INTERVIEW: F. Braun McAsh - Professional Actor and Fight Choreographer
Continuing the interviews, Art of Swords sat down with the one and only F. Braun McAsh to talk about… well, fight choreography and swords, naturally! - Enjoy!
- Art of Swords: "Can you tell us a bit about yourself?"
F. Braun McAsh: “My name is F. Braun McAsh, and I’ve been a professional actor and fight choreographer for roughly 38 years. I’m also a published writer and author.”
- Art of Swords: "What ignited your passion for swords, the art of professional stage fight choreography, and how long did it take for you to learn the skills required?"
F. Braun McAsh: ”I initially studied in a theatre school that was directly associated with a university. The school’s theatrical fencing program didn’t begin until 3rd and 4th year, but the university had a fencing club which I joined about a week after arriving. I’d always been fond of swashbuckling movies and period epics when I was young and bought my first sword when I was about 16.
I never got involved in any form of theatrical swordwork until my 3rd year when I was playing Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet and was asked to choreograph the fight scenes. At this point, I’d only had less than a year of theatrical training and almost three years of competitive training and experience and, of course, there’s a world of difference between the two.
But I went ahead and staged the fights, more or less learning as I went along with regards to the choreography aspect. We were using standard Olympic-style sabres, so the necessity of dealing with a period design was fortunately not an issue since, at this time, I knew next to nothing about historical fighting techniques. And it didn’t hurt that I was a competitive sabre fencer. In any case, the show was well-received, and I was asked to choreograph another university production that I wasn’t acting in, this time, an unarmed scene, which also got good reviews.
But I knew at this point that the art of choreography was much more than just stringing together a series of moves. I guess the thing that got me passionate about the art was the same thing that makes me passionate about acting and writing. Choreography is the opportunity to explore characterization and tell a story almost exclusively in a physical venue. It is - or can be - the equivalent of spoken dialogue with all the nuances and subtleties inherent therein. It’s part of the human condition.
Fortunately, only months after graduation, I was accepted as an actor in the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario. Here, I met and became good friends with Paddy Crean, the resident fight master who was one of the first people to work as a professional fight choreographer in theatre and the movies. He was, for many years, Errol Flynn’s sword and stunt double as well as his choreographer.
He was extremely generous in sharing his great wealth of knowledge with me over the almost five years I worked there and I had the privilege of not only performing many of his fights on stage, but also being allowed to choreograph Henry V and Henry VI, I, II and III, all of which got internationally reviewed. After that, I worked as a choreographer at the Shaw Festival, then moved to Toronto and began a ten year stint as actor and choreographer in that city until I finally moved to British Columbia where, out of sheer luck, I was given the opportunity to be the swordmaster for the TV series HIGHLANDER which I choreographed for the last four years of the series, then the 4th movie, ENDGAME.
Meanwhile, I was both teaching and studying. I was honoured to receive several awards and study grants and spent much time travelling in England and Europe, studying with such people as Bill Hobbs and Henry Marshal as well as being permitted to do hands-on research at many museums, including the Tower of London, the British Museum and the Wallace. And, of course, the Musee des Armees in Paris for the four years we filmed HIGHLANDER there. Everywhere I travel with the film industry, most of the cast and crew scope out the bars and restaurants. Me, I’m always “Where are the museums? The libraries?” Hell - you can eat and drink anywhere. How many times do you get the opportunity to handle real historical arms and armour or read the original manuscripts wearing gloves while Grundig, the museum guard glowers at the back of your head? I’ve even wangled views of private collections like the time I inadvertently met the Duchess of Norfolk at Arundel castle.
Every two years - it use to be every year - when the Paddy Crean International Combat Workshop is held in Banff, Alberta, I not only have the opportunity to teach but also to learn. The Paddy, run by the International Order of the Sword and Pen, attracts the best of the historical and theatrical weapons community from around the world - Scandinavia, Scotland, Germany, South Africa, England, Belgium, etc… You get an entire week to cram your body and brain and is a heck of a lot less expensive than flying to their own countries.
So the short answer to your question is that it’s taken 40 years to learn what little - and in the grand scheme of things, I consider it little - I know now. You should - no - you MUST never stop studying. As I say in my book, the day you proclaim that you know it all, is not only the day you stop growing but essentially proclaim yourself to be an egotistical fool. I try to learn something new every week and rarely am I frustrated in my attempt. And to paraphrase Frederic II, arguably the father and greatest proponent of modern falconry, a day spent without a sword in your hand is a day wasted. Or in the words of the late, great Paddy Crean, "We must never stop learning."”
- Art of Swords: “Do you have an area or period or style you specialise in?”
F. Braun McAsh: “I don’t really have a period or style I specialize in per se. As a choreographer, I have to be a generalist insomuch as I need to have the greatest in-depth knowledge of as many fighting styles as I can, both armed and unarmed. And this includes firearms. There are those who might say I specialize in things like the katana, the rapier or the longsword, but that’s really only because some of these weapons have featured into a large part of my professional credits. That being said, the last stage show I choreographed (a modern version of Coriolanus) used nothing but military commando knives, including the battle scenes and the last film choreography I did pitted a rapier and dagger against an Indonesian Dau.”
- Art of Swords: "You are the chief instructor for the Ring of Steel school of historical and theatrical Western European martial arts. Can you tell us a little about the differences between historical and theatrical martial arts?"
F. Braun McAsh: “The Ring of Steel, as a school, teaches the Western European martial arts. At this time, the weapons we have in our collection - all of proper design, weight and balance - constrain us to the German Longsword and the various systems of rapier. (I instruct both the various Italian masters and also the Spanish Destreza style) We do offer theatrical combat courses, but the historical school is by far the most popular.
Authentic sword combat is the very antithesis of theatrical combat insofar as its goal is to HIT, and also to hit fast. In theatrical combat, only very specific moves are allowed to touch the actor, and only in a very controlled manner. The other thing is speed. High speed is not only antithetical to safety, but doesn’t do the audience any favors. The whole idea of choreography is to tell a story. This implies that you are bringing the audience into the narrative and guiding them through the storyline through physical action. They must be able to invest themselves in the characterizations.
Now - imagine a person who speaks so fast that you can’t understand more than half of what he’s saying. As you’re trying to play catch-up, you’re missing important bits. This is the primary reason why we slow down and broaden most of the moves. And, there’s also the fact that a fight scene’s speed or choreography can be so fast or so realistic that the audience begins to fear for the safety of the actor, not the character.
Congratulations - now you’ve broken the convention of the “willing suspension of disbelief.” This is more a live theatre phenomenon since there’s no question that the actor is up there live and would suffer the consequences of an accident.
I suppose the simplest answer is that a martial art, is, by self-definition, a fighting art and theatrical technique’s purpose is to create the illusion of combat while still maintaining a constant but unseen safety factor for the protection of the performer.”
- Art of Swords: "Do you have an all time favorite sword, and if so, why?"
F. Braun McAsh: “Do I have a favorite sword? Not as such. I have considerable training and experience in the Longsword, the rapier and dagger, the smallsword, the sabre and the katana, but that could be considered favoritism by virtual of familiarity. I also have a lot of fun with the sword and shield, especially the Viking designs, the Chinese Dao sword, the tomahawk and Bowie knife in combination, etc. All bladed weapons, by virtue of their physical design and what they were intended to fight against, all have different techniques. Sometimes the differences are subtle, other times, radical.
And there’s also the fact that my film and stage jobs don’t often allow me, the HIGHLANDER series notwithstanding, to choose my weapons since the culture and period usually dictate the weapon and fighting style. I like projects that challenge me to learn or invent new things. That doesn’t negate learning new moves in the weapons you already have a lot of experience in - look at the the huge stylistic scope in rapier combat alone. But after I just choreographed my 13th production of Romeo and Juliet, I really wanted to put down the rapier for a while and do something else. I mean, you may love corn flakes, but after a while, don’t you start to wonder what Shreddies taste like?”
- Art of Swords: “What were the biggest obstacles you had to overcome when learning stage fight choreography?”
F. Braun McAsh: “The biggest obstacle in my development as a fight choreographer was first, that at that time, there were very few people to learn from. I was incredibly lucky to have known Paddy Crean for so many years. But even then, he was only one person and the same variety of approaches and stylistic differences that are inherent in dance choreography exist in fight choreography too. And when I understood that for better looking choreography and for actor safety, it was necessary to study the historically accurate methodologies, even for a theatrical art, it was a lot different then than now.
No internet - no easy access to documents and information.(mind you, quite frankly, with regards to weapons usage, there’s a lot of utter bollocks on the internet) If you wanted to study Marozzo’s OPERA NOVA, or Giganti’s TEATRO, you pretty much had to go to a museum that had a copy - if more than one existed. So you did a lot of international travel on your own dime. The other thing is convincing producers and directors that they need to hire a choreographer.
Money is often a deciding factor in film and television and very often, and if they think they can get away with having one person do everything, they will. There have been many productions where the stunt coordinator has also done the choreography whether he was qualified or not. And even if they are, both are full-time jobs and one of them is going to get short shrift for which there are consequences.
I remember appearing on the set the first time in France for HIGHLANDER and being confronted by the stunt coordinator who asked if I was the swordmaster. When I told him I was, his reply was “Thank God! I thought they were going to try and make me do it.” It’s about quality and safety but that’s not always the first consideration for the bean counters. And also bear in mind that you will lose jobs to people far less qualified because they lie about their training and experience or misrepresent themselves to people who don’t know the difference. You may be a legitimate expert in the Song and Jian sword. Does this qualify you to choreograph for ancient Greek weapons? Well, I lost a job because a producer thought it did. To a lot of people in influential positions, a sword is a sword. And there’s not a darned thing you can do about it.”
- Art of Swords: "What would you say is the most challenging aspect of this profession?"
F. Braun McAsh: "The most challenging aspect of my profession is not simply trying to stay employed, but to continue to progress. Keep learning. And by that, I mean everything. As a choreographer you should understand how an actor works to develop his character, how a director works to realize his vision, how costumes are designed and fabricated, same with sets and lighting design. Every single thing that affects physical action will affect the fight. This is especially crucial bearing in mind that the choreography must predicate and accommodate these factors.
The time to realize that the costumes bind the performer in the shoulder, elbows and knees or that the armour doesn’t articulate properly or the set has unnecessary decoration that can become a physical hazard is NOT on the day of filming. You must interact with all these departments from day one. You must talk to the actors from the first day to discuss characterization since the bottom line is that they, not you, are the ones who will be performing the fight. You must understand how the director wants to shoot the scenes and that involves a knowledge of lenses and everything that moves the camera - dollies, steadi-cams, scissor-lifts, etc. Stage usually gives you a lot more time - film, nowadays anyway, not so much.
So anyone who thinks that the art of choreography is limited to simply weapons and fighting styles is deluding themselves.”
- Art of Swords: "What would your advice be to anyone interested in learning stage fight choreography?"
F. Braun McAsh: “Anyone who wants to go into my profession should read all of the above, then get a hammer and skull yourself repeatedly until the urge goes away.
But, if you’re truly passionate about it, get training. And by that I mean credible training. Go to the Paddy at least once and see the incredible diversification of styles and approaches. Travel - do research. Never be afraid to ask a question. Never be afraid to be wrong. Better you find out while you’re learning than when the realization comes after your choreography ends up injuring a performer.
And once you’ve begun learning, never stop because - trust me on this one - it never ends. And if you ever lose your enthusiasm or passion for the art, get another job. Don’t set unrealistic goals. If you become successful it will happen in its own time and it will often occur when you least expect it. I got my interview and audition for HIGHLANDER based on one person overhearing ONE conversation with a friend at the craft service table with just three of us in the room, on ONE day that I was on a made-for TV movie. Those are odds so small you couldn’t even floss them. And yet it led to roughly five years of continuous high-profile work that gave me the credibility, rightly or wrongly, to advance to other projects.
But if this is what you want, if you believe you have something to contribute and don’t give up. There will be failures. So what? Welcome to life. Be what you want to be.”
- Art of Swords: “Thank you, Braun.”
F. Braun McAsh’s book, “Fight Choreography - a Practical Guide” is available through Crowood Press (English publishing house), and the Ring of Steel website.
For updates, you can also follow F. Braun McAsh on Twitter.