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School for Swashbucklers

Richard Lane & Bob Borwick
Ken Richardson

Getting Their Point: Richard Lane and Bob Borwick drill students in theatrical combat at the Academy of the Sword.

S.F.'s Academy of the Sword teaches actors to fight without getting hurt

By Zack Stentz

'Clink-clink, clink-clink." Whatever the sound emitting from the cavernous old gymnasium of the former San Francisco Polytechnic High School is, it certainly sets the heart racing. A room full of high society movers and shakers, making a grand toast? An addled jazz drummer, idly striking his hi-hat? A pod of echo-locating dolphins?

Wrong, wrong and wrong again. The aforementioned sounds are being produced by the clashing blades of the Academy of the Sword, an eight-year-old San Francisco school that specializes in teaching actors, opera singers and simple enthusiasts the fine art of theatrical swordfighting, brawling and other forms of stage combat.

Led by the bearded, preternaturally energetic Richard Lane, the school meets each Sunday afternoon, where, over a nine- to ten-week period, the students learn everything from mock fistfighting to armed combat to the proper way to fall down without getting hurt. "I like to say that anytime two or more actors come close together on stage, a choreographer is needed," Lane says. "I think of myself as an eclectic movement choreographer."

On this particular day, though, the emphasis stays firmly on the weapon that gives the academy its name. To the untrained eye, many of the feints, parries and thrusts the students spend their time practicing put one in mind of a fencing class, but according to Lane, his emphasis is completely different. "Here, your partner is not your opponent," he says. "And the emphasis is on pleasing the spectator instead of scoring points and getting the job done."

The majority of the 10 or so students in this particular class are actors or other stage performers, a ratio which Lane says is fairly typical. "Actors come mainly to gain another skill, and because the more physical flexibility you have, the greater the range of character you can express," he explains.

Lane's sentiment is echoed by Jean Shelton acting student Tony Saccardi, an enthusiastic theatrical swashbuckler who opines: "Learning physical skills like this [fighting] is really important to me as an actor. When the actors who fight onstage aren't trained, it just looks fake."

However, not all of Lane's students are would-be stage fighters. "Some of them just do it because it's good exercise, or because it's fun," says Lane, pointing toward student Jay Wurts as an example.

"I started taking the class a few years ago, and now I just do it for exercise and fun," explains San Francisco writer Wurts, whose close-cropped gray hair gives him the look of a middle-aged businessman, but whose adeptness with a rapier puts one more in mind of Errol Flynn. "I also like the way Richard teaches the class like a martial art."

According to Wurts, his only disappointment is what he feels is an overemphasis on the sabers, foils and other thin-bladed weapons of the post-Renaissance era and not enough time devoted to the bigger, meaner swords of the Dark Ages that he prefers. "Now here's a sword," he says, picking up and cheerfully demonstrating the use of a two-handed broadsword big enough to reduce a woolly mammoth to a quivering pile of lunch meat and fearsome enough to send Conan the Barbarian running for the hills.

Lane and Wurts recently collaborated on the soon-to-be-published book Swashbuckling: The art of stage combat and theatrical swordplay, and Lane spends much of his time giving workshops on stage combat around the country, and even teaching a class to opera singers as part of the San Francisco Opera's prestigious summer Merola program.

The ever-busy Lane also remains in high demand actually choreographing the onstage fights for which he teaches actors to prepare. His most recent gig was staging fight scenes for the Carey Perloff­directed ACT revival of Tennessee Williams' The Rose Tattoo. Lane's intense, often symbolic choreography style often lends the sequences a surreal, almost cinematic air. For example, in one remarkable sequence of the Palo Alto TheatreWorks' production of The Royal Hunt of the Sun, a theatrical account of the fall of the Inca empire, Lane staged the final massacre of the Inca nobles by Spanish conquistadores as a slo-mo, eerily beautiful ballet of carnage.

And in another TheatreWorks production, this time of the Old West saga Honor Song for Crazy Horse, Lane used fight choreography to symbolically illustrate the inexorable colonization of the Black Hills by white settlers. "I had a settler digging with a shovel, and an Indian comes along and kills him with a tomahawk. But then the settler comes back to life," Lane recalls, lurching forward like a zombie from a George Romero movie to illustrate his point, "and he keeps digging. No matter how many times the Indian kills him, he keeps coming."

But the playwright who keeps Lane busiest isn't some latter-day Quentin Tarantino of the theater but that original gangsta of onstage violence himself, William Shakespeare. The Bard occupies a special place in the hearts of stage-combat choreographers worldwide both for the sheer abundance of fighting his plays contain and because his refusal to describe them in detail allows for a wide range of interpretation. (The typically terse description of the climactic duel that ends Richard III simply reads: "Richard and Richmond enter; they fight. Richard is slain.")

Lane's intimate knowledge of the works he choreographs comes through as he relates an anecdote to his students about an experience he had while choreographing Romeo and Juliet. "It was during the very first fight between Tybalt and Benvolio, in Act One, Scene One," Lane says, and without a pause proceeds to recite the entire sequence and dialogue of both characters from memory.

"I've done Romeo and Juliet probably 25 times," says Lane. While he doesn't admit to being a little bored with the classic of young love and loss, he does confess: "It used to be my favorite play to do, but not anymore."

But still, the abundance of swordfighting, fisticuffs and other forms of hand-to-hand mayhem in Shakespeare's plays means that as long as the Bard stays popular, Lane's own services will remain in demand. "Oh, yeah, Shakespeare is the bread and butter of stage combat," he says. "If it wasn't for Shakespeare, I'd probably be an accountant."

Call 957-3622 to attend classes or for further information on the Academy of the Sword.

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From the December 1996 issue of SF Live

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