En garde: Distinguished combat instructor helps club members sharpen fighting skills

The students who gathered in Trinkle Hall Tuesday couldn’t wait to charge each other with rapiers, knives and quarterstaffs.

These people were not homicidal maniacs but members of the College of William and Mary’s Stage Combat Club, a group devoted to dramatically acting out fighting without committing any actual violence. Instructor David “Pops” Doersch, a stage combat expert who favors the cutlass, leads the organization.

“It’s non-violent violence,” Doersch said. “It’s an elegant way of turning that which is very ugly into that which is very beautiful. It’s an artistic way of telling a story with something that is otherwise very graphic and very brutal.”

The club boasts some successful alumni. Former club Vice President Arthur Rowan ’01 is currently starring in the Broadway National Tour of “Monty Python’s Spamalot” as a swashbuckling King Arthur. Doersch himself appeared in the critically-acclaimed film “Lincoln.” At a climactic moment in the film, he can be seen sword fighting with former club President Stephen Dunford ’10.

In order to compete with more intensive weapons-based stage combat programs offered at other schools, the club’s rehearsal schedule is demanding. Practices occur twice a week. The drills are rigorous. According to club President Kevin Place ’14, this hard work will pay off for committed students, especially those interested in acting. As a second-semester freshman, Place joined the Stage Combat Club after he was cast in a fighting role in a school production of “Rover.”

“Stage combat is one of those things that professional companies are going to look for: People who are able to pick up a sword and throw punches on stage,” Place said. “[For non-actors] this club is a way to play around with some theater stuff in a fun and [non-judgmental] way.”

The club welcomes all who are interested in stage combat but is largely composed of students involved in theater. Erin McIntyre ’15 was introduced to the club via Doersch’s non-weapon-based stage combat class at the College. Today, she enjoys the dramatic choreography brought about by working with blades.

“I needed a [General Education Requirement] 6, so I took the stage combat class. Class with Pops was the most convenient and fun way to do it,” McIntyre said. “I really liked it when we did knife work. It was very close, very gritty and gnarly.”

At the end of the school year, Doersch and Place plan to arrange an extended exhibition of stage combat with the club. According to Place, combatants will have the opportunity to develop better fighting and characterization skills through this undertaking. The final project will be practiced in chunks throughout the semester and then filmed. It is this intricate arrangement and choreography that first attracted Daniel Burruss ’16 to the club.

“I just love medieval weaponry,” Burruss said. “I’m probably going to be a theater major, and this club will really allow me to perform in more fight scenes. I just really love sword fighting and choreography and stuff like that.”

When the weather gets balmy, the group usually gathers outside on Barksdale Field. However, in light of tragedies that have occurred at Virginia Tech and Newtown, the protocol surrounding fake weapon-use on campus can sometimes be tricky. Measures are taken in order to comply with College rules, such as designating a club safety patrol person during outdoor practices. Safety remains the club’s major focus, according to new club member Emma Pierce ’16.

“In high school I did theater a lot, and we learned how to pull hair and slap people,” Pierce said. “Here, there are lots of things you have to drill. It’s really all about safety, and you don’t sacrifice safety for the illusion.”

Despite the precautions, Vice President Ricky Portner ’14 recalls receiving a blow to the face after failing to parry correctly. Nevertheless, he says, there is something about the constant fighting that tends to bring club members together.

“Honestly, I joined the club to hit on my current girlfriend,” Portner said. “Now one of my favorite things about stage combat is that you get a great sense of camaraderie with all the people in it with you.”


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