This past Saturday, Maestro Christopher Barbeau came to Cornell for the fifth time to host a workshop on theatrical combat for the local Ithaca chapter of The Ring of Steel.
The Ring of Steel: Ithaca is a theatrical stunt group that focuses on performing and teaching the “art of stage violence” to the Ithaca communities. Members are taught how to properly handle rapiers, daggers, the broadsword, the quarterstaff and hand-to-hand combat techniques, developing combative techniques so that group members can perform stunts safely and effectively.
There are 10 active members in the Ithaca chapter, and each member is subjected to seven levels of training. The skill-level of the members is based on credits earned for each practice or performance they attend. Journeyman is the highest level of and requires over 650 credits. There have been about 11 journeymen since the organization began in 1989 out of more than two thousand aspirants.
According to Christina Rockwell, the Ring of Steel: Ithaca’s current instructor, the local group was founded in 2003 by Jacob Lehman, a journeyman with The Ring of Steel Action Troupe in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The members of the Ithaca chapter have performed in dozens of events around campus including Big Red Relief, CornellCon, the annual Cultural Explosion and at the Johnson Museum of Art.
“In high school I trained under Maestro Barbeau for four years and then I came out here for undergrad and in my second semester at Cornell I really missed it, so I started a chapter to have people to play with,” Lehman said.
During the summer, senior members collaborate with local Shakespeare troupes, designing the choreography and training for the fight scenes in performances such as Hamlet, Richard III, Othello and the Complete Works of William Shakespeare Abridged. Besides inviting Barbeau to host a workshop, the members have also travelled to the group’s headquarters in Ann Arbor for additional training.
The headquarters in Ann Arbor is run by Barbeau out of the University of Michigan as a student organization, but is responsible for training roughly 100 people from the ages of 8 to 58 in how to safely master the craft. Barbeua said it is “the community teaching the community.”
Barbeau is also fight director for the Michigan Opera Theatre and the Toledo Opera Theatre. Trained as a fencer and martial artist in the late 70s, his career in theatrical combat began in 1980 with the Michigan Renaissance Festival, where he served for four years as fight director.
Barbeau said, “The sword fighting that you do in front of an audience is not the type of fighting that you would see on the competition floor. I started looking for materials on how they differed, and I found a whole new study that would enable me to combine my knowledge of the martial arts and acting.”
During his visit, while hosting an intensive workshop in Risley Hall, Barbeau passed on some understanding of the symbolism of combat and the elements of music and dance. When combined with historical swordplay, martial arts and fencing, the understanding enables his students to create an entertaining fight scene revelatory of the characters’ essential natures.
“It’s all about the story,” Barbeau said. “The sword play has got to be able to carry it, punctuate it, make it exciting, but it’s really about the … revelation of character.”