Crack That Whip! Stunt School Is In Session

A line of youngsters is lashing six-foot bullwhips to and fro, trying the "forward crack", a basic whip art technique. In a rhythm not unlike fly fishing they cast using a tapered nylon rope with a skinny popper on the end. Cast well, the bullwhip breaks the speed of sound, making a sonic boom and – crack! Done incorrectly, it'll welt your skin like a fishing line never could.

The air fills with a swooshing sound at first, as ropes unfurl and lasso sideways. But as the kids catch on, there's a stream of popping and head-on momentum.

We're not busting the jungle or driving cattle across a scorched golden prairie. We're butted up against a parking lot outside the student theater arts complex at the University of Michigan, home of the Ring of Steel Summer Stunt Academy. A few university department of public safety employees ride by, some peering our way, but, I'm told, by now they're used to the goings-on at this school of stage combat and stunt work. An unsuspecting man shambles down the sidewalk, ready to pass behind the students.

"Non-com!" hollers Martin O'Brien, an instructor at the academy. (That's "non-combatant" to you.).

A silencing of the whips. And then they resume.

So why is whip work on the camp docket?

"Indiana Jones made the whip a stuntman's tool," Diane Miller, another instructor at Ring of Steel, tells me. Indeed, the "How to Crack a Whip Like Indiana Jones" video has gotten over 168,000 views on YouTube.

This stunt camp, one of only three in the nation, opened six years ago as an outcropping of the 22-year-old nonprofit Ring of Steel Action Theatre and Stunt Troupe, a theatrical combat and movie stunt performance and training group based at U-M. It's the brainchild of Maestro Christopher Barbeau, who's worked for 38 years as a stage fighter and stuntman.

Barbeau opened the summer camp for youth ages eight to 18 in response to what he believed was a three-decade decline in the physical know-how of the junior set. "Stunt work requires a fairly high level of both physical coordination and intensity, so I decided to reach down into a younger age group and grab them, before video games had a firm hold of them, and try and instill some physical skills at that age," he says.

By the age of many of his campers, Barbeau already had a firm footing in stunt artistry. He emerged on the scene as a competitive fencer and martial artist at age 11, and then as a teen sought a way to mix theater with fencing and martial art. At 15, he successfully auditioned for the Michigan Renaissance Festival. Had a stunt school like Ring of Steel existed at the time, Barbeau could have skipped his fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants training.

"There were no few bumps," the 48-year-old admits with a laugh. "There were very few teachers in Michigan. For instance, the guy I learned theatrical swordplay from, he had one class in college 10 years before. So we hit each other a lot before we learned how to fight properly."

The week-long camps, which cost $285, are a survey of swordplay, martial arts, and stunt work. Think hand-to-hand combat and tumbling, think high fall and archery and ninja stars, gun safety, and flying.

Young stunt practitioners "gain a lot of neurological advancement from increasing brain-body coordination. They develop higher executive functions, learn to be responsible for themselves and proactive in what goes on around them," Barbeau points out.

There's one teacher for every five students, all instructors have a minimum three years of training, and assistant instructors have at least one year and 600 hours of experience before teaching. Every camp starts with a lecture on safety protocol. The extent of ouches thus far has been contained to bumps, bruises, and the occasional nosebleed when students knee themselves in the face. Hitting yourself is the most common injury, according to Barbeau.

And unlike school gym classes and most sports teams, the sexes aren't divided; boy and girl partner in sword duels and combat sequences. Girls are more coordinated than boys at the same age, Barbeau claims - that's an advantage in swordplay, a test of fine motor skills and not brawn.

"We want the boys to learn they lose," he says firmly.

Two of the three instructors are women. The last camp session was one-third female, Barbeau says. Today, though, it's one girl in a class of 14.

Students can continue their instruction during the school year; some have gone on to become stunt professionals. He counts jousters, screen swordsmen, and a pro stunt coordinator among the alumni.

Action!

Barbeau's resume plumbs the stunt world. He holds black belts in aikido and jiu jitsu, teaches at the International Thespian Festival, is fight director for the Michigan Opera Theatre and the Toledo Opera, and has worked on 27 feature films. He also served as sword coach for the Hook and Master and Commander film productions.

In the best film fight scenes, Barbeau says, the moves and activity will be consistent with the character's abilities and have a progression. Fights should speak to a character's background and moral and ethical views. "Do they adopt a defensive posture and respond only when attacked? Or do they wade in attempting to do as much damage as possible without any humanity or regard for the people they're fighting?" he poses. The stunt pro community picks the clash between native Scottish highlanders and new nobility in Rob Roy as a pinnacle of cinematic fight depictions, according to Barbeau.

He dismisses "cotton candy" battles. "A number of the fights in Star Wars are simply flashy examples of how we can move around a weightless blade as opposed to really teaching us something about the characters."

So how to tell staged from real combat? And if combat is staged, how do you make it 3-D? "Real fighting is about defeating the other person," Barbeau says. "Our fighting is about telling a story about defeating another person."

On the last day of camp, we watch demos of the week's work and a swordplay recital. Choreographed beefs flare. "You have stolen my money and disgraced my honor!" Swords arc, enemies block. "You took my Milk Duds!!" A jostling of the blades. Partner closes in on partner in a corps à corps - a locking of swords, a tense breather before the tumble down.

Every move isn't just action for empty sake, but a conveyance. "The mini tramp is good for simulating an explosion reaction," Miller tells us as performers aerial somersault over cushioned barriers.

"I call this 'The Usual'!" a young 'un belts out before trundling down the zip line.

I call this anything but.


Tanya Muzumdar is the assistant editor for Metromode and Concentrate. Her previous article was "Raw Talent: Chef Swaroop Bhojani, PhD"

All photos by Doug Coombe

Photos:

Chris Barbeau instructing students about the flying harness
Swordplay recital
Zip line + (plastic) sword = awesome!
Chris at the Ring of Steel Stunt Camp
Mini-trampoline demonstration
Doing the "Mission Impossible" on the flying harness
Light saber battle
The flying harness
Chris with the Ring of Steel's stunt guns


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