Thursday, December 10, 2009

Phoole Skooled! A Mini-Lesson With Bob Charron of St. Martin's Academy

At Her Majesty's Winter Faire presented by Ravenworks in Madison, Wisconsin, I had Outrageous Adventures of All Kinds, with Good Friends, New Friends, and a Bad Monkey Extraordinaire. One of these exploits flipped open the top of my head and exposed me to dangerous levels of Brilliant Knowledges, and I'm still feeling the aftereffects, so I'd like to share this experience with you.

One of my most favorite features of Her Majesty's Winter Faire is the perennial presence of the Guilde of St. Michael, the Elizabethan military living-history society found at the Bristol and Janesville Renaissance Faires and other fine historical-entertainment establishments. Apart from the fact that my hurrrrsband was one of their founders, along with his best friend Brian Brecht, I delight in them for their candid comfort with the era and their ease of teaching. Spend but five minutes with them, and you've had an excellent and exciting five minutes -- and then you later realize you've learned twenty things you never knew about British military and living history. They build the bridge across eras calmly and cheerfully, without ego or exhausting pretension, and they include and elevate their audience without a second thought. Delightful bunch.

Chris Last is their Assistant Guildemaster, and Chris studies with Bob Charron of the St. Martin's Academy of Medieval Martial Arts in Stoughton, Wisconsin. In the photograph above, snapped by the inimitable, indomitable Heather Winterling Last, Bob is blowing my mind. You might not be able to tell from there, but it happened: my brain exploded.

I think my first experience of Bob's brilliance was at the Madison Faire last winter -- during the supper show, with Chris Last, he gave a demonstration and lecture on Fiore dei Liberi's principles of abrazare, translating in this context to "grappling." Mistress of Misrule Magnolia May and I were, um, riveted, and that's enough said about THAT. But intellectually, the demo was electrically exciting, because Fiore's principles are rooted, of course, in the Trivium -- the grammar, logic and rhetoric of 15th-century Europe. And I've approached the Trivium from so many angles throughout my 20 years of Elizabethan historical interpretation -- customs and manners, dance, fashion, architecture, design, language (Italian, French and Elizabethan English), science, music, poetry, dance, masques, political rhetoric, philosophy, social theory, theology, and on and on -- that it was truly earth-shaking to me to see these disciplines' underlying precepts interpreted physically.

And because I can't leave anything alone, I naturally applied every tidbit I could assimilate to my practice and teaching of interactive environmental historical-comic performance. Mind you, I didn't assimilate very many tidbits at that stage. The grappling was distracting, you see. But that early encounter definitely whetted the appetite for more knowledges of Fiore and his monumental treatise on Medieval martial arts, The Flower of Battle. At the same supper show, I recall having some verbal exchanges with audience and other players that got some fairly big laughs, and Bob had complimented me on really playing the Court Jester, parleying in a ready wit, and I remember that compliment turned my world golden, because it had come from someone who'd taught me something. (I've always had an extreme weakness for getting approval from teachers. It's an ACoA thing, possibly, but Adlerian therapist Sherwin Rubenstein [R.I.P., much-missed friend] told me it works for me, so I keep it.)

I encountered Bob again with the St. Mike's troops at the incredibly-fun Jane's Ville Renaissance Faire last spring, and made myself pay particular attention to the vocabulary of the principles during the Fiore demonstrations. I enjoyed silently congratulating myself over understanding the concept of time being measured as it is in music, and it was delightful to hear music-theory terms from my favorite era of study being used in a martial context, minim-rests and all those things that evoke Mercutio's instructions to Benvolio and so on. I didn't yet understand that this was something I could learn first-hand, despite invitations and encouragements to sign on for lessons at St. Martin's Academy. (Not Relevant At All: I grew up listening to bebop, but developed an appetite for the Baroque masters at a rather young age. Lots of the long-playing records I checked out from the local public libraries were performed by the justly-famous ancient music ensemble, the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, so when I heard that this martial arts academy was called St. Martin's, for the longest time I was putting an entirely incorrect mental soundtrack with the thing. Brandenburg Concertos, orchestral suites, everything, instead of the catches and lute and chittern and rackets and sackbuts that should have been reverberating in my sconce. Ah, well.) It was there that Chris told me about Bob's wife, Kristina. "All the amazing stuff Bob can do?" Chris enthused. "Kristina can do it on horseback. At full speed." I grinned fit to split my skull over the images that conjured. I recall making a mental note to get someone to do a documentary of these two remarkable people.

Bob joined St. Mike's again for this year's Her Majesty's Winter Faire in Madison, and I tried to keep myself occupied elsewhere in the Faire so as to not be an over-fannish too-geeky hanger-on, but that didn't last long, and, swallowing trepidation, I bounced over to the "encampment" and announced, "I'm here for my Fiore lesson!"

Bob smiled. "All right. Hand-to-hand first, or sword?"

I goggled. "Really?" Couldn't believe I'd get away with it. "Whatever is best, I suppose -- I have no idea!"

"SWORD!" yelled the St. Mike's crew. The smattering of an audience clapped approval.

"Sword it is!" Bob handed me a waster, his steely eyes a-twinkle. I gulped at the heavy short sword's weight in my hand.

I looked down at my capacious busk-farthingale-and-bumroll motley. "Do I need to attire myself in the manner of a boy for this?"

"No." Bob looked at me very seriously. "You must learn to fight in what you're wearing. Your attacker won't wait for you to change your clothes."

And so we squared off, and I suppressed the thrills jangling my spine and tried to pay attention.

At the top of the lesson, I kept mis-stepping, and I kept judging myself, which he of course saw immediately, being an excellent teacher. "Just breathe!" he grinned, and I dropped in a breath and tried to exhale my self-conscience. "Just relax. It's so easy." And he patiently reminded me to do this, over and over, as we practiced. He'd attack, I'd deflect with the false edge, change feet, rotate to the true edge, and allow him to walk into my blade. That was the sequence. But I kept forgetting I didn't have to advance -- I just had to step to the side and let his momentum cause the damage. One of Fiore's basic precepts seems to be to always place oneself on the defensive, never the attack. And each time I mis-stepped I'd berate myself just the tiniest bit, partly verbally, mostly internally.

And then he stopped at one point and said, "Remember your Plato, and the levels of soul?"

I blinked. No one ever, EVER asks me to remember that. I DO know it, but no one had ever asked me about it. "The vegetative and animal and cosmic, you mean?"

He beamed. "Yes. Exactly. Plato says the vegetative soul governs your autonomic nervous functions. The animal soul governs movement, interaction, social conduct, flight, and fight. But you didn't mention the contemplative soul. The contemplative soul governs reflection and prediction, planning out next steps. Your contemplative soul is extremely highly developed. It has to be -- you're the fool. You need your wit for your livelihood. But you don't need it right now. I want you to set it aside for the remainder of the exercise, and whenever we work together. Use your animal soul now -- it knows what to do. You don't have to do anything but let your animal soul fight me."

It was intense. I finally dismissed the head-voices, just thanked and released conscious inner chatter, and of course, it all clicked. He phrased that exactly the way I needed it phrased. And I succeeded instantly and repeatedly. It irked me that I hadn't been able to teach
myself that lesson -- after all, I've taught students to release self-judgment for ten years -- but I was amazed that it was simply a matter of the right spell, the right words, and I understood the concept the way I needed to. I made eye contact, received the attack, and the moves were right where they needed to be. And they returned for each repeat of the play.

We then went on to some grappling (HOORAY), and I learned so much. Did you know the human body can shift a TON of weight just using the hips? I didn't. I do now. I enjoyed letting my animal soul run things. To be "on," onstage, usually means the predictive aspect of my contemplative soul isn't fully engaged anyway, as Jane the Phoole has Now, Now and Now, but no Later or Consequences of Now. But this was a Whole New Level of living in the moment. I also had the extreme privilege of meeting the legendary Kristina Charron, horse-warrior extraordinaire. I'm certain I came off as a fangirl dressed rather terrifyingly as a Grotesque History Clown, but this woman has Very Serious Skills at something that's incredibly dangerous and just plain cool, so I suppose I'll not critique my own exuberance. There are viddies online of her equestrian martial excellence, but it would be fantastic to see her applying Fiore a cavallo live.

My Facebook page has loads of pictures from the lesson and the rest of the hijinks from Her Majesty's Winter Faire -- peruse! Hopefully I'll have time soon to detail the Adventure of the Baddest Monkey Yet.


Buckleheads said...

Probably the most amazing thing is Bob's ability to find out how YOU need to learn. He is uncanny at being able to help his students understand information.

Glad you had a fun time, and there will be more!

babieca said...

Jane, you did not come off as too much of a fangirl. ;)
Bob and Chris are certainly a bit over the top with their praise.
Once winter is over, you should come to our farm and you can see some martial stuff from horseback, live and in person.

Jane the Phoole said...


No, for realz though -- thank you for the invite, which I zestily accept!