Students ready for combat

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Nine sword-wielding drama students in Okotoks will be a force to be reckoned with on the stage as they prepare for their school musical both armed and dangerous.

The Alberta High School of Fine Arts students, among a cast of 20, spent last week learning to lunge, advance, parry and retreat under the guidance of Zakk MacDonald, an apprentice stage combat choreographer, in preparation for the December musical Cyrano de Burgershack. The production is a high school musical rewrite of the 1897 classic Cyrano de Bergerac.

“I’ve never done anything like it before,” Grade 12 student Lilianna Gaggero said during her third day of training. “It’s super exciting.”

In the first couple of days under MacDonald’s teachings, Gaggero, who plays Cyrano’s love interest Roxanne, didn’t feel natural learning how to handle the light-weight foil.

“When I learned the first movement it was awkward and kind of slow, but once you get into the fighting it’s a lot easier,” she said. “You start doing it more and it’s a lot more natural.”

While Chloe Boone’s mom was nervous about her daughter earning a part as a sword-fighting character, Boone felt the opposite.

“I was excited because I never did any stage fighting,” she said. “I like stage acting, it intrigues me.”

With seven years of ballet experience, the rugby player said she had no problem picking up the fencing techniques.

“We’re learning the basics right now, learning body positioning and movement,” she said on Wednesday. “After the first few times I tried it I was getting it pretty well. The more we practice the smoother it gets.”

The two-act musical tells the story of Cyrano, who’s frequently gets into fights because of his big nose, falling in love with fencing instructor Roxanne. The story was told on the big screen in the 1987 Romantic comedy Roxanne starring Steve Martin and Darryl Hannah.

The school’s new drama teacher Bruce MacDonald said he’s had his eye on the play for years and decided it was time to bring it to the stage with help from his son, MacDonald, a mortal combat apprentice.

“The story is classic,” he said. “It’s got comedy, romance, it’s got a little bit of everything.”

The experience is not only a special treat for his students, but also for Bruce.

“I’ve been in theatre over 35 years but I never had the opportunity to have a play with weapons,” he said. “The kids came in every day going, ‘Are we fighting today?’ which is really exciting.”

Watching his son perform in the Shakespeare in the Park’s The Three Musketeers recently gave Bruce an admiration of how seamless the actors make fighting scenes look.

“They made it look so natural, six to eight people in a fight at the same time in the same space,” he said

MacDonald is surprised at how quickly the nine high school girls picked up the techniques. What started things off right was they jumped right in, he said.

“They completely surpassed my expectations and this is day three learning an entirely new skill,” he said. “Adults are often more cautious.”

While most youth don’t yet have a good sense of their bodies, MacDonald said they’re fast learners.

“We began with footwork and learning how you move before putting a pointy object in their hands,” he said. “I put swords in their hands at the end of the first day.”

Once armed, the girls learned the parts of the sword and how to hold it before being taught to parry, defend themselves and then attack.

“A few groups are surpassing way more than what I thought they would and some groups are exactly where they should be,” he said.

While learning to fence is about attacking and defending, MacDonald said performing combat on stage is like a dance.

“It’s different on stage than real combat where it’s a competition,” he said. “When you’re on stage it’s more like a dance, working together to try to create a story. The main thing is you’re trying to tell a story.”

Fights are often used in plays to enhance the story and evoke emotion from the audience, said MacDonald.

“You want the audience to feel a sense of danger for the characters, not the actors,” he said. “You get to see these intense moments from a safe distance. A lot of the public is drawn to that. It almost brings them into their world a little bit more with that physical nature.”

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