Red Deer’s Thomas Usher teaches swordfighting, with flourish

Want to learn to fight like a Jedi?

Red Deer's stage combat master, Thomas Usher, will be giving intermediate and advanced lessons from July 1-21 at the Fight Directors of Canada National Training Convention at the University of Calgary.

Actually, the Red Deer College theatre instructor will be teaching how to stage fight with a two-handed German broadsword from the 1500s — but it's the same skills as used by Japanese Kendo masters, and as depicted in various Star Wars movies.

"It's the same moves as with a lightsabre. Whenever you're fighting with something that's long, it's the same basic technique," said Usher, a top-level certified stage fight instructor, who's also artistic director of Prime Stock Theatre that produces Bard on Bower in Red Deer.

Besides wielding the weighty weapons favoured by German knights, Usher will also be teaching how to handle a slim, pokey blade — the French smallsword.

These delicate but deadly rapiers were used by lace-clad gentlemen during the 1700s. They were so hugely popular in duels they eventually had to be outlawed. "All those rich, young dandies were killing each other off, they were losing a whole generation!"

Smallswords are poked at vital organs, said Usher. The trick, as with all stage combat, is to make these actions look authentic, while keeping participants safe from injury. Theatrical combat requires enacting an illusion of danger, said Usher.

"You are not directing your force at your opponent, but rather beyond them."

But knowing the right fighting style is only half the battle — he feels actors must make the audience believe the tension and danger are real by conveying the exhaustion and effort of combat.

Usher started learning stage fighting techniques from his mentor, J.P. Fournier in 1990. The veteran fight director/choreographer who holds a Lifetime Achievement Sterling Award for his theatrical contributions in Edmonton, learned his craft from another master — the late Patrick Crean was a double for Errol Flynn in Hollywood, and later worked for the Stratford Festival in Ontario.

Usher grew up in Edmonton, mesmerized by swashbuckling tales, like Richard Lester's Three Musketeers movies of the 1970s. "The fights were so flamboyant and larger than life. There was a debonair, joie de vivre to them that was almost poetic," he recalled.

Usher feels stage combat skills expand upon an actor's physical capabilities to tell a story. Like music or dancing, there's a beat and rhythm to stage fighting. "It's a non-verbal dialogue that takes a lot of an actor's resources."

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