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Swordplay 101

Think of it as an elaborate dance — punctuated by the sound of clashing metal and occasional grunts.

Laryssa Yanchak, an award-winning fight director, practised some of her “choreography” with a dozen young actors at the Red Deer College Arts Centre on Tuesday.

What unfolded was a complicated sword fight for the upcoming RDC Theatre Studies’ The Three Musketeers play that involved rapiers, daggers and a twirling cloak.

If spectators could go back to the 1600s, when Alexandre Dumas’ swashbucking story is set, they might have witnessed a similar spectacle in real life.

Yanchak’s greatest challenge is that 21st-century audiences essentially have seen it before.

Contemporary crowds know exactly what an exciting sword fight is supposed to look like because they’ve been tuning in to increasingly realistic and detailed virtual battles in video games, movies and television shows.

All this “accessible violence” has raised the bar on how fights are enacted as theatrical entertainment, said Yanchak.

“As we become more educated about what we’re seeing, the art of replicating fights on stage needs to change. If it doesn’t come across as convincing, it doesn’t help the story.”

To make every aspect of her stage brawls believable, Yanchak — who does stunts for the new Fargo TV series being shot near Calgary, and for the recently aired Klondike miniseries — doesn’t skimp on teaching about the gory details.

In a physiognomy lesson on punctures, for instance, she stressed there’s a reason first aid workers learn not to remove a blade from a wound. Whether a stabbing is done with a sword, knife, or scissors, Yanchak said muscles will contract around this “foreign object” to prevent it from going deeper into the body and to minimize bleeding. “This means a sword is a lot harder to pull out than people think it is.”

She grips the blade end of an aluminum theatrical sword and makes an RDC student wrench it from her hand to demonstrate the difficulty of removing it from a body. “People are quite shocked and grossed out when they see how hard it is, but they need to be aware of the physical affects when they are trying to convey it for an audience.”

There’s also the matter of portraying intent. While most mild-mannered folks don’t like the idea of really physically hurting somebody, ruthless people, or those in a kill-or-be-killed situation, don’t pull their punches.

Yanchak said they revert to some pretty “animalistic” behavior, so actors have to appear to an audience as if they are not holding anything back. This means they must be confident enough with their choreographed moves to know they are not going to actually hurt their “opponent.”

“The choreography needs to feel safe and the actors need to feel safe while performing it so they can basically let loose,” said the Toronto native, who first studied acting at Humber College and got hooked on the physical side of theatre. She has since supplemented her stage-fight training by taking occasional classes in fencing and various martial arts.

Her RDC students start practising their fight sequences at 25 per cent of regular speed, then quicken their movements as they become more comfortable with their thrusts and parries.

The approach works for actor Wayne DeAtley, who portrays musketeer Aramis in the RDC show. He said, “She’s very accepting. If certain moves don’t work for us, she adjusts them to accommodate our needs.”

One of his most complicated sequences requires blocking a sword thrust from the Cardinal’s guard while at the same time, shielding hero D’Artagnan behind him. In another scene, Aramis fights two guards at once, using a sword and dagger.

“I love it. It’s so much fun,” said DeAtley, who doesn’t consider himself aggressive in real life, but likes the chance to play at heroics.

Constance Isaac, who plays dual roles — as D’Artagnan’s female love interest and as a male cardinal’s guard — finds that stage fighting helps her establish a more “manly” presence for the guard role. It also helps hone her skills on other levels: “You have to learn to notice everything around you. It makes you really aware of your surroundings.”

Yanchak has tackled all kinds of productions since coming to Alberta in 2004, including her award-winning work on an Alberta Theatre Projects production of Treasure Island, and an exhaustive fight sequence in Romeo and Juliet for the Alberta Ballet.

She admits the latter was a huge challenge. Typical stage fights last only two minutes, but the street brawl between Romeo and Tybalt involved 18 actors (“none of whom had ever fought on stage before”) and an eight-minute Prokofiev score.

Yanchak filled up that time with thrilling stage antics — even though the only script direction she typically gets is “‘They fight’ — and I have to take it from there.”

She begins each new project by talking to the director, to get a sense of the production’s tone, whether comic, thrilling, gritty or graphic. That influences her approach and choreography.

“The fight training never stops. There’s always something new to learn because it’s a changing discipline,” added Yanchak.

The Three Musketeers runs Feb. 6-15 at the RDC Arts Centre.

Anyone interested in learning stage fighting can get information about a June 29 to July 13 Edmonton workshop held by the Academy of Fight Directors Canada by visiting



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