in the comments below!

Extra Credit: 10 Things I’ve Done as an Assistant Fight Director
Photo Credit: Ceris Thomas (top and bottom), Kerry Hishon (middle)

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10 Things I’ve Done as an Assistant Fight Director

10 Things I've Done as an Assistant Fight Director

I’m currently acting as Assistant Fight Director (AFD) for London Community Players’ production of The Trials of Robin Hood, a very funny retelling of the classic Robin Hood adventures through three different perspectives: Robin Hood, Maid Marian, and the Sheriff of Nottingham. And, of course, this show has LOTS of stage combat. The fight director is Brian “Brock” Brockenshire of Shrew’d Business, and I’ve been working with Brock for five years now, going back to LCP’s production of The Three Musketeers, so I’m glad to be working with him again on another great show!

I absolutely love stage combat, and getting to develop my skills as a “fight director in training” has been fantastic. An assistant fight director’s role is exactly what it sounds like: to assist the fight director in whatever needs doing to tell the story of the show, while ensuring the cast and crew’s safety at all times. It’s a great way to learn more about the craft of stage combat (I’m like a Padawan!), and it’s crazy fun as well.

Here are some of the things I’ve been doing so far during my journey as Assistant Fight Director for this production.

1. Assisting the Fight Director with teaching the basics (safety, combat theory, falls, hand-to-hand combat like punches, slaps, hair pulls and chokes, knaps, parts of a sword, basic attacks and parries).

This is important stuff that all actors need to know in order to perform combat choreography safely and accurately. I will often act as a “crash test dummy” and get “beaten up” by Brock in order to demonstrate new moves, and watch the actors as they practice the moves.

2. Helping to teach and review the Fight Director’s choreography.

I frequently am one half of the pair of combatants (the other being Brock) who demonstrate the fight to the actors, so they can see what the fight will look like. I have to learn various pieces of choreography (often right at that moment!) so I can accurately demonstrate what attacks and parries will be performed. For this show, we are doing lots of unarmed combat, as well as lots of weapon work including found objects, bows and arrows, various swords and daggers, a mace, and quarterstaffs, so I have to be proficient enough with all these weapons to be able to demonstrate the moves correctly!

As well, to save time, we will often split the cast up into smaller groups and Brock will give me some pre-assigned choreography to teach. After some practice time, we’ll bring the group back together and see how the parts go together. This is also useful for reviewing choreography that’s already been taught — some of the group will go with Brock, some with me, and we can get twice the amount of work done at the same time.

3. Working with the Fight Captain.

The Fight Captain assists the FD and AFD, and is in charge of combat once the show opens. He or she runs fight calls before the show, maintains the weapons, and acts as liaison if there are any issues that need to be addressed with the FD. I was Fight Captain for LCP’s production of Treasure Island a few years ago, and it was just Brock and myself working on the fights. Brock mentioned that it’s been some time since he’s worked with both an AFD and a Fight Captain, and I’m really glad that more people are becoming interested in fight direction. The fight captain for TORH is Dustin Didham, who I first met when I was shadowing Brock while he (Brock) was teaching combat for a local production of Macbeth. Dustin played Macduff (something we have in common) in that production and loves stage combat too, so it’s a great learning experience for the both of us.

4. Jumping in and learning choreography for/with actors and being a stand-in for a missing body for actors to fight around.

With a cast of 38 people, there is often at least one person missing, so frequently I’ve had to stand in for that missing actor and have their combat partner call out the sword moves so I can be their missing person. It’s useful for that person because it really cements their choreography in their head (you know you know something well when you can teach it to others!) and it’s good for me to practice learning choreography quickly. I’ve also been a stand-in when combat needs to happen “to” or “around” someone; for example, if someone needs to be carried offstage, I’ll normally go first and be the “body” to ensure the move is safe. Or, if combat needs to occur around an actor, again, I’ll stand in for that actor the first time, so they can see how they need to move or avoid getting in the way.

5. Filming choreography patterns for reference.

With video recording being so easily accessible, it’s a great reference tool for actors, as well as a good record for demo reels. One night in particular, Brock and I filmed five or six different choreography patterns for the actors to refer to. (I’m pretty sure I thought my head was going to explode after that.)

10 Things I've Done as an Assistant Fight Director

Here’s an example of one of our resource videos.

6. Learning to fight left-handed.

We have a couple of lefties in our cast, and (as any fan of The Princess Bride knows) it’s a good skill to have.

7. Watching fights and checking angles/weirdness (aka, being a second set of eyes).

We have a large number of big group fights in the show, and it’s useful to have a second person watching the fights to watch for things like weird timing, “air” (being able to see that the attack is clearly fake), missed knaps, potential danger, or anything else going on that the Fight Director might not be able to see, as they’re watching out for a million other things. Even when it’s a smaller fight, it’s useful to have a second set of eyes watching from a different angle — something that looks great from audience left might look terrible from audience right.

8. Rehearsal hall management.

Again, we’re dealing with a cast of 38. It gets noisy. Sometimes the AFD gets to play “bad cop” and tell people to pipe down! I also assist with making sure the deck is clean and free of debris, and helping to tidy up the rehearsal hall after rehearsal is over.

9. Sword/weapon/”sharp pointy object” wrangler.

Pretty self-explanatory. We haven’t worked much with actual swords yet (that’s coming really soon!) so in the meantime we’re working with sword stand-ins. I help keep the weapons in good condition and keep them sorted after the rehearsal is over. Once the show opens, that will be Dustin’s responsibility.

10. Creating my own choreography and teaching that choreography myself, under supervision.

Sometimes FDs will delegate a fight sequence to their AFD, either because they have too much to do themselves, or wish to give the AFD the opportunity to develop their choreography skills (oftentimes, both are the case). For TORH, Brock assigned me a giant, comedic melee consisting of some kick-ass nuns and townswomen beating up a goofy gang of Merry Men (in the Sheriff’s rendition of the story, the Merry Men are a bunch of dimwits) and over half the cast is in this fight! Not to mention that partway through choreographing the fight, we realized that one of the female actors was not present, so we had to add in an extra Merry Man for her to fight, and I stood in for the missing fighter for part of the rehearsal!

When choreographing a piece of violence, you need to ensure that what you’re making serves the story. So I made sure to find out what the director, Ceris Thomas, wanted the fight to look like and achieve. What weapons (if any) were to be used? Who would win? How long should the fight take? (All these questions will be answered in the show… so be sure to check it out!)

10 Things I've Done as an Assistant Fight Director

Have you been an Assistant Fight Director before? What were your tasks?
Is this something you might like to learn about more or try someday?

Share your experiences on Facebook, Twitter, or in the comments below!

Photo Credits: Ceris Thomas (top & middle), Kerry Hishon (bottom)

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Wednesday Words of Wisdom – Maisie Williams

Wednesday Words of Wisdom - Maisie Williams

“Doing sword fighting is like picking up a dance routine…
I think dancing really helps with the picking up of it.”

Maisie Williams, actress & dancer

Theatre Talk With Dr. John Lennox, Fight Director

Theatre Talk With Dr. John Lennox, Fight Director

Welcome to my new Thursday column, Theatre Talk! I’m so excited to be presenting this interview series, featuring theatre and performing artists all over the world!

My first interview is with Dr. John Lennox, professor and fight director, based out of Michigan. I first met “Doc” at the 2011 Art of Combat New York City Intensive workshop. He is a fantastic fight director and teacher, and I am honoured to have studied with him! Let’s get right to it… read on to find out more!

Who are you, and what do you do?

My name is Dr. John Lennox. I teach various forms of combat — stage and Western Martial Arts (so, how to actually kill someone), and I coordinate fights and stunts for local films and theatres all over the world. I train people to fight and also train actors to become fight directors. When I am in my state/country, I teach theatre classes at Lansing Community College and online at Purdue University and University of Phoenix (actually here I teach Introduction to Art and Introduction to Video and Performing Arts). So I am a wandering professor who works in his field and comes to class when I am home — very Indiana Jones-ish.

What made you want to pursue stage combat? How did you get to where you are today?

Well, life has a way of telling you what you will do. I got into a lot of fights when I was young. I was a good fighter. I then took Aikido in high school. In a high school play I had to throw a punch at a character. The director showed me how. He probably never punched anyone in his life. I showed him how it was really done. After I went to a local community college on a theatre scholarship as a pre-med major, a number of my friends from high school there always had me coordinate the fights for the shows we were in. That was kind of the end of it. I went to Western Michigan for my undergrad, got a job afterward as an actor on a touring show and thought no more of combat. When I came back for my Master’s at Michigan State I coordinated one fight for a show, and then created a stage combat class where I taught one student — independent study. I was then hired as a professor at Lansing Community College, but they had someone there doing their fights. He wasn’t very good, but the head of the program liked him better than me. So, I directed I Hate Hamlet. Taught my actors to fence and we did an incredible fight scene. The program director apologized to me and used me for everything thereafter and allowed me to create a stage combat class. I went to a workshop held by Anthony DeLongis in L.A. in June 1999 to study. I had created the Michigan Shakespeare Festival in 1995, and in the summer of 1999 I was asked to do a fight demo at the Ann Arbor art festival to promote the summer season. I took some of my students from Lansing and we did a great show. Those students then decided to create a fight company. I wanted none of it. I had created two acting companies by then and was done creating companies. I told them I would help them though. We created Art of Combat. One by one they left or stopped doing anything for it and it became my sole responsibility. In October of 1999 I went to the first Western Martial Arts Workshop in Chicago to see if what I was teaching was historically accurate as far as current scholarship was concerned. I met Jared Kirby there. We hit it off immediately and created the Lansing International Swordfighting and Martial Arts Convention — later known as ISMAC. He joined Art of Combat and with his fire, we launched ourselves into the stage combat world. I started training with Maestro Ramon Martinez and Maestro Jeannette Acosta Martinez, and I grew in skill exponentially. I also began studying with Col. Dwight McLemore and ended up following that path — hawk and knife and Close Quarters Combat. Brad Waller asked me to help him create the Shenandoah Project — a workshop where only master level instructors teach each other, using students to show our theories. It was a ten year project that was amazing and opened my eyes to so much. These are my mentors. From their schooling is where I developed Combat Theory that I am known for and teach all over the world now. Kyle Rowling, who worked on Star Wars eps. II and III, Troy and Wanted then joined AoC as a fight director, and the company grew even more in the stage combat community. I started teaching with another of my closest friends, Steve Huff, and another friend of ours we met at ISMAC, Gareth Thomas. We taught Boarding Actions, and for a while I went all over the world teaching people how to fight like a pirate. All of a sudden I found that I had grown in name in the stage combat and WMA communities. I returned to school for my PhD and my dissertation was on stage combat’s relationship to actual combat from Shakespeare’s day to now: A History of Stage Swordplay: Shakespeare to the Birth of Film. I am now considered a scholar as well as expert practitioner in the field. I research some of the lost ancient combat arts of the Americas and bring those to workshops today. That is what I am known for in the WMA world, and here I am today. See, sometimes life just opens some doors and closes others without you actively choosing anything. Never intended to be a fight director or combat instructor. Life just told me to. As Maestro Ramon Martinez says “Sometimes you just can’t ignore the signs.”

Mentors — Maestro Ramon Martinez, Maestro Jeannette Acosta Martinez, Col. Dwight McLemore and Brad Waller.
Brothers I wouldn’t be who I am without — Jared Kirby, Kyle Rowling, Steve Huff

Theatre Talk With Dr. John Lennox, Fight Director

What has been your favourite past project/performance so far, and why?

There have been so many over the years, and so many to mention. There’s the Shenandoah Project, Paddy Crean Workshop and so many others I’ve done that have allowed me to travel all over. As for performances I’d have to say the demo for the Ann Arbor art fair — not because of its brilliance, but because without it, I wouldn’t be what I am today. However, I really loved working for La Monnaie, the National Opera Theatre in Brussels. My good friend Jacques Cappelle brought me in to assist him with a fist fight when I was doing a workshop for him at his school. It was a delight. I also have a soft spot in my heart for my production of the play I wrote: The Many Deaths of Shakespeare, which we first performed at Lansing Community College back in 2006.

Do you have a “war story” from your performing past that you’d be willing to share?

Thankfully, not really. Our fights are safe and while bumps and bruises are a part of the field, we haven’t had any hospital trips. The worst war stories I have are walking in with choreo ready to a set that isn’t what was discussed — or better… the director pulling me aside to tell me that the actress who is doing 90% of the fights is deathly afraid of swords. Five one-minute long fights had to be cut down to 15 seconds each overnight.

Theatre Talk With Dr. John Lennox, Fight Director

What’s coming up next for you? Do you have a project on the go, or one coming up in the near future?

I have Combatcon in Vegas in a few days, the New York City Art of Combat Intensive Workshop in July, a workshop at Spring Arbor University, film shoots when I am done with that, a workshop in Mexico City, another AoC intensive in Sydney in January and classes in the fall. This is actually a pretty tame semester for me. Not sure how many shows I will do this fall. They often land in my lap in a week’s notice or so. you have to be flexible and ready to jump on a plane at a moment’s notice in this field.

What are your goals for the future?

I’d like to work on larger pictures and perhaps finally publish some of the combat works and screenplays I have sitting around. Past that, retirement to Mexico.

What words of advice would you give to a young person who would like to do what you do and follow in your footsteps?

Go to David Boushey’s stunt school right away: The International Stunt School. After that, spend a few years in the Western Martial Arts workshop circuit learning from the best — Combatcon, Paddy Crean Workshop, HEMA workshops, etc. Train as much as possible, and get connected with people who will train you as a fight director and stuntman. You will find them at these workshops. I wish I had had this guidance when I was younger.

Theatre Talk With Dr. John Lennox, Fight Director

Thank you so much for sharing, Doc!

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