Roberta Brown is a sword instructor at the Westside Fencing Center.
Photo Credit: Victoria velazquez
Roberta with friends Tessie Santiago and Natalie Guijarro. Wow a triple play...
Photo Credit: lesley bohm
By Lyria Wollich
LW> How did you decide that you wanted to study sword choreography and how long have you been doing it?
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?
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?
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...
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.
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.
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
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...
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
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
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!
LW> What other ongoing projects are you involved with ~ such as teaching, lecturing, writing?
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.
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?
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...
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
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?
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
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
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
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?
Photo Credit: Ricardo Cruz
Roberta poses for stunt coordinator Ricardo Cruz in her Queen of Swords outfit.