History, safety and swords: Kentucky Shakespeare’s adult stage combat classes

Kyle Ware disarms Zachary Burrell. | Photo by Bill Brymer

Most people still think of summer shows in Central Park when you say “Kentucky Shakespeare,” but the nonprofit operates year-round and in 2018 served more than 100,000 Kentuckians.

That service includes education for adults. Some classes break down and discuss scripts for Bard-ophiles who love words. But for those who like swords, Kentucky Shakespeare offers stage combat.

Insider spoke with Kyle Ware, head of education at Kentucky Shakespeare, and Eric Frantz, who teaches stage combat to actors for the summer season. The two team to teach the series of Saturday stage combat workshops.

According to Ware, the workshops are a natural extension of the Kentucky Shakespeare mission.

“A huge, huge component of our mission revolves around accessibility — whether that’s accessibility in the park, providing free Shakespeare almost nightly all summer long, or that’s geographic accessibility with our outreach department,” he says. “We want to make sure that Shakespeare — and really art— is for everyone.”

Tessa McShane and Mollie Murk square off in the Dagger/Hand-to-Hand class. | Photo by Kyle Ware

Ware has been with Kentucky Shakespeare since the 2013 season, first as an actor, then starting in 2014 as director of education. The stage combat classes started up soon after.

“We always (got) asked, ‘How do you do that, where does that come from, how much goes into that, what’s the history behind that.’ So Eric and I were talking after a show one day and we said, ‘Well, let’s work on maybe answering that question.’ And the classes were born out of that,” says Ware.

Frantz has worked with Kentucky Shakespeare as the fight director for the mainstage summer season in the park since 2015. As a fight director, he comes in, sets the choreography on the actors, which includes teaching the moves and making sure the moves are safe.

Frantz says to make it safe, he starts in a somewhat counter-intuitive way.

“You would think your main goal would be safety first, but it’s actually not, in my opinion,” he says. “The top priority is, think of reality first. If I swing something at you, you’ll actually protect yourself … Instead of assuming somebody will do something safely, you actually react to it properly.”

This doesn’t just help keep actors and students safe, it helps keeps the combat convincing. After all, stage combat is designed to make a play believable. The actors and students can’t just focus on the moves.

Ware says that using the “reality first” approach supplies motivation, stakes and a whole lot of useful stuff for actors.

“As an actor, if you’re playing the reality of the situation, you don’t have to do a whole lot more than that,” explains Ware. “There’s big Herculean swings and grunts and things that can come into play if the fight goes on long enough, but mainly (you’re) thinking about your objective — man or woman is trying to kill me, I prefer not to be killed. Also, perhaps I would like to kill them.”

There are actors who show up for Frantz and Ware’s stage combat class, but it also appeals to the public, including the more academic among us, in part stemming from the fact Frantz works at the Fraizer History Museum, where he gets to learn and teach about combat all the time, usually using sources that were contemporary to Shakespeare’s time, or the times in which Shakespeare’s plays are set. 

“Working at the history museum, that was one of my main objectives — researching the actual historical manuals, the fight manuals, the fight masters,” says Frantz.

By carefully reading those historic documents and Shakespeare’s plays, Frantz learned quite a lot.

“If you look at what’s going on in Shakespeare’s plays, you can see those reflected,” he says. “So the different weapons the people are using, there’s a reason they’re using those weapons.”

Frantz offered a specific instance from “Romeo and Juliet.”

“Like, why does the servant have a sword and buckler and Tybalt has a rapier? There’s a historical reason for that.”

How to prepare

Eric Frantz teaches a fight sequence in the Long Sword class. | Photo by Kyle Ware

Whether you’re an actor brushing up for your next audition, a theater buff wanting to see how the sausage gets made, or a history aficionado who wants to dig into the past of the parries and ripostes, Ware and Frantz are happy to take you on, and they offered Insider a few brief suggestions on how possible participants ought to prepare.

  • Wear clothing you can move in and that you don’t mind getting dirty.
  • Sneakers are suggested, so leave your sandals and high heels at home.
  • Keep jewelry to a minimum.
  • There is water available at the water fountain, but you may want to bring a water bottle.
  • The class runs from 1 to 5 p.m., so you may want to bring a light snack or eat a light meal beforehand.

The next session focuses on Long Sword and spans two Saturdays — March 30 and April 6. Then on April 20, you can learn about the Dueling Sword. Prices vary and included equipment rental. Sign-up at Kentucky Shakespeare’s website or email [email protected].