Sunday, January 12, 2014

Theatrical Fighting: Medieval Times: Chicago, IL

Background: Medieval Times is a call to your inner child that always wanted to witness knights fight on horseback and on foot. The crash of steel of and whinny of horses will excite and fascinate you as you cheer for your knight to be the victor of the tournament and vanquish the terrible barbarians. This is of course the “Pro Wrestling” of Historical European Martial Arts as it is all “fake.” However, as Rhett told Scarlett at the end of Gone with the wind, “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.”

Horses are still very much in use today. If you look around you will find cavalry features in police forces and militaries across the globe. In Montreal mounted police have a large presence in the city. Because of the amount of parkland in the city the police are able to go where cars cannot and foot patrols would be ineffective. During the student protests of Montreal police rode horses to corral and control the riots and marches. While I was in Botswana on Safari three commandos rode out of the bush. Motors would have given away their positions to poachers and horses allowed them to cover more ground following game trails only animals use.

Police in Montreal patrolling snowy parks. 
Commandos in Botswana as part of an anti-poaching unit.

Obviously we can’t have “real” knights doing a “real” joust with “real” swords. Since they are going to be doing the show several times a day for hundreds of fans this would be impossible. Not to mention the obvious health and safety concerns of doing true combat. Therefore they have taken the approach of Pro Wrestling and make the performance about the show and the demonstration of skill. Often I have heard it criticised that any type  fake fighting requires no skill. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Just the horsemanship required to spear a ring at full gallop is exceptional.

A knight taking spearing a small ring at full gallop.

Throw that together with joust and the sword fighting from horseback and you are watching fantastic martial artists.

What did I learn: As Martial Artists we are always putting on demos and performing. Whether we are demonstrating techniques or putting on seminars very often our skill set is available for public consumption. Despite so many Martial Artists decrying that they don’t like things that are fake we are constantly stretching the bounds of reality ourselves. In every Martial Arts show I have been to I have never seen an instructor doing “real” techniques. Never once has a teacher purposefully shattered a student’s limbs as spectacle to prove the effectiveness of the technique. They stop short and let our imaginations fill in the gaps. They are putting on a "fake" show just like the knights of Medieval Times.

The knights of Medieval Times take the theatrics of fighting to the next level. There is not one person that walks through that door expecting to see a knight die in mortal combat. Yet everyday people show up to be entertained by the martial spirit of the event. I began think of this for my own performances that we do at galas. Could I incorporate what I learned at Medieval Times into our lessons?

Two of the knights engaged in combat.

At Martial Arts galas the standard format is to go onstage, bow to the audience, show your skills and leave. Many of these demos are very good but Medieval Times takes it a step further. They don’t bother to just show skills like the joust or sword fighting. What Medieval Times does is much more. They create emotional investment in the characters. We are all cheering for our knights and the knights display both talent in arms and also chivalry and grace by getting their sections to cheer and presenting the flowers to the ladies.

Knights distributing flowers to the crowd.

There is also the infamous heel. Every show at Medieval Times has a villain. Not only do we want to cheer for our champions but there must also be someone for us to hate. In two hours we are hooked on our champion and routing against an arbitrary bad guy. We knew it wasn’t real from the outset of the show and yet we really enjoyed cheering for our hero. I think I am going to try to incorporate in my next demo. The question is just how? I will have to think on this.

What was similar: I watched a video on how they do the fighting at Medieval Times. The head knight was describing how they use a very “opened style of fighting.” The reason was that we were doing this was to allow everyone seated to see what was happening. The big movements and pauses were to give the audience an understanding of the techniques. I think back to my Sifu preparing us for forms tournaments and telling us to open up our movements. The judges needed to see our movements in order to appreciate our talent and judge it. It is preparing for tournaments all over again.

Conclusion: Medieval Times is a blast and if you should have the chance to go see it definitely do it. However, as a Martial Artist don't just go for the show. You should be watching to see how they conduct themselves and get the audience involved. I watched dozens of men, women and children exit the arena pretending to swing swords or be knights. They all wanted to ride into combat and do battle. Wouldn’t it be great if after your school did a demo the audience left and pretended to be you? Wouldn’t that be a good way to get students? 

The Royal Guard on parade.
Best regards and keep training,

Martin "Travelling Ronin" Fransham 

If you are interested in training together I would love to get together with you. Drop me a line on facebook and we can connect. I would love to learn from you. On Facebook:
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Behind the scenes of Medieval Times:

1 comment:

  1. I went to the Medieval Times in Toronto, and loved it. Interesting to tie what they've done into ideas for our own tournament and gala skill set.