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So do you want to be a Swords Master when you grow up?  Here is some of what awaits you in the Choreographer's chair!

Highlander Fan Central talks to Roberta Brown

By Lyria Wollich

LW> How did you decide that you wanted to study sword choreography and how long have you been doing it?

RB: I've been a sword choreographer for nearly 15 years. I first entered the sword world as a fencer, so when, as part of my MFA in acting, stage combat and theatrical fencing came up, I found that I really took to it. In those days the Society of British Fight Directors had a series of exams, at least one of which all British actors had to face during their training, and most people would finish drama school with a basic certification in stage combat (no doubt why so many British actors are adept in swordplay!) I ended up passing all of the exams while my classmates prepared for their first, mostly because I had that head start. And of course, because I found that I loved it. I decided that this was what I wanted to develop as my 'day job' as it were, and I have been very fortunate that the plan worked!

LW: When did you first become partnered with Robert Chapin?

RB: Bob and I met within a week of my moving to Los Angeles - he was one of the first friends I made in town. I was fortunate enough to be hired as a stage combat teacher at Westside Fencing Center my first week in L.A., and at the time Bob had just finished "Ring of Steel" and was studying with a couple of teachers at Westside. We began working out together regularly, along with some other great people I met at that time, and little by little we started working on projects together.

LW: Tell us about how "Wench Taming:101" came into being, and who's idea was it for you to "best" the Wench Tamer?

RB: In fact, Bob and I originally planned this piece as a version of "The Taming of the Shrew" (as the dialogue implies), but soon we began distorting it into something much sillier! Bob used to do shows at Renaissance Fairs, and when we started working on this piece I had never been to one. Bob decided that had to change, and that I not only had to go to a fair, I had to perform at one! An introduction to the medium, as it were. That was how the show originated. As far as whose idea it was for me to 'best' him, well, it sort of goes without saying really. I mean, it's no fun for the audience if the six-and-a-half foot hero guy beats up on the small brunette...

LW: Some of the moves in that routine put Bob's "talents" to the test, if you catch my drift. Accuracy must be of specific importance! How many times have you performed the piece and have there ever been any slips?

RB: We've probably performed it a couple of dozen times, though none more memorable, I think, than for the crowd at the Sword Spectacular! I can't think of any slips as such, though there have been times when we've realized halfway through that a space wasn't big enough for what we were doing and had to adjust and change things as we went. (quotes like, "Wait! Let's do that move down here!" come to mind...) And of course Bob will tell highly
embellished stories of me shooting a sword straight at him on a sword toss... He just does it for sympathy...

LW: You are small of stature, and yet you wield a sword with ease. What types of conditioning have you gone through to hone this ability and what would you recommend for other women to prepare them to do the same?

RB: Although I enjoy many physical activities and have at various times in my life been active in figure skating, riding, roller-blading, hiking, etc..., am not sure that there is any particular regimen which prepared me to wield a sword other than just wielding swords! I suppose the one common denominator in all of my chosen sports is that they all work the legs pretty well, and swordplay is certainly demanding on the leg muscles. You have to have a strong base that supports you effortlessly while you focus on your blade. For beginning students I think this is the hardest thing, and there's always a big breakthrough when the leg muscles catch up to the demands being placed on them.
In general, however, I find that wielding a sword and/or cracking a bullwhip is the best preparation there is for wielding a sword and/or cracking a bullwhip. And my favorite thing about these activities is that they require so much thought and concentration that you barely notice after a while how much work the body is getting while the mind is focusing on the weapon.

LW: You performed as stunt double for Tessie Santiago. Without giving too much away, can you tell us about some of what you did? Were there a lot of fight scenes?

RB: I'd say we averaged about two fight scenes of some description or other per episode. Tessie turned out to have a natural gift for learning choreography, which meant that we were generally able to do all the fights with both of us performing the whole piece. That way Tessie could get great close-ups throughout the fight, but when they wanted to get a little more speed, or have someone work with the guest star (who didn't always have sword experience), they were able to jump back to me. Tessie worked really hard on all of her physical skills, and as time went on was able to do more and more of the fight action herself, so that sometimes in my last weeks I was only stepping in for the odd flip or kick (or for those moments when she was supposed to be in two places at once!)

I did have some fun surprises and challenges along the way though - working out a pitchfork fight was one of them, and living out every girl's adolescent fantasy by getting to BE Bo Derek for a day was definitely another!

LW:  What fun behind-the-scenes tales can you tell us about working on the QoS set.

RB: Now that's hard to choose! I suppose many of the tales involve horses because "Queen of Swords" is fortunate enough to have some of the world's finest horses and horse people working on the show, under the leadership of the amazing stunt coordinator Ricardo Cruz. I've ridden horses all my life, but never horses like these and never with the resource of riders like these
to teach me! Ricardo, Natalie Guijarro, and the rest of the team can do anything, and they're all willing to share and teach. This meant that whenever I had an hour free, it was OK to ask for a horse to play with. I think the horse story for which I became most famous was the day I took off alone on Guerrillero - Spanish for terrorist. When we were about a mile or two from the stables, he suddenly dropped to the ground and lay on his side..

I stood over him mortified, and all I could think of was, "I've killed the horse! I've killed Ricardo's horse!" It was a long time before he finally got up, and I managed to walk him back to base camp very carefully, only to find the entire stunt team enormously amused. It seems good old Terrorist (who has been working in films longer than I have!) is their best falling horse - which is to say that when they need a horse to drop safely and dependably to the ground, this horse is the expert they call in, and he's very proud of his trick. He spotted a nice smooth spot of sand which looked, to his expert horse eye, like it had been cleared for a stunt, and he promptly dropped onto it! He just couldn't understand why I wasn't more impressed... 

There is an entertaining coda to this story. Among those who laughed at my tale was Anthony Lemke, a great guy and wonderful actor playing the role of Grisham on the show. Natalie called me from set the other day to let me know that, for some reason, Lemke had to ride my favorite horse instead of his usual white one that day, and Guerrillero did what Guerrillero does best...
It seems no one is immune!

Another episode that tickled me is actually an off set story, which is the night that Valentine and I ended up at the Miss Spain contest. We had both enjoyed the music of a well-known flamenco guitarrist called Josele who had performed at the official "Queen of Swords" party, and Josele very kindly invited us to be his guests the next night to see his son perform - at what turned out to be the Miss Spain contest! Val and I are two of the last people likely to go to a beauty contest, but we managed to enter into the spirit and of course thoroughly enjoyed the music. The funny thing was when I discovered that I was now not only Tessie's sword double but also her beauty pagent double -- the papers reported the next day that TV star Tessie Santiago had been spotted at the Miss Spain contest...

And one last story: because I know people love to hear how talented and good-natured their favorite actors are, I will share a tale of Peter Wingfield. We were shooting a jump which Dr. Helm needed to make off a rocky cliff face onto the Queen's horse. Chencho, a terrific and very experienced stunt man, jumped onto Natalie on horseback to get the landing effect, but then director Brian Grant went back to get the jump from below, which was
done as a 15 foot or so jump onto a big pad. Unfortunately, although Chencho is a great double for Peter from behind, his face looks nothing like Peter, so they couldn't get the shot Brian had hoped for. That's when Peter volunteered to do the jump himself.
 Let me just point out that jumping off of cliff faces is one of those stunts that actors never offer to do themselves!! But Peter climbed up and startled us all not just by doing it, but by doing the move like a professional stunt man, jumping face down into the pad and tucking at the very last second - a very difficult thing to do!
And because the camera didn't catch it the first time, Peter climbed up and did it again - exactly the same. I asked him later - "OK, Peter, when did you work as a stunt man? That was too good to be luck!" And Peter's modest response was that he had 'done a little bit of trampolining' in his past. What I found out later (not from Peter) was that this 'little bit of trampolining' was actually championship trampolining! Peter is a great guy, and even more talented than he lets on...

LW:  What other ongoing projects are you involved with ~ such as teaching, lecturing, writing?

RB: My main ongoing teaching venue is the Westside Fencing Center in L.A., though I also teach periodically at The Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute, the University of Southern California, the Howard Fine Studio, and West L.A College. Lecturing I just do to anyone who stands still long enough. As far as writing projects, I just this summer contributed to a book on women in fencing, I sold a film script last year which was an adaptation of the novel "Fanny Hill," and I am working on one or two other scripts at the moment.

LW: Besides Sword Spectacular, what other conventions have you attended, or do you plan to attend?

RB: Literally the week that I returned from Spain, I was invited to William Campbell's Fantasticon, which was a great welcome home. At the moment I don't have any specific conventions in my plans, but my representatives at Holzheimer's are always coming up with fun things for me to do!

LW: What other projects can we see you in?

RB: I believe "Charlie's Angels" will be coming out shortly, and if the final cut goes according to plan, you should be able to see me in the title sequence fencing under the guise of Lucy Liu! I was swordmaster and double, working with the wonderful stunt coordinating team of Vic and Andy Armstrong, and if you look closely you might notice that my ill-fated opponent on the fencing strip is none other than Mark Ryan! By the time I take off the mask, however, I become Lucy, much like in my Spanish experience...

LW: What was it like shooting in Spain? Was it more difficult than lets say a US shoot? Language barriers - that sort of thing?

RB: Shooting in Spain was a wonderful adventure! There certainly were challenges unique to an international production, and this production involved more different countries and languages than any shoot I'd worked on previously. I was in fact the only American on set (except Tessie, of course, who is Cuban-American); everyone else was either Spanish, French, Canadian, or English. And I think it's fair to say that the majority were monolingual. As the season wore on, some people began learning another language, and some bilingual people were hired, but on the first day of shooting there were about four of us who spoke Spanish and English (the main languages of the shoot), which led to moments like the director shouting, "Go! Go! Why doesn't she go?!" until someone pointed out, "Because she doesn't speak English..."

There was a really great attitude on the set, though, and the Spanish are truly delightful to work with. And of course all of us non-Spaniards were on an adventure, learning all the time -- culture, language, countryside, food, customs -- all of it was new, and fun, and exciting; and it made for a wonderful camaraderie as we explored together in our (occasional) time off.
Of course, the other big challenge was the heat. No day went by without a conversation which went something to the tune of, "Oh, it's hot." To which the local would reply, "This isn't hot. You wait until it gets hot." It became my morning ritual to ask the driver, "Is it hot yet?" until finally, one day at the end of June, one of the drivers conceded, "Sí, hoy hace calor..."
(Though now that I'm safely back in California, my friends on set tell me, "Ha! You thought THAT was hot?!")

LW:  What was it like to work with Valentine Pelka?

RB: Valentine was an absolute joy to work with; I know it's a cliche, but he really is the consummate professional. He works very hard and takes everything he does very seriously, but at the same time knows the importance of staying up until 4 in the morning occasionally enjoying the local food and wine! My swordfights with Val were my favorites that I did. He added so much to the creative process, had a wonderful enthusiasm, made himself available to me for rehearsal whenever physically possible, and, as you might have guessed, was already very adept with a sword. I felt that
Valentine and I were able to take our fights to a different level, because we both already knew what we were doing and trusted each other to be safe, which gave us the freedom to make choices of style and dramatic effect and interpretation that weren't always possible with the less sword literate.

This is of course when a sword fight becomes the most fun for me! I can't say enough good things about working with Valentine.

LW> Did you spend a lot of time with Tessie to prepare for your doubling?
I did spend much more time with Tessie than one generally gets to spend with someone one is doubling prior to shooting. In part, this is because I was actually the first person to put a sword in her hand, back when all this began last fall. David Abramowitz had asked me to help out at the auditions, when they had narrowed their choices down to 5 actresses and wanted to know, among other things, which of them might prove adept at learning to use a
sword. I taught her her first ever piece of sword choreography, and she was just terrific. David then very kindly began his campaign to convince the other producers that I was the best person to double her, which included a photo shoot of the two of us dressed the same and striking a variety of poses together! All of this gave us the chance to become friendly aside from anything else, so I did have plenty of time with Tessie before arriving on set, and of course that was helpful.

LW> Is sword mastering fairly rare for women? How do you think the numbers match up to the men?

RB: Rare? Oh, I'd say so. Those numbers would be..... about two or three dozen to one! Although I have met a couple of other women who work in the sword world (and have of course trained many), I have yet to meet another woman sword choreographer/sword master. It is an entirely male-dominated field, which, to be honest, is one of the things which made me choose it. Although on the one hand I am presented with all sorts of unique challenges, on the
other it means people remember me!

LW> Do you have any other projects coming up for you in the near future?

RB: At the moment I am working with Mark Ryan on an independent film he is choreographing and second unit directing, called "The Bacchae." I'm choreographing a bullwhip sequence, in which the man dodging the cracking whip is none other than Bob Chapin. Small world, eh?

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Photo Credit: Victoria velazquez

Roberta with friends Tessie Santiago and Natalie Guijarro (tessie's riding double) Wow a triple play...


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