Storytelling Through Combat

Last month I had the opportunity to teach a class for Changeling: Waking Dreams, a three day blockbuster Live Action Role Play experience where people came to a hotel in Atlantic City and portrayed characters in an Urban Fantasy setting where Faerie souls were reborn in mortal bodies. One of the more major aspects of Changeling culture is the art of dueling. There are many ways to have a duel, but the traditional one has been the blade.

And that’s where I come in. I was asked to teach basic dueling as my character, Connor. It was interesting because when teaching a normal stage combat class, even a lightsaber one, it’s always done out of character. So I had the challenge of teaching basic safety and technique to characters, not performers.

It was also interesting because I had to do it as Connor, whose vocabulary is a bit more purple than my own.

“Dueling is a conversation,” Connor said. “One where violence is the agreed language of discussion. Just because you’ve stopped talking with your mouths, doesn’t mean you aren’t done having the conversation.”

When we got down to the fighting the MC of the arena, a dangerous woman with satyr’s horns that would have given Maleficent a run for her money, gave us the directions. The last one was the most important: “Don’t bore me”. And, with that, a lot of good fights were had.

I get to have the best jobs really. With permission from the performers.

I get to have the best jobs really. With permission from the performers.

After that class, and that game, I began to think about the key points of what makes combat a tool for storyteling. I’d been teaching it for years, but I’d never listed them down. So, for you all here, are my rules for Combat as a tool of Storytelling.

As I said in Class, combat is a conversation with violence and conflict as the language. When telling a story, combat is effective in four key ways:

  • Instigating Plot: Batman doesn’t become Batman without his parents dying in a mugging. The Bride doesn’t swear revenge for the murder of her wedding party and her near death. Inigo Montoya would be a blacksmith’s apprentice if the Six-Fingered Man decided not to short change his father and duel him. John Wick doesn’t come out of retirement without Russian scumbags stealing his car and killing his dog. Acts of violence are what kick characters from static positions to active ones, to seek it out.

  • Escalating The Plot: The entire second half of Romeo and Juliet doesn’t happen if Mercutio' and Tybalt weren’t looking to get in to a fight that day. The Corleone’s go to the mattresses after Don Vito is shot. The fighting creates more tension, blocking resolution, closing certain avenues of resolution, creating avenues of resolution that didn’t exist before.

  • Resolving the Plot: Everything has Lead up to this. Luke confronts Vader, and then the Emperor. The Bride and Bill meet again. All Debts are Paid. Someone has to go, or something has to give. Of course, Resolutions sometimes instigate new problems.

  • Showing Character: The most important of all. How a person fights or handles violence tells you a lot about them. Captain America is a solid mid-range/close up fighter who prefers to go in head first. Iron Man comes up with tools for the job. Thor, who is bred to fight, is pretty versatile. Black Widow doesn’t fight straightforward or fair. How people fight shows their thinking.

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When making your fights, ask yourself how the fight is doing any of these four things, especially the last one. Character shows throughout, and consistency is always key. Now, I’m going to leave off today with a few basic tips to help with telling a story. In the months to come, I’m going to focus on these. This is not a comprehensive list.

  • You’re partners, not enemies. The key thing to remember is that those of you in this scene are partners putting on a performance and telling a story. Stage combat is just another form of stage illusion where we make the audience think our characters hate each other while we as performers are working with each other to make the scene as fantastic looking as possible.

  • Fight like everyone is watching. One of the biggest critiques I give to beginning fighters is to make sure that the audience is able to see the fight. Most fighters tend to do the scene together while focusing on just themselves. The audience and their positioning should always be taken in to account, whether it’s off-stage, in the round, or on camera. However many people you have in the fight, make room for one more: The people watching it. If they don’t see what happens, then it may as not have happened at all.

  • As Partners, You’re Here to Make Each Other Look Good. Here’s the trick about being a badass: it only works if others believe it too, and only if they feel like you deserved it. When in a fight, you have to sell that you’re in a fight. You’re there to make the hits your opponent gives you look solid and real, and they’re there to help sell yours as well. So, scream your frustration, yell at your pain, put some bruise makeup on after the fight scene. Because you are responsible to each other to make the other look good.

  • It’s Okay to Lose: In a fight, characters lose. I see a lot of fights being made where it ends at a draw, or come to some inconclusive ending. This can only happen if there is the promise of a payoff. If there isn’t a pay off, if there is only this exhibition of a fight, then commit to it. Make sure that, somehow that is appropriate, that the fight itself comes to a conclusion. And, importantly, don’t be afraid to be the one to lose. You get to do one of the coolest things a performer can do: Epic Death Scene.

Again, this list is not extensive. But it should be the groundwork for effective storytelling. And that is what we do, we’re telling story. We’ve just decided that the best conversation is through more aggressive means.

I’ll be back with more sabering tips soon. MTFBWY

What Is a Lightsaber

By Craig J Page

This article was originally published on May 12th, 2016 on The Snark Side of the Force. There have been several changes in the canon of Star Wars since then thanks to Rebels, and I will be inserting changes as I see fit.

I think if we're going to start discussing the Lightsaber and how to use it, we might as well start with the basics and work our way up. If the goal of some of the groups out there is to understand and address the lightsaber as if it were a real weapon (whether for stage or for martial exercises) then we should all understand the lightsaber itself in terms that relate to us. So let's begin with the basic question: What is a Lightsaber?

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The lightsaber, arguably the most famous weapon to never really exist. It has captured the imagination of movie goers since its inception in 1977. But what is it exactly? When trying to understand how to use these beautiful and destructive tools, we must look at the history of them both in the Star Wars Universe and in the real world.

In universe, the lightsaber is a semi-weightless plasma blade of variable and programmable length. The most unique feature of the lightsaber is that it is an all-cutting weapon. Traditional bladed weapons have a flat side, which is often used to deflect or be used to bludgeon and not kill. The lightsaber doesn't have that. No matter the angle of the blade, the saber will cut its target.

And I do mean it will cut. The power of the energy blade is such that it can through virtually anything in its path. While there are stories of 'Lightsaber Resistant Materials' the only things that have been confirmed to block a lightsaber without being destroyed in the attempt are energy based weapons such as electro-staves or, more explicitly, another lightsaber. Because of the energy nature of the blade, lightsabers are able to block and deflect ranged energy attacks. There are in fact forms of lightsaber combat designed for that in mind.

The hilt of the saber is often cylindrical and made of metal or metal-like materials.  The design is, surprisingly, very basic, with most of the electronic componentst being easy to acquire. There is one story of a Jedi creating a lightsaber using parts he found from a junked hover-bike. What makes lightsabers unique is that they are designed specifically by the user. It is often seen as a rite of passage for Force-users to design their own hilt. So, while the design is simple, no two sabers will be exactly the same.  

It is often believed that a lightsaber blade was created purely through the Force. It is anything but. What gives its color, and what makes the whole process work, is the lightsaber crystal. These crystals are attuned to the Force, and when added to a lightsaber creates the colored beam. Due to access of green and blue crystals, lightsaber blades are often those colors but there are a few exceptions like white or purple. Synthetically grown crystals often take on a red hue. This is why the Sith have red blades, they create their own crystals as part of their rituals.

[So Canon changed here a bit, combining the two concepts. The crystals are often clear and were changed to its colors as the force user was attuning to them, with blue, yellow and green being fairly common. Sith crystals are created by a darksider ‘bleeding’ the crystal by focusing their rage in to it - Craig, 2019]

The blade of the lightsaber is its greatest advantage. Able to cut through anything as well as being programmable, the blade can serve as a useful utility tool in the same vein as a plasma torch. Because the blade can be deactivated, render it as only a hilt, the lightsaber is a concealable. More so when you consider that the parts to make one are fairly common and can be hidden about.

However, the lightsaber is with its disadvantages. While it was concealable when deactivated, it was anything but when turned on. The lightsaber was known for the snap-hiss sound of its activation and the low hum of the blade. The saber's illuminating properties makes the user an open target. If one is carrying a lightsaber, it was expected they weren't going to be subtle about it.

The history of the lightsaber is one that is not yet set in stone. It is referred to as the traditional weapon of the Jedi (and by extension their Sith counterparts) but we aren't given much history beyond that as far as the Canon sources (the movies) are concerned. Legends (the current term for stories written for Star Wars but are not considered canon by the producers) gives us a fuller understanding.

The precursors to the lightsabers were known as Forcesabers, weapons that created blades through channeling the Force through a lab created crystal. These were the weapons of the Infinite Empire, the first in recorded history to conquer most of the known galaxy. They used technology fueled by the Dark Side to great success. Forcesabers were considered a rarity, and passed out of existence. Inspired by their oppressor’s weapons, the foundling Jedi Order began to design their own personal swords.

These next swords were crude by comparison. The hilt of the blade required a direct connection to an external power source, often on the user's belt or backpack. This greatly limited mobility however. The lightsabers later evolved in to the designs we all know, later becoming more refined and unique through development. People began to embellish, creating curved hilts or double bladed variations. Technology has never been something that evolves consistently in Star Wars, and once people found a good design, they stuck with it. And the lightsaber became the millenia long tradition the Galaxy Far Far Away knew it to be.

When writing Star Wars, George Lucas wanted his epic fantasy have swords and wield them in the manner of the samurai in Akira Kurosawa films like the Seven Samurai and the Hidden Fortress, the latter of which had a very strong influence in the making of A New Hope. To keep the sense of space action befitting an homage to Flash Gordon, the swords were made in to beams of energy

In the initial drafts of the first movie, many people in the story were to utilize the lightsaber. There is a popular image by now famous concept artist Ralph McQuarrie of a stormtrooper, hapless and equally faceless foot soldiers of the evil Imperial Forces, holding a white bladed lightsaber. Rebel and Imperial troops alike would engage each other in melee combat with lightsabers. That changed when Lucas decided to make the weapon more unique by making it the special weapon of the Jedi.

The actual movie props were cobbled together from random objects. The famous Skywalker Saber, the blue blade used by Anakin, Luke, and now Rey in each of their respective trilogies, was made from a graflex flash camera attachment. Vader's saber, which is visually similar to the Skywalker Saber, is made from a similar flash attachment. Obi-Wan's saber from the Original trilogy is made from parts from vehicle and weapons from around World War II. During the fights, blades were made of rods of varying make. The Original Trilogy used carbon rods, and the prequels evolved to steel, aluminum and finally carbon fiber laminated in glass and plastic. The glow of the blades were rotoscoped and digitally added in. In Episode VII, the lightsaber props were not dissimilar from the kind used by the various saber groups, emitting their own glow on set.

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Members of the Star Wars fandom take all of that information, all of the stories from both fiction and history, and try to make something real with it. Most saberists, people who use lightsabers for martial or performance purposes, use something similar to a maglite flashlight. An LED light bulb is situated in the 'hilt' of the saber, usually made of machined billet aluminum of various designs. Inserted where the lens would go is a tube of polycarbonate plastic, which is what is used for airplane windows and the like. The idea is that while these are no more than high end versions of what Hasbro sell, they are designed to take a hit and keep going. It's a relatively simple design based around one thing: preventing breakage during impact.

Lightsabers, no matter if you're in this universe or the Star Wars one, hurt like hell. While we're all in the business of safety and not getting hurt, accidents happen. I've suffered a few bumps on the head from a collision with a polycarb blade, and a cut up mouth after a brief and intimate encounter with an aluminum pommel. I've also nearly made my fight partner (and best friend) useless to his wife (also my best friend) with a thrust to the midsection that missed, badly.   

When working with these glorified toys, for whatever reason, I always take the side of treating these as potentially harmful weapons. As a performer, it's a rule to treat any prop weapon you use on stage as if it were a real thing. When our job is to convince the audience, we must give the weapon the respect it deserves. That means understanding what we use. Because a dangerous weapon, whether it is real or not, deserves to be handled with respect.

Why We Do This

by Craig J Page

“Since it is so likely that (children) will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage. Otherwise you are making their destiny not brighter but darker.” - C.S. Lewis

February 19th, 2009. I walk in to the Roy Arias studios in Hell’s Kitchen. I find myself in a small studio, maybe 40x40. A handful of us are in the room. Maria, our instructor, warms us up with some stretches, and then goes in to a sword form.

She explains that this sword form was developed based on the first of Seven styles of Lightsaber Combat that was developed in the Expanded Universe of Star Wars. She said it was built by one of their own, based on his own experience with martial arts and exploring the (admittedly vague) descriptions. What we were learning was built for the lightsaber.

I was immediately hooked.

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Ten years later, I look back on what made me join this group. Why learn lightsaber stage combat? Why take up a saber, put on the robes, and go on the stage?

I think this is a healthy question to ask. One of the things many people tend to forget is that we’re (well, most of us) are aware of how crazy this all is. We’re playing around with glowing sticks pretending to be in a highly trademarked and copyrighted Intellectual Property that none of us can never claim any sort fiscal ownership of. There are better ways of getting exercise, there are other martial and physical arts to partake. Hell, why not do the Renn Faire circuit.

Why the lightsaber?

I can’t speak for everyone, but my background covers the three major types of people we often see in class. I have a black belt in JiuJitsu, I was involved in college theater, and I’m a massive nerd.

Martial artists often look at the lightsaber as an interesting thought experiment. They take the styles they study and try to translate it to a weapon which is all cutting, with no flat-of-the-blade to aid in parrying, blocks, or blade control.”

The creatives, the actors and writers, see it as a means of how to tell a story. This is a tool of a Much Bigger Story. Every one knows a lightsaber, everyone knows the kinds of stories that have been told with them. What else can we tell.

And then there are the nerds who look at what they have in their hand and get to gush that for one second they have a LIGHTSABER in their hands. Lets not kid ourselves. Anyone walking in to the room and wanting to take any business a glorified maglite takes center stage is, in some form or another, a massive geek. I’ve met people who, after a few months of working within some of the various groups, come to terms with the fact that they were a closeted nerd.

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I was one of them, grew up never having the outlet. This group gave me that outlet and the comfort and trust to let me be that. And since then, I’ve seen the community grow. The Star Wars fandom is tens of thousands -if not more- and filled with groups of various stripes and focuses. You want a group that could field strip an X-Wing? They got it. Droids? Done, and getting better with every year. You want Stormtroopers and Mandolorians. When and where you need ‘em?

This community grows and maintains because Star Wars is so much a part of our cultural consciousness. There’s a reason we’re not doing groups on Tron, Gun Kata, Gym Kata, or any other fictional fighting style or world. Four generations of children have been playing with broom handles making humming noises with ever swing. When those lightsabers turn on, everyone sees them. Everyone knows.

And I think there is something to be said in those brief moments, when you’re in the costume, when you’re lighting up the saber. There are those brief moments where part of you forgets that you’re some kid on the street of new york doing something really geeky with their friends and start thinking for one second you’re really doing it. In role play, they call that sensation Bleed, and it can be very powerful. But what makes doing stage combat so worth it is that we can take that sensation and share it with an audience.

If we, for even a brief second, make you think that Lightsabers are real and that there are Jedi and Sith (and Rogues as well) to wield them, then we’ve succeeded in our job. And it is those moments that I come for, and it’s those moments where I stay. That’s old magic, as far as I’m concerned. We might as well share it.

Craig Page is a Bronx-born, Jersey City-based writer and role playing game designer. With ten years experience in the lightsaber stage combat community, Craig is a noted authority on the Seven Forms of Lightsaber Combat, and maintains his own blog The Snark Side of the Force. When not discussing lightsabers, he can be found posting fiction on his Patreon page.

 

Big Apple Con 2018 Recap

This past weekend, Rogue Alliance had a fantastic time attending Big Apple Con in midtown Manhattan for the second year in a row. The whole event was incredibly fun and a huge success, both in terms of entertaining guests and raising money for charity. Here are some of the highlights.

So many old friends stopped by to say hello at our table in Artists Alley, and we made some new ones too. Many of the amazing cosplayers at the con took a moment to pose with lightsabers for our Facebook and Instagram pages.

All the usual suspects (Finn, Leia, BB-8) were there of course

but you don’t have to be from a galaxy far, far away to love the lightsaber. Other characters who tried out the light side (or the dark side!) include Ursula the sea witch, Scarecrow and Mr. Freeze, and some snazzy Avengers (and Loki) in their flapper dress bests.

Even the Men in Black invited our Rogues to help protect Earth…or did they? Our memory’s a little fuzzy on that one. 

Really, though we saw a lot of great costumes (some of which are featured on our Instagram... hint,hint).

We even got to meet a fellow Star Wars fan and member of the Star Wars costuming community who had traveled all the way from Italy, which reminded us how big the fan community really is, and how these fandoms that we live transcend borders and languages.

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We want to give a huge thank everyone who donated to The Trevor Project this weekend. Statistically, LGBTQ+ teens are at a much higher risk for suicide and self-harm than teens overall, and often they don’t have as many resources to turn to for help. The Trevor Project provides teens and young adults with resources such as hotlines, instant messaging services, and counseling where those who need help can reach out and be heard by people who care, and who seek to remind everyone that It Gets Better. This is a cause close to our hearts, and an incredible number of people gave over the weekend.

We got to end our weekend doing what we do best: showing off our lightsaber choreography and teaching younglings how to do the same. Following Captain Zorikh’scostume contest on Sunday afternoon, a few lucky recruits learned the ways of the Force and were set on their path to defending the galaxy. We even got a few adults in on the action. Our audience was so welcoming, and we had a wonderful time with all our volunteers.

 Overall, we had a spectacular second year, and we can’t wait for Big Apple Con 2019.

If you stopped by and liked what we do, please consider trying out a workshop or two, every Thursday night from 7-9PM at Ripley Grier Studios. Remember, any background is welcome, including no background at all, and you don’t need your own lightsaber right away. We promise to get you up and fighting ASAP, and maybe you’ll join us on stage this same time next year.