Live Chat Transcript- FM Todd Campbell April 17, 2020
Content Links (full transcript below)
What types of challenges do you face when developing historical realism in stage combat and what kind of compromises do you have to make to deal with these challenges of translating historical styles from what it originally was, maybe verbatim, into something that is safe and works for stage?
Clearly historical accuracy is important to your choreography. How important do you feel it should be to stage combat in general? And in that case, if you feel it is extremely important, how do you implement it into the standardized stage combat?
For those who started with industry-standard and want to transition into more historical work but also want to stick with what they know how to choreograph safely, until they have enough understanding, what’s the best way for them to transition from industry-standard into a more historical style?
Do you have any tips for students who are trying to keep up with their education in stage combat from a distance right now? Are there any specific moves or drills or things that you think they should be practicing?
Louisa: Hello everyone and thank you for joining us for this very exciting chat with Fight Master Todd Campbell. I’m Louisa Zhu, the Director of Training for Fight Director Canada, and I will be moderating this chat tonight from a distance. If you have a question that you’d like to ask Todd at any point you can type it into the comments section of this video, which I will be watching. We have received quite a lot of questions in advance though, so we may not be able to get to everyone but we will sure try our darn best. So let’s get started.
To start us off Todd could you give us a brief overview of your journey in stage combat and how you got to this point? Where did you start and what made you want to pursue this as a career?
Todd: So my journey starts back in the early 90s when I was going to theatre school in New York. I went to the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York City, and we had a really great stage combat program. So by the time I finished my training I was able to get a certification with the SAFD. And then I did a few shows around New York - did a touring production out to the Napa Valley out in California – and then found myself back in Canada, moved to Toronto to go to the School of Physical Theatre, which was a Lecoq-based movement theatre training program. And then I joined a theatre company after I finished that school called the Tempest Theatre Group, and they offered me my first job as a fight director. And I was pretty confident that that I could teach someone how to do a fight. What I wasn’t sure at that time was could I choreograph a fight? Because I’d only been in maybe half-a-dozen shows with fights up until that point.
So I went to the Toronto Metro Reference Library and I started looking for books on stage combat because the internet in that time was not really much of a thing. So I went to library and I looked for some books on stage combat, and there weren’t very many. So I widened my search to books on swords and swordsmanship, and that’s when I found this book: The Art and History of Personal Combat by Arthur Wise. And in this book there is a ton of pictures from the period, showing all sort of fight manuscripts and the art that was within them. And to this point I had never seen any of these pictures before, and I was amazed at how dramatic they were, the stories that were contained within these physical images. And it was from that point on that I decided I wanted to create stage combat that looked more like that. And I’ve spent every moment since then trying to find ways of putting that into my fights.
Now at first it was very cut-and-paste. I would just do a traditional stage combat fight and then paste on a tableau of an image at the top of the fight or at the top of the section, at the end of the section, that matched the book. But then as the years went on and I started to hear more about Historical European martial artists around the world and I finally got a computer and internet became more of a thing, I was able to find some of these guys online and listen to their conversations about how they were interpreting all this stuff. And then through that I got to meet some of them by taking some of their workshops and buying their interpretations that they printed of the various manuscripts, and from there I’ve just been taking those interpretations and transforming them into something that works for us for stage.
Louisa: Excellent. That actually kind of leads us into our next question. You’ve already touched on the fact that you have been dealing a lot with your historically-based style, and certainly that’s something that, in our organization, you’re kind of well-known for. Can you tell us a little bit more about how you developed an interest for this style in particular?
Todd: Which style? Just in terms of Historical martial arts in combination with stage combat?
Louisa: That’s right.
Todd: I like truth in my cinema, in my theatre. And so when I saw these pictures and compared it to what I was doing—let’s say you look at Capo Ferro, for instance. When I’d look at Capo Ferro’s manuscript and I would see a picture like this one here and then—oh, let me put that in frame—and I would compare that to what we were doing and the sort of style we were doing, it didn’t seem to match. And then when I would go and take these workshops with these Historical martial artists I’m like, “Wow. There’s similarities, certainly, but there’s a lot of differences. And I want to explore that.” Because I get bored really easily, and if I had to do the same stage combat style all the time it would drive me insane. And sort of the stage combat of the early twentieth-century into the later twentieth century was really, you learn a generic sword style and then you apply that style to every type of sword you have at your disposal: so Rapier and Dagger is your Single Sword style with a dagger; Broadsword or Longsword is Single Sword with two hands; Smallsword is Single Sword with a little bit more tip work. Whereas really there’s lot more variety within that that you can find through the historical works.
And one of the best compliments I ever got as a fight director was someone who said to me that they’d never seen a fight that looked like mine before. And that’s great. That’s exactly what I want, right? Whereas I remember talking years ago to a fight director, and he was telling me about a show that he had choreographed, and he didn’t get great reviews for it and he was kind of bummed. And he said, “You know, I just don’t understand why they didn’t give me a good review for this because when I used those fights in this other show a month ago I got great reviews for them.” So not only was he just doing the same style, he was doing the same fights in different productions. Right? Which I understand. I’m not going to begrudge. It is a business and if you can do the same work and get the same pay, why not? If it works for you. But that doesn’t work for me. I need to do something—I need to be inspired, I need to do something different each time.
Louisa: That makes a lot of sense. I think that’s wonderful that you’re really searching for that inspiration constantly. One of the questions that we got is, “What types of challenges do you face when developing historical realism in stage combat and what kind of compromises do you have to make to deal with these challenges of translating historical styles from what it originally was, maybe verbatim, into something that is safe and works for stage?
Todd: Yeah. The very first HEMA workshop I ever took was with a guy named Stephen Hand. I got his book right here so I can show it to you. Stephen printed this book, which is the Medieval Sword & Shield book, which is his interpretation of the MS I.33 manuscript, which is the oldest known fencing manuscript to exist. It come from like 1280 – 1320, somewhere in there and depicts a sword fighting style with Sword and Buckler. And the first time I took the workshop, this probably was the early 2000s and I had never done anything like that before. And I did the workshop and I walked away from this weekend of Sword and Buckler thinking, “I can’t use any of this stuff!” because everything is a thrust to the face, everything is done at the same time so the parry and the counterattack are in the same moment, and it took me a while to figure out how I could translate it.
And usually what I say when I’m translating one of these styles is I have to do at least one, if not two, sort of weekender workshops with a master who’s working on that style, and that gives me my Rosetta Stone. That gives me my way of being able to look at the actual manuscripts and start to interpret what the meanings of it are and then I can take those concepts and I can make them stage-combat-worthy. Which means changing targets. So instead of a thrust to the face it will now be a thrust to the chest so I have to manipulate the guard position so it’s a little lower to accommodate that. I might change something that would have been a counter-attack. So in Rapier often what you will do is, when someone attacks you you counter-attack and stab them in the same moment. So what I’ll do instead is I will turn that counter-attack into a parry, but make it a parry that looks more like the parries from that system. So instead of a straight up-and-down parry that we might do with Single Sword or Sabre I’ll extend it out for Rapier, right? I’m just going to stand up for a moment so you can see.
In Single Sword or Single Sabre my parry might be here. Whereas in Rapier my parry is going to be more here. The counter-attack would be there. So when they come in and they thrust at my chest, instead of doing the counter-attack with the built-in parry with my hilt I’ll turn that into a parry and then counter back afterwards. So it’s little tiny manipulations, and that’s not something that’s not within the system. Capo Ferro himself says that when you’re fighting with a Rapier—let me see if I’m getting this right. “Parry when you must, counter if you can.” So if I can do that counter-attack I’ll do it but I can totally parry. So I don’t feel like I’m cheating on the system by building in a parry. It’s just a way for us to be able to keep the story going.
So there’s certainly things that I can change but think about how we came about the sword style that we have now from traditional stage combat. It was built on early twentieth-century Sabre fencing. Right? So the early Fight Masters of that time would look at the Sabre fencing that they were doing at the Olympic level and then they would take it and they would tweak it and they would change it to make it more safe, they would exaggerate and extend the actions to make it a little bit more clear what was happening within the fight. So one of the inspirations for my being able to go and do this was looking at the work of Simon Fon. For those of you who don’t know, Simon Fon’s a Fight Master with Fight Directors Canada and he was the creator of our early Martial Arts discipline. And what Simon was doing was looking at the martial arts he was taking, or he was trained in, and then he would take those and adjust them. He would change certain things about them to make them safe, that would follow the principles of stage combat. So I’m just doing the same thing with other arts. If you can understand the principles around stage combat then you can transform any sort of real martial art into a stage combat version.
Louisa: That makes a lot of sense. Thank you for that. I think that’s really helpful for a lot of us who are looking to translate things that we know are actual martial skills – as you know, there are such an infinite amount of techniques out there – into our choreography and our productions. That’s really helpful.
Let’s shift a little bit but kind of stay in the same vein. Let’s talk about choreography a little bit. What, for you, is one of the biggest challenges of being a fight director?
Todd: I think one of the biggest challenges for me is that I, personally– I don’t think this is a challenge for many, is that I have a vision that I want to do when I’m going into a show. Some people can come into a show and go, “You know, I’m just going to put together a fight and set it and then leave.” I’m not that guy. I’ve never been that guy. I’m the guy who has to be there at every rehearsal, can’t walk away from it until I feel it’s really where I want it to be. So because of that, I don’t take as many fight directing gigs as I probably could. I’m a little more selective with what I want to do because I want to know that I’m working with someone who is going to let me explore that vision. And that comes back to the first company I worked with, the Tempest Theatre Group. I was with them for about twelve years and over that time they gave me carte blanche on what I wanted to do in those shows. If we were doing a show they would ask me what I wanted to do. So I always find it a little daunting when I walk into a production and the director doesn’t really want to work with me. If you know what I mean.
Louisa: Right. Yes, I’ve definitely encountered that as well.
Todd: Yeah, because oftentimes I think directors don’t understand what we do, and some actors as well. The fight in the show is just that thing they have to get through because it’s part of the story, but they want to get through it as quickly as possible so they can get back to the acting and they don’t understand the nuance of the action that we can actually tell. The nuance of story that we can tell within that moment is so great. But it takes time, right? And if you’re someone who wants to just put together a fight really quickly, get the actors on their feet with it so they can get me out of there and get back to their acting rehearsals, that’s a show that I’ll do, but I’m just not going to have as much fun with it.
Louisa: That makes a lot of sense. So I’ve got some questions coming in and actually also a request. I’m going to tell you the request first. This request comes from Melanie Leon, and Melanie says that this is all working great, the stream’s working, but she feels that you should have a hat on.
Todd: Of course.
Louisa: Could you provide a hat for us, in this livestream, Todd?
Todd: Fine, Mel.
Louisa: Let me know when you’ve got your hat on because I can’t quite see it.
Todd: Yeah, I have my hat on. So this is because, in a certification scene, I made Mel wear a jacket that she didn’t like, and then later I asked her to wear a hat, that she said she didn’t like but she loved and would never take it off.
Louisa: [laughter] I think that is very much up for contention--
Louisa: -- but I will just kind of leave that out in the ether and see how that plays out. Thank you for indulging us with that. Next question that came from us live is from Daniel Levinson. “Is there a historic weapon that you have not yet tried to use in a show, but that is on your bucket list?”
Todd: Hmm. That’s a good question. As much as I teach it, I’ve never actually u— no, that’s not true. [tongue clicks] I don’t know. Let me think on that.
Louisa: Yeah, good job Dan. Real stumper. I like it. Okay, we’ll move onto the next one.
Todd: If I can just go back to that, one of the reasons why that’s kind of a stumper for me is, like I said, I tend not to do a lot of shows, I’m very specific about it. And usually, if I want something and the director gives me carte blanche, I usually just go have it made and use it.
Todd: Which is how I built most of my armoury, right?
Louisa: Yeah. Speaking of armoury, the question that just popped up, “If you were to walk into an armoury, which weapon would you pick up first? Which is your most loved to work on or perform with?”
Todd: Oh that’s tough one. Probably Rapier. I would have to say it’s mostly Rapier. I certainly love longswords and smallswords and all sorts of swords, but the rapier was my first love. It was the first historical style that I worked hard to [inaudible]. Because the historical Rapier is very different from our stage Rapier. There’s a huge difference between the two, and so I feel very proud of the interpretation I’ve come up with, so the rapier will always be my first love.
Louisa: Makes sense. Another question from the livestream, “Clearly historical accuracy is important to your choreography. How important do you feel it should be to stage combat in general? And in that case, if you feel it is extremely important, how do you implement it into the standardized stage combat?” Do you feel that people should be learning the standardized version first and then adding the historical or can they kind of mix and match and learn them whenever they choose?
Todd: Yeah. I mean, I’ve been a huge proponent of it for many years now and I’ve always said that I think it’s the future of stage combat. I think that at a certain point there will be so much interest and it will be so prevalent within the martial arts community that we will have to really look at it more seriously. Having said that though, I never want to tell a teacher how they should teach. So if you’re someone who does traditional stage combat, or what I sometimes refer to as industry-standard stage combat, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. And I never want to dictate what someone should teach.
The year that I was made a Fight Master, there was conversation that was going on within Fight Directors Canada of the inclusion of Italian Rapier terminology and German Longsword terminology into our main glossary. And I teach Italian Rapier and I teach German Longsword. So you would think I would be for it, but I was dead-set against it. And I was against it because once it goes into our glossary it becomes mandated that you have to teach that thing. And I did not want to ever tell anyone in our organization what style they should be teaching. Because then it robs us of the ability of exploring different styles. What if you want to do German Rapier? Or Italian Longsword? Or just do old hack-and-slash Broadsword that we used to do back in the day? There’s nothing wrong with any of those styles. So I never want to mandate that someone has to do historical stuff. If you are interested in doing historical stuff, come and train with me! Come and train with Chris Mott or someone else who’s got an interest in that. Or Siobhan Richardson, wonderful, wonderful stage combat instructor who incorporates HEMA into her art form. It’s great.
The second part of that question, about should you learn standard first, is yes. Definitely. The only thing within Fight Directors Canada I think we should standardize is our Single Sword and our Unarmed because those are the basis for every other style that we do, but they’re also the ones that are going to be the most useful to you to translate what any sort of fight director’s going to want you to do. So if you work with a fight director who you’ve never met before, they’re probably going to do something that’s that industry-standard style. So it’s really important that you learn it. And whenever I teach an historical style like Rapier and Dagger, for instance, I usually spend my first day or two going over the industry-standard version of it so that the actor really understands that. I don’t spend a lot of time on it because realistically, they already learned how to fight with a Single Sword and there’s not much to add onto that once you get down to it. I can usually give you all the extra stuff you need to learn for Rapier and Dagger in a class or two. And then I switch over to the historical which takes up the bulk of the class at that point.
Louisa: Great. Yeah, I think that makes a lot of sense and, speaking from an Academy perspective, for myself I know—obviously in our organization we like to learn multiple disciplines at one level. And I think part of the importance of that is we’re trying to develop a system of movement, so that each level really represents broad skills rather than, necessarily, specific styles. I think it’s great to leave it open like that, for people to kind of interpret that how they want as long as it still gets the skills across to our students.
Todd: Mhmm, mhmm. Oh, I do have an answer to Daniel’s question: Bolognese Sword. So the Bolognese Sword was like the Italian tradition just before the Capo Ferro style of Rapier and Dagger. It’s a cut-and-thrust style that is very circular; it has a lot of cutting in it. I’ve done a little bit of work on it, it’s really cool, I want to do some more and hopefully get it into a show at some point because it’s very beautiful so I think it would translate really well to the stage.
Louisa: Nice. I’ve got a follow-up question to the industry-standard question we just asked a moment ago and then I’m going to jump us forward to the next topic. “For those who started with industry-standard and want to transition into more historical work but also want to stick with what they know how to choreograph safely, until they have enough understanding, what’s the best way for them to transition from industry-standard into a more historical style?
Todd: Well if you’re talking about that as a student, as a student—
Louisa: I think they’re coming a bit more—I think this particular question is coming more from a choreography perspective.
Todd: Oh, from a choreography perspective. Then I would say stick with what you know until you have a firm enough understanding of the historical stuff. You can always do what I did, really, which is to put in little touches of it. So maybe starting phrases of your industry-standard fight in more historical guards. Maybe ending in a wound that you might find within a historical context. So peppering it in and slowly sprinkling it, as opposed to just trying to jump right in and do historical right off the bat. But before you choreograph a fully historically accurate fight—or let’s say historically inspired is a better term because it’ll never be historically accurate.
Louisa: Unless you leave a lot of bodies on the stage.
Todd: Yeah, exactly. If you want to do a more historically inspired fight then what I would suggest is you spend some time learning what that style is all about. What are the principles of that style? And then you can look at—like if you’re learning Capo Ferro, go out and take some classes with someone who does Capo Ferro. Or YouTube is a fantastic resource. Do some of the solo work that you’ll find on YouTube. But you really want to spend some time with someone who does that style so you can kind of learn it from the inside. There’s only so much a book will teach you. But once you have that, then you can go to the book. I rip off choreography all the time. From Capo Ferro. I go into his book, I look at one of his plays, and I translate that, and then figure out, “Okay, if this play in this manuscript is about three moves long, how can I stretch that into ten? Where could I go? What if the last move isn’t successful? Then how can I string it to the next move and the next moves?” So I think there’s ways you can do it but I think you really need to train with someone who understands that style because there’s only so much you can get from videos, only so much you can get from books.
Louisa: Right. That makes sense. Okay, so I’m going to jump us a bit now into more of the fight directing process. I got a bunch of questions that were sent to me about this. So let’s say you’re right at the beginning. You’ve got a script in front of you for a play that you’ve never done before. Where do you start? How do you approach it? “Do you use the script as the bones, examine the character, talk with the actors?”
Todd: Yeah, so usually what I do is I’ll go from the script first. I’ll look at the script and mark out where all the fight moments are within it. And then I’m going to look at the type of fight we’re looking at, and I usually throw it into one of two categories: it’s either an instinctual fight or trained fight. Instinctual means that the characters have no training; they’re really just working off of instinct. And a trained fight is what it sounds like. They’re martial artists, they’re military, they’re duelists. They’re someone who has a very prescribed method for dealing with a violent impulse.
If I’m doing a trained fight I will talk with the director, figure out what they’re interested in, go off and have some ideas so I can start to choreograph, maybe have a second meeting with the director after I’ve thought through a few ideas. Then what I like to do is pretty much choreograph most of it in my head. Because I’m the expert on how these trained fighters would react to the violent impulse I feel like I have the freedom to do that. I can prescribe the actors how they’re going to move. Then I will go and I will ask, early days, like within the first couple days of rehearsal, to have a little class with the actors where I can teach them some of the style. This gives them a taste of what it is we’re going to be doing within the fight. But more importantly, it gives me an opportunity to watch them move and to see if there’s anything that I was thinking of that they’re not going to be capable of doing, or find out things like, “Oh, this guy actually is left-handed! Nobody told me that before,” right? So then I can take that Information and go back and re-choreograph the fight in my head, and I usually walk into the rehearsal hall with most, if not all, of it done.
Another thing I found really helpful for that style of fight is to choreograph it with my assistant and then perform it, or video the two of us performing it, and show it to the director. So now the director gets a sense of what the fight will look kind of at speed and we can do any sort of fine-tuning between the three of us. This is really helpful because when you’re working with the actors and you give them the choreography, if the director goes, “You know what, I actually don’t like that. Can we change this bit or flip this bit around?” it is so much harder for the actor, who doesn’t have as much training as you do to make those changes. It already gets stuck in their body. So I found this prevising of my fights for stage extremely helpful so that when I give the actors something, they know it’s set, for the most part. I mean, we can make changes later on, which often happens. You’ll have a director who’ll say, “You know what, I don’t like this bit any more. Can we cut a few moves out of it?” That will happen. But I’ve found the more I previs the less likely that is to happen, and usually the director’s on board with where we want to go with it from the get-go.
Now if the fight is instinctual I usually don’t like to come in until they’ve set the scene, so where they’ve got on their feet and they’ve already staged the scene. So now I can work off the actors’ impulses. If I come in and I give them some choreography, nine times out of ten the actors are going to go, “Mm, my character wouldn’t do that,” because I’m not them. I don’t understand where they’re at with how they’re interpreting this character. And this happened to me a lot in the early part of my career, where I’d choreograph something that I thought was really great and the actor just didn’t dig it because they didn’t feel it was connected to where they were at in that moment. So with instinctual fights I like to come in much later in the process so I can choreograph it with the actors and they give me their impulse, and then I’ll kind of clean that up, and then we can kind of collaboratively put the fight together so they feel much more of a sense of ownership over it and it feels connected to who they are as people.
Louisa: Right. That makes a lot of sense. That’s great advice. We’ve got another live question here. “How do you deal with a situation where you are not provided with the advance planning time?” Now I’m assuming maybe you can tackle this more from if it’s a trained fight because, as you were explaining, an instinctive fight, you can really work with the actors on the day in a more organic way.
Todd: Right. Manage expectations. Manage the director’s expectations and manage my own expectations. So if I get a call from someone—and this doesn’t happen to me as much anymore because, again, I’m pretty choosy with the shows I do, but earlier in my career I would get calls where I would come in and they’d say, “Yeah, we’ve got two like two rehearsals for you. Can you do our Romeo and Juliet?” And when you’re a young fight director you’re like, “Sure I’ll do it! Why not?” But yeah, keep things simple. I can’t do the fun historical stuff I want to do, in that situation, generally, unless I know the actors and I know the training that they have. I’m going to rely back on that industry standard stuff and keep the fights fairly short. Yeah. Do all the stuff I don’t really want to do.
Louisa: [laughter] Makes sense. I think that’s good to know, that you can compromise like that.
Todd: But I think the people that I generally work with and the productions I generally work with know that I’m the type of guy that wants to be in on those early pre-production meetings. So whenever I’m dealing with a new company I try to get stage management or the producer or the director to involve me with those meetings as early as possible. Because I’ve found any time I’ve had any sort of issues with production or with some of the designers was when I wasn’t involved and then later went, “Oh. This thing that we’re using is not really the right thing.”
Louisa: Yes. That makes sense. Alright, the next question we’ve got is, “What is your advice for students who are currently studying stage combat and are considering becoming a fight director in the future?”
Todd: Yeah, I mean… Mm.
Louisa: I suppose another way to put this is where should they start? What avenues should they take a look at first?
Todd: Apprenticing with a fight director is a great way to go so that you can watch them work. And apprentice with a few if you can. Like if you happen to be in a city like Toronto that has a… I don’t know, is it a gaggle? Is that the right term for a bunch of fight directors?
Louisa: A gaggle of fight directors? I like that.
Todd: A gaggle of fight directors.
Louisa: We can propose that and see how that goes.
Todd: [laughter] So if you have a gaggle of fight directors, work with as many of them as you can so you get to see the different approaches and the different styles so that you can figure out which ones you want to emulate. There’s a book I would highly recommend, it’s from Society of American Fight Directors’ Fight Master Allen Suddeth. It’s called Fight Directing for the Theatre. It’s an older book now so some of it won’t be as applicable, but it gives you a lot of the nuts and bolts of fight directing. Not like how to choreograph fights, but rather how to budget your time, how to make blood packs, what do you need to know about guns or selections of props, selections of props when you’re dealing with an adult show or if you’re dealing with a kids show—not a show for kids but with kids, right? So that’s a great book and it was a really great resource for me early in my career.
But yeah watching people work is going to be really imperative. And then, do the work. Right? Go out, choreograph a Fringe show. Most professional fight directors are not interested in Fringe shows because they’ve got no money for us, and there’s usually tons of them. So go out and do some of that stuff. Start choreographing fights with your friends and videoing them and see what you can come up with. You’re going to learn a lot by doing. And make sure that you are comfortable with what you’re creating. So if you want to put a throw in which you throw someone onto a table and break it in half, and you don’t know how to do that safely, maybe don’t do that! If you want to kick a knife out of someone’s hand and have it flying into the wings but you’re not sure how to control it properly and you can’t figure it out on your own, maybe don’t do that! Maybe talk to another fight director. And be really cognizant of the principles around our safeties, right, like what makes something safe? Make sure you’ve got an answer for that.
Louisa: Yes. The video apparently timed out just when you said the name of the book, I think by Allen Suddeth. Could you tell us what that was again?
Todd: Oh, yeah. It’s Fight Directing for the Theatre by J. Allen Suddeth. Mallory, I think you probably know Mr. Suddeth; he’s a Fight Master out of New York. Yeah, and it’s a really great book. I would highly recommend it.
Louisa: I also am loving the multiple suggestions that we’ve got for what to call a group of fight directors.
Louisa: I’ll open up a little poll later on this page to see what people like best: We’ve got your proposal, Todd, a gaggle; we’ve got a murder of fight directors, suggested by a couple people, going for the pun approach, which I appreciate--
Todd: Ooh, I like that.
Louisa: -- and Mr. Daniel Levinson is supplying us with an embarrassment of fight directors—
Louisa: --or a cautious of fight directors. So I’m excited to see what wins the polls later on.
Alright, moving right along. Okay, so this one’s kind of similar but slightly different. “Do you have any advice for someone who really wants to work toward their Instructor certification but is still a little bit too nervous to think that they’ll actually be able to do it?” I guess this a how do you get the confidence to go for it, and acknowledging that fight instructing, while a lot of our Fight Instructors are also fight directors, that it actually can be very different.
Todd: Yeah, it can. I mean there is a lot of similarities. The biggest difference is that you’re working with a larger group of people than you normally are working with as a fight director, and each of them have very specific needs. And your job is to figure out the note that’s going to help them achieve the thing that you’re trying to get them to achieve. And that’s really the job.
I think that in terms of your nerves, a lot of us have imposter syndrome. Daniel Levinson talks about this all the time, that we wake up, we walk into class and we’re like, “I don’t know that I should be here. I don’t know that I know enough.” You have to just trust that you do know what you do know, and accept that you don’t know what you don’t know. And if someone asks you a question and you don’t have an answer for it, be honest with them. “Look, I don’t have an answer for that right now, but I’m going to go off and figure out what that answer is.” Sometimes people will—they’ll ask me for some clarification on something that I can’t give them, because I’m not sure what they need at that moment, and I’ll say, “You know what, I don’t know right now but I’m going to go away and think about it.” And I’ll go away and I’ll think about it and usually ten, fifteen minutes later I might come up to them and give them a note that will help them out.
And again, just like fight directing though, I think you have to do it. You have to get into the class and do it. And again, apprentice. Find someone to apprentice with so you can watch their work, so you can revisit a lot of the techniques, especially at Basic. When people get to their Advanced and they start apprenticing, after they’ve finished their Advanced and they’re into the Apprenticeship Program, they’ll actually go back and start helping out with people teaching rolls and realize that they’ve forgotten how to roll, or they’ve forgotten how to parry with a quarterstaff. And then through explaining to someone, you’re actually reteaching yourself how to do it. Teaching will make your art much better because going through and being specific about what it is that you do in the moment, you’ll reinforce that for yourself.
So I guess my big thing is cut yourself some slack. Know that you’ve done some training and you have some skill base and take pride in that. And just realize that you’re on the first steps of your journey and it’s going to take you a long time. I’m not finished mine yet. I keep learning.
Louisa: Yes. I think that’s so wonderful, that kind of lifelong learning philosophy as well. As a nice kind of segway to that, the next question I have is actually one from one of our FDC Instructor Apprentices. “Do you have any favourite go-to drills or exercises that you use to teach, or help people practice, true time?” And just for our viewers who may not know what true time is, could you give a brief explanation of that first?
Todd: I will try to be brief. So true time, specifically true and false time, are concepts that come from a sixteenth-century English fencing master named George Silver. George Silver was a contemporary of Shakespeare’s, there is some evidence that Shakespeare’s company and Shakespeare himself did some training with him, and there is a theory that he was the inspiration for Mercutio. Mercutio has a speech in Romeo and Juliet where he kind of says the rapier is a terrible weapon and you should never use it. And at the same time as Romeo and Juliet was being written, Silver wrote an entire book on why he thought the rapier was a terrible weapon and you should never use it. Also Mercutio’s name comes from mercury and another word for mercury is quicksilver. But I digress.
Silver’s concept of true and false time is the order of operation for when you execute any type of attack, and the order of operation is the hand moves first, the body moves next, the foot or feet move last. And anything that messes with that order is false time. And why it’s important is—Oh, a cat just walked in. If I’m just going to stand up and demonstrate with my handy spatula, if I make an attack and I wind up and I start moving my body first, my body is an open target that can be struck by my opponent. Whereas if I move the hand in front of the body and then the body in front of the foot next, if there's a counterattack that’s sent in I can divert my spatula to parry that attack. So it’s not necessarily the hand is the first thing that has any movement in it, it’s that the hand has to move in front of the body and then the body moves in front of the foot or feet and then the foot or feet move last. This way you protect yourself from a counterattack.
Now the reason why I like using this for stage is that I would often watch stage fights and they didn’t look right, in the sense that it looked like people were not attacking with the weapon because they were hurling their bodies towards their opponent and the weapon seemed to be like an afterthought. And when I was reading Silver’s description of true and false time, that’s when it clicked in and I went, “Oh! This is what we need to do.” So now true and false time have become really a core principle to the work that I do. And anytime there’s some sort of problem in a fight it’s usually that someone’s moving in false time. For Fight Directors Canada we, for the most part, do all of our attacks on-line when we’re thrusting. And if you try to thrust in false time it is hard for your partner to judge how much distance they have to move back, and this is where it can get dangerous. Whereas if I move in true time, they can always see where my tip is in space and then they can move back accordingly.
Now I don’t have a particular exercise or drill that I use to reinforce that. Any exercise or drill will be great for that. So if you want to just practice your lunging on target— Siobhan Richardson did a great video earlier this week where she was thrusting with a spatula or a knife at a doorframe. So let’s say I’m doing a Smallsword fight. Why don’t I just use a smallsword? So from here, practice your true time by pointing at the target, extending the arm, and then lunging, and then back again. So the hand moves, the body moves, the foot moves last, and the foot should be landing as you’re hitting your imaginary target. If I’m doing a cutting drill—so if you’ve worked with me before for Longsword you know that I like to use the Farfalla di Ferro drill which I borrowed from Guy Windsor, who’s a wonderful Historical martial artist from England. This is a cutting drill where you are cutting [inaudible] diagonal attacks. But it could be any, really. Any real drill. The trick with cutting in true time is I want to just make sure that sword is in front of me. So usually when it’s at a 45-degree angle out front, that’s when I’m going to start moving forward with the body, and I’ll land my foot as it hits the imaginary target. So you can take any sort of drill that you use and focus on true time by just making sure you're doing things in the correct order.
Louisa: Nice. That’s great, really helpful. I hope that helps for our Apprentice that asked the question. I think that the cat was very timely because actually, the next question I have came from someone who said, “I heard he has cats”
Todd: Yes, I have cats.
Louisa: “Would he be able to name them and talk about them?” And we also have a live request, if your cat is still there, to show the cat.
Todd: [laughter] No, she left. I have two cats, Ava and Zoe. Ava is very affectionate; she’s kind of like a dog, and Zoe is very skittish so we might not see her. If they come in I’ll bring them into the shot.
I do see in the chat there is a question from Steve. “Do you feel that the true-false time concept is counterintuitive to safe distance principles?” I think what Steve is asking about is there’s a manner in which, and correct me if I’m wrong Stephen, when someone attacks, the defender moves first and then the attacker goes. So let’s say this is the guy’s sword, he points, this person moves, and then the attacker moves. See, I go in the opposite direction.
For me, that never has worked for me as a concept because it always looks funny. So I like to have a little bit of impulse. So that first extension of my hand, in the distance that I work at, should be out of distance. So I do on-target, out of distance. So at my full extension I should be a few inches outside of your body. So I point, I extend my arm, now the person is moving back and I continue my action. So I don’t find it does mess with that because I can always stop my body and my foot once my arm’s at extension, because I can see where my tip is in space and I know how much distance I can cover before I actually strike you. Whereas if I move in false time where I’m moving my body and then throwing my sword forward, if I’m thrusting on-line, I can’t stop that sword once it’s already in motion. Whereas if I’m extended, if I feel anything, let’s say worst thing [inaudible] feel that I’m touching with my blade, I can collapse my arm. I find every time I’ve worked with someone who works in false time, they always have a scared moment where they have lunged their body at their opponent in a way that has made them feel unsafe. And if you learn how to do true time, specifically with thrusts, specifically when you’re first training, you will always be cognizant of the distance you have between your tip and their body. I hope that answered your question, Stephen.
Louisa: Quick question for you, Todd. We’ve got some really great questions that are coming in; do you mind if we go a little bit over the hour?
Todd: Oh yeah, I’m here all night. I’m not going anywhere!
Louisa: Alright. Okay. Great. So we have just a little follow-up and then we’re going to move along. “Do you apply true time when choreographing Unarmed fights as well or is that something you only use in fights with weapons?”
Todd: Mm, I’m not as much of a stickler with it. There’s certain things I do in Unarmed that are in a false time. You have to understand that true time was something that Silver talked about when fighting with a weapon, specifically with a sword. And amongst the HEMA community, outside of Silver’s training, there’s a lot of debate as to whether or not that’s a universal truth or a Silver-specific thing. Now most of the people that I’ve trained with are like, “No, that’s a pretty universal truth. If you move your body in front of your sword I’m going to stab you,” but there is a lot of wiggle room. Now when it comes to punching, like if I’m doing a roundhouse punch I will often move the shoulder first and lag the first behind so that I have a means of stopping that punch. Like if I see that you’re not going to duck I don’t let the fist—once the fist starts going it has to just keep going, right? For punches, yeah not so much. Now for cuts with a sword, I always do work in work in true time. It means that the initial part of the cut is a little bit slower, generally. So as I’m winding up it’s a little slower, and then I can stop when I hit that 45 percent mark. So once I’m on the descent, if something goes wrong, I don’t have to keep going with it. I feel like I have more control in that manner.
Louisa: That makes a lot of sense, yeah. I’m going to just fire off a bunch of these next questions and I’m hoping that we can do them in a bit of a—not rapid-fire, but kind of keep them to like one to three sentences. This is going to be kind of a likes, dislikes kind of section. Is that cool with you, Todd?
Todd: Yup. Okay, wait a minute, wait a minute. Just a minute, sorry. Everyone’s asking for the cat. Okay, here we go. This is Ava.
Louisa: Hello! Let me know when you’re ready for the next question.
Todd: I’m ready.
Louisa: Alright. You talked a bit about what your favourite weapon is; what is your least favourite weapon to work with, Todd?
Todd: Hmm. I don’t know because I try to find something interesting in every weapon I’m working with.
Louisa: That’s fair. What’s maybe “the weapon or skill you personally feel you’ve made the most progress on, that perhaps you struggled with when you started out” in stage combat?
Todd: Oh, Longsword. Definitely. Just so everyone knows, I failed my first certification exam. So when I was training with the Society of American Fight Directors I failed my exam, and I failed the Broadsword section of it, specifically. Yeah. So the reason I want to say that is because I think it’s important for people to know that even folks who have been doing this forever had struggles. And oftentimes in North America we get so bogged down with, “I’ve got to pass this thing.” But it was that that changed my mind about how I wanted to approach a weapon, and so I kind of need that failure, if that makes any sense.
Louisa: That’s so great. Yes, absolutely, and that’s so great to bring up. And I mean, I think as artists, we’re always talking about—you want to be able to commit yourself and know that you can make mistakes. And certainly, I know I’m still finding many things that I need vast amounts of improvement on, and to know that it’s a lifelong journey, as you said, right? We may hand out pieces of paper, that do acknowledge a certain amount of experience, but that that isn’t everything, right? The journey is still the most important part.
Alright, moving along with this rapid-fire. What is your favourite production that you have done fight choreography for? And maybe a small answer as to why.
Todd: I’m really proud of my work on Cymbeline at Stratford. It was great because we were setting it in a historical context so I was able to do an actual Roman versus Celt battle that wasn’t some sort of weird we’re-post-apocalyptic or whatever. And the reviewer said that of all the productions they’d seen of Cymbeline, and Stratford will do it every once in a while so this person had seen a few, it was the first time they had seen the battle and understood the story. Because in Cymbeline, unlike any other of Shakespeare’s plays, he has a description of what happens in the battle. Now usually with Shakespeare he just says, “They fight,” and you do whatever. But in this one he had a very specific description of how the battle should go. So I was pretty proud of that.
Louisa: Yeah! Oh I wish I could have seen that. In contrast, what was the hardest show for you to choreograph?
Todd: Hardest show… Yeah, I don’t know. I’ll tell you a funny story about a show that was challenging to choreograph, and it’s timely, actually. I was working at Stratford and I did two productions, Twelfth Night and The Homecoming, with Brian Dennehy, who just passed away this week. And Brian was a lovely, lovely guy. And when you’d get into a rehearsal with Brian he would tell you all of these wonderful stories, and then he would ask about character things, he really wanted to dig into the play. And after about a week of this I figured out, “Oh, you just don’t want to rehearse, do you?” [laughter] And that was pretty much what was happening. I mean, to his credit, he was… 72 at the time? I mean I can’t imagine having the energy to do rep when I’m in my seventies, right? So that was challenging but fun. He was such a great guy and it was a huge loss to the community.
Louisa: Absolutely. Kind of a slightly different question, “What was our favourite job or performance you’ve worked on?” So I guess this doesn’t include just your fight directing, but you’re an actor as well.
Todd: Mhmm, mhmm. I played Mercutio once in a production I co-directed with a friend of mine. So he directed all of the stuff with the boys and I directed all the stuff with the Capulets. And it was fantastic show, and I had such a great time doing it.
Louisa: Awesome. What are some of your favourite combat moments, or fights, from film and TV that are kind of out and about?
Todd: This one’s always a hard one for me to answer because the type of fight that I really enjoy is the stuff that I’m making, and I’m making it because I don’t see it, right? So it’s hard for me to say this was a good fight or that was a good fight. Someone will say, “What’s your favourite Rapier and Dagger fight?” I’m like, “I don’t know.” I don’t really like many of them because none of them really are doing the style that I think they should be. Having said that though, there is an episode of the Highlander television show called “Duende,” in which Anthony De Longis, who’s a fantastic actor-fight director from Los Angeles, came up to be the villain in that. And he played a Spanish Rapier and Dagger guy. He created a fight that is not like Spanish Rapier and Dagger at all. I’ve done some Spanish Rapier and Dagger; it’s very very cool. It’s not very athletic. It’s really neat. It’s really neat. But what he did was he created this fight that was a little bit traditional stage combat Rapier and Dagger, a little bit Filipino-style stick fighting, and a lot of Flamenco, and it was gorgeous. Really gorgeous fight. Not historical at all but nothing wrong with that!
Louisa: Yeah. Someone asked, “How often do you shake your head versus how often do you applaud a fight when watching a movie or a TV show.
Todd: I’m going to [crosstalk] take the fifth on that one.
Louisa: Shake to nod ratio.
Todd: I take the fifth on that one.
Louisa: Okay, fair enough. What fights do you remember, maybe back in the day, that you thought were amazing at the time but now watch and cringe at?
Todd: Princess Bride. Yeah. I mean it’s a great fight but it’s—what’s interesting is that they quote all of these different historical masters and then do nothing, anything like what they actually taught. There’s a Spanish-language film with Viggo Mortensen called Alatriste, and in it he’s supposed to be this—he’s like the Spanish Cyrano de Bergerac, essentially. And there’s a few fights there and I remember seeing some interviews with the fight directors saying, “Yeah we really wanted to go with historical realism on this film,” and I’m like, “Oh, amazing! I want to see some Spanish Rapier on film!” And I watched it and it was just the same old crap he usually does but every once in a while he’d kick someone in the nuts.
Louisa: [laughter] That’s realism, Todd. So that ends our rapid-fire questions. We’ve got a few more questions before we wrap up, including one that just came in from Simon Fon. “Hello Todd, any thoughts on where you would like to go next with European Historical Sword?”
Todd: Totally. I tell this to everyone when they pass one of their certifications: spend less than five minutes, two or three times a week, in front of a mirror, going over your advances, your retreats, your passes, your lunges, your parries, so that you can self-critique. Like is your parry too high? Are you actually parrying the correct target? When you do your lunge is your knee or your foot turning in? And if you do that work, when you come back to train you won’t have to think about those basics anymore. Getting those basics down and solid will make it much easier when you get back to playing with someone, in a class, with a sword.
Louisa: I think that’s great advice. Yes. I definitely agree that even just a little bit of practice each day is really helpful for that kind of longevity of your career and the skills that you’re trying to maintain. Someone asked just a quick clarification question, before we move onto our next one, “Can you clarify what makes Filipino style in knives?” in reference to one of your previous answers.
Todd: Oh, yeah. So if you look at—Simon Fon would be a better person to ask about this because he knows a lot more about this than I do. But there’s several different Filipino martial arts that have a distinctive knife style that, when you see it, you’re like, “Oh that’s clearly a Filipino style.” So talk to Simon Fon; he’ll tell you about it.
Louisa: Here’s an interesting question that we got in a while ago: “In an alternate world where social distancing is law, what other profession do you think you’d enjoy that would satisfy the physical aspect of stage combat without the contact aspect of it?
Todd: Yeah. You sent this question earlier and I’ve been thinking all day about it and I just don't know. I don’t really have an answer for it. I don’t even know what other job I would do because all the things that I do within my life are all about connecting with other people in person. So I don’t know. I really don’t know. Hopefully I’ll never have to know.
Louisa: Yes, exactly. But that is not something that, hopefully, you will have to consider long- term. But it’s a great question. We’re going to end off with our last question here. “With over 25 years of experience in the industry, what would you say the most profound change has been?” Are there things that still surprise you, new ways that you’ve discovered for things that you’ve known how to do for years, and where do you see the industry in general moving towards in the future?
Todd: I feel like I’ve always been striving to change and develop myself, so I don’t know that I would say I’ve seen a lot specifically changing around me because I’ve been changing so much, right? But one of the things I would say is that every time I see someone, a new instructor or an old instructor, teach something I find something new within it which is interesting. And one of the great things that I see happening now is moving away from stage combat dogma. This is something that, much earlier in my career, I saw a lot of, which is where, “This is what I was taught so this is the only way this can be done.” And especially for me, and the stuff I’ve been doing to try and infuse Historical martial arts into stuff and relook at how we do things, when you have someone is resistant to that because it’s not what they know, it makes it much harder. And I’m finding, at least within the classes I teach, that often doesn’t happen as much anymore. And I don’t know if that’s because he fosters a lot of creativity within our Fight Instructors and our Fight Directors, where we focus more on principles instead of, necessarily, techniques. But yeah. And I hope that that continues. I hope we continue to question and to see if we can figure out ways of making things better. Like one of the things—I don’t really talk about fight speeds anymore because I find them not terribly useful.
Louisa: Sorry, could you repeat that again? I think I didn’t catch that. Fight…
Todd: Fight speeds. You know how we talk about—
Louisa: Fight speeds, yes.
Todd: --quarter speed, half speed, 75-percent, that sort of thing?
Louisa: Yes, yes.
Todd: I find [inaudible] is helpful because we often equate that with either Tai Chi or slow motion, and everyone has seen someone practice Tai Chi or has seen something in slow motion so they understand intuitively what that means. But what’s 50 percent? What’s 75? What’s 100? They’re abstracts that mean nothing. What I’ve been doing in my craft is working more on trying to figure out the intention behind the movement and what it is I’m looking for in terms of timing, and then the intention will actually inform what the correct speed is. So there was this guy who came to Toronto. I’m sorry, I’m going to go a little bit on this one, Louisa.
Louisa: That’s okay. Yeah, go for it. It’s our last question.
Todd: There was a guy who came to Toronto to do a workshop, on Meyer, actually. His name was Roman… Oh, I’m sorry Roman. I’m not even going to try to pronounce your last name. It’s just a cacophony—
Louisa: Oh, I think I went to that workshop with you.
Todd: You did, you did. Roman was great! He’s from Slovenia, he’s a wonderful guy, if ever you get a chance to work with him, you should. Roman had this great way of explaining fencing intention. So let’s say I’m going to attack you with this spatula and my first intention with the spatula—let me just adjust my camera—is I’m going to strike your leg. If you don’t do anything I will hit you in the leg. That’s my first intention. But, unless you’re paralyzed with fear, I’m assuming you’re going to try to instinctively parry my attack. So my second intention is, if I see you going to parry, just before you finish your parry I redirect the strike into your head. That’s my second intention. But if you have any training at all then you are probably trained that if someone if someone is stupid enough to attack your leg, you simply remove the leg and strike them in the head or in the arm. So my third intention is to go for your leg, and then you remove the leg and try to hit me in the head, I parry that attack and the head and strike back at the head. So now, on that one movement, I have three intentions that are all based off of what you are going to respond with, and I have to wait to see what that response is before I can respond. And the timing of it will be specific to what response you give me. So if, let’s say, you’re going for the parry of the leg, if I roll out of my attack and then redirect it to your head too early then you wouldn’t want to parry that and you’ll just go for the parry of the head. If, however, I go too late, you’ll successfully parry my attack and now my next counterattack to your head is going to be in the wrong timing.
So by breaking the fight down like that—Now as stage combat performers, we know which one you’re going to do, right? You’re going to go for the parry of the leg. But now I know that I need to do it at the end of your action. Just before your parry reaches its destination, that’s when I’m going to redirect my attack. So my timing is very specific and that will indicate my speed. So I don’t have to guess about what the speed is, right? Now, we can rehearse that slowly and then get it to a point where it’s more realistic but the timing, or the tempo, is built into the intention. So talking about 50 or 75 or 100 is no longer necessary, I feel. Now that’s just me. I know a lot of people who love that and do that all the time. And if I’m working with someone who doesn’t have any training, of course I’m going to talk about those speeds because they don’t have the sensitivity to be able to look for that cue yet. But when I’m dealing with my Intermediate students or my Advanced students, that’s the type of nuanced work I want them to be doing.
Louisa: That’s wonderful.
Todd: Does that make sense?
Louisa: Yes, absolutely. Thank you so much, Todd. We managed to not go too far over; we’re at 8:10 right now so I think we’re going to wrap it up. Thank you so much everyone so far who's been joining. I’m going to let Todd wrap us out.
Todd: Okay, great. Well thanks so much for joining us tonight. If anybody has any questions for me you can always just message me on Facebook or in the comments to this video and I can respond to you there. And look out for more [inaudible]. We’re hoping to do an FDC Friday night thing every Friday night. Do you have anything else you want to say, Louisa? Okay, well I guess that’s it, so thanks everyone for being here!