Chicago Theatrical Ensemble: Babes with Blades

Steel blades ring as Sam Alden deflects an incoming attack and spins a four-pound broadsword into a cut at the adversary. After a few quick exchanges, Alden’s blade finds an opening and strikes a blow to the enemy’s head. The soldier crumples lifelessly to the ground.Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½

Fortunately, this fight was not a life-and-death struggle but rather a carefully choreographed sequence for a play in production. Though Alden is an internationally respected theatrical violence designer, don’t call Sam a swordsman: Dawn “Sam” Alden is the woman who founded the Chicago theatrical ensemble Babes With Blades.Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½

Stage combat is the art of illusory violence for stage and film, and though there are notable female exceptions, it is a field historically dominated by male choreographers and performers. In response, Alden created the first Babes With Blades show, an evening of stage combat written, directed, choreographed, and performed entirely by women. The performance was a smash hit, sponsoring five more similar productions, Babes With Blades has even been seen in Scotland, at the invitation-only Edinburgh Fringe Festival. The shows were so successful that the women have founded their own theatre company, regularly producing new works and sponsoring playwrights to pen pieces that involve women fighting.�¯�¿�½

The unifying dramatic theme of their shows changes with each production, but one goal remains the same: to give female combatants the chance to display the fighting and choreographic skills neglected by women’s roles in the theatrical canon. The self-styled Babes don’t see their work as a “justification” for women learning stage combat: rather, they feel the burden of justification lies with the theatre world to explain why the centuries-old martial traditions of women have been almost completely ignored.Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½

Female practitioners of stage combat must often do battle with more than just their theatrical opponents. A fighting-as-boy’s-club mentality pervades the theatre as it does American society at large.Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½

Alden says there are two main negative responses she receives from male combatants. The first is patronization: male performers who believe female combatants need a man’s help to learn to fight correctly.Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½

“Here, little lady,” Alden mimics, “Let me help you. This is how you hold a sword.”Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½

As a violence designer with scores of shows to her credit and the artistic director of the Babes With Blades theatre, Alden needs no help. Nor do any of the women who make up the fighting ensemble.�¯�¿�½

The second common negative reaction is dismissal. Directors are quick to disregard the female choreographer, claiming “I’ve never heard of you.” The subtext: “You’re just a girl; fighting is for men.” Kathyrnne Ann Rosen, ensemble member and veteran performer of four Babes shows, has often experienced another expression of this attitude.Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½

Rosen relates that men think, “She wants to fight? There must be something wrong with her. She must be a lesbian. She must have issues with her father.”Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½

Reactions vary among female performers and audience members. In some cases, women also view female combatants as an oddity, or believe men inherently fight better. In Alden’s experience, however, stage combat opens up new vistas for many women.Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½

Alden says, “I hear women saying, Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½That’s so cool. I didn’t know gals could do this stuff.'”

Though Alden is the producer and artistic director of the theatre, her production process is all about collaboration, right from the start. Unlike theatres that cast actors based on the decisions of a single director, auditionees for a Babes With Blades production are watched by a team of veteran Babes. Once auditions are finished, this core group then discusses each potential performer and reaches a corporate decision.
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The collaboration doesn’t stop there. Most shows that involve stage combat have a single choreographer that designs all the fighters’ moves, but the Babes believe each woman brings a unique body of knowledge to the ensemble. All performers–even first-time Babes–work together to design the choreography for the show. If a particular woman has had little or no choreographic experience, she pairs with a more veteran designer.Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½

By allowing performers to choreograph their own scenes, Alden believes her female fighters can demonstrate their personal skills to best effect. She is always on hand to observe the rehearsal process and help tighten or streamline a fight. Sam stresses that good choreography tells a story, and she will work with performers to clarify the dramatic elements of a conflict as well as its physical maneuvers. Alden chooses a particular theme for each production (the current show centers around music videos) and guides each scene within the vision of the show as a whole.�¯�¿�½

Stephanie Repin, who has performed in several Babes productions, remembers rehearsals where ensemble members take turns teaching each other fun and interesting maneuvers learned during their stage combat careers. These “best tricks” are then available for any choreographer to use in their scene-there is no sense of “stealing” another’s work.Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½

The rehearsal period is short and swift: six weeks from first meeting to opening night. Because time is short, potential Babes must begin with a background of stage combat training.�¯�¿�½

“If we had six months to rehearse, we would absolutely train performers,” Alden says, “But because we only have six weeks, we look for women with a base stage combat knowledge and as many different skills as possible.”Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½

As the ranks of Babes With Blades veterans have grown, the organization has developed a core ensemble of women with extensive choreographic and performance r�©sum�©s, allowing them to supplement their veterans with new performers with less training. The atmosphere remains give-and-take, however, as experienced fighters nurture newer combatants but benefit from their fresh ideas and new enthusiasm for the project. These new people will grow to be the next generation of core ensemble members, and in turn, pass on what they have learned.
Alden’s hope is that Babes With Blades will continue to raise awareness of the depth of stage combat talent possessed by female performers that had no opportunity for expression.Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½

“One of the major goals of the showcase–and the initial reason it was created,” Alden says, “was to say: look what these women can do! For crying out loud, why won’t you hire them?”

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