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The Sword Experience: My Day Spent As A Stunt Performer Crossing Swords With Adrian Paul

At the conclusion of The Sword Experience, students performed a fully choreographed scene around a fountain. Photo credit: The Sword Experience.

By: Marjorie Galas

Gazing upon Lorimar Vineyard’s 22 acres of grapevines, blooming rosebuds and industrious songbirds filling the dewy morning with melody, the location struck me as a perfect spot for romance writing. My visit to California’s Temecula Valley involved wielding something much sharper than a pen, however.  With an ensemble of twenty men and women suited in athletic gear and “Highlander” jackets, I was about to embark on Adrian Paul’s “The Sword Experience.”

The attendees of the inaugural The Sword Experience came from all walks of life: medical professionals, computer software engineers, housewives and professional actors.  Some had martial arts or stage combat training, others had no training at all.  Outside of my turn as a knife-wielding, motorcycle riding assassin in an action-less indie, I was a complete novice.

Acclaimed actor and sword master Adrian Paul (recognized for his work in action films and series including the hit franchise “Highlander”)  himself handed me my bokken; a full scale wooden sword matched in weight and length to my height.  It was heavier than I anticipated.  Adrian called the armed attendees to attention.  It was our duty to listen to his instructions carefully; not just for our education but for our protection.  We were about to engage in real, camera-ready battle training.  Safety was paramount in The Sword Experience, just as it is on any professional set.

With basic safety rules in place, we laid down our bokkens for a warm up.  Not only were we prepped for an afternoon of physical activity, Adrian focused on exercises geared towards total body balance and quick reflexes: two elements crucial to participation in a duel.

In between refreshment breaks, the group learned basic moves and postures.  Adrian observed each participant, correcting hand positions and stances until we were ready for the next phase.  Split into two groups, we received a choreography lesson that Adrian’s “Highlander” character – Duncan MacLeod – had used in a battle (as one fan later told me, in season three, episode five, “Right of Passage.”)   Starting on the receiving end, I memorized the words: block right, step back.  Block left, step back.  Back stab.  Head block.  It seemed comprehensible until we began moving.

I recalled the childhood joke about “patting your head and chewing gum at the same time.”  There is a true art to refining the performance of two contradictory movements.  Noticing my awkward footing, Adrian worked through the routine with me, patiently adjusting my hand placement and motions.   In between reviewing each individual’s progress, he shared his insight on the differences between martial arts, fencing, and sword fights created for film or television.

Just like the yin yang symbol The Sword Experience logo is inspired by, I’d found a balance between grace and force.  My sword floated through the air in perfect circles.  As I marveled at my progress, it was time for next challenging phase: working with partners.

I was paired with Robert, a horticultural supervisor who oversees the planting of over 1,000 shrubs daily. A previous martial arts trainee, the TV style was quite different for Robert, but he was mastering it.  We began our duel slowly, vocalizing all eleven steps of the choreography.  Feeling confident we sped up.  That’s when I forgot Adrian’s words:

“Always keep your eyes on the sword!”

Whap…a blow to the head!  Poor Robert was beside himself, but bumps and knocks aren’t unheard of in physical activity.  The highly attentive staff jumped to my aid.  Laughing it off, I assured them I was not only fine but ready to prove I was better than before!

Back on the courtyard, Robert and I developed a fluidity mastered by ballroom dancers.  We felt elated.  Our experience, however, was not complete.  The group moved to a mosaic fountain complete with terraced garden.  Adrian designed a three camera set up and our job as performers was to shift smoothly through our marks.  While our on camera marksmanship was shaky at best, everyone had a blast shifting form rehearsal mode to performance as Adrian called “Action!”

After four hours of training, Adrian thanked each participant, posed for photos and signed their bokkens.  The Sword Experience wrapped with lunch and a sampling of Lorimar’s wines.  Sipping a glass of their 2015 Sparkling Rose, I was curious to learn more about Adrian’s journey in creating “The Sword Experience,” a journey that arose from his connection to children and his longstanding charity The PEACE Fund.  Speaking over the refrains of jazz music and a steady stream of participants extending their appreciation for the experience, we discussed the early days and next steps.

MG: Thank you so much, Adrian, this really was an intense day but so fun!

AP:  Yes, it’s intense.   We did (a more basic version) last year for a few cities and I saw the response they were getting and I thought, well, let’s add to it and create a real experience and build around a theme.  For example, the one coming up in Chicago will be in a space that’s a loft area, so I am going to choreograph for that loft.  In each city I go to, I will be looking for partners (to work with) so we can give people a different experience each time, making each one really unique.

MG:  Having witnessed you today, you have so much patience you’re bringing to the event.  What inspired you in the first place to want to bring your skills to an audience that is generally untrained, that is a fan base?

AP: I put one on for a child we were raising money for with the PEACE Fund, and I realized how excited people were about it, and what it gave them.  With the advent of TV shows and films now, “Game of Thrones”, “Star Wars”, “Outlander,” there are so many that feature sword work.  It gives people an idea what it is like for actors in the movies (performing these stunts).  As you saw today, we had a variety of people, some that are skilled, some that are not, some are fans that just want to see what it’s like.  The idea is, when you are facing somebody you don’t know, you have to be clever enough to adjust to that person.  You understand what it takes to put these sequences on.

MG: Did it take a while to develop the course of your presentation and topics covered in The Sword Experience?

AP: Trial and error, I would say.  For example, as I did the ones last year, I realized I need a warm up and exercise.  You learn how to get the most across to people in that short amount of time.

MG:  In addition to The Sword Experience, I notice you are still busy acting and have taken on some producing and directing projects as well.  Is producing/directing something you are hoping to do more of?

AP:  Absolutely.  I actually have a slate of films that we are looking at the funding stages of right now.  I have another film I am supposed to be directing at the end of the year, and another one I’m looking to produce and co-star in.  Those are in addition to some other projects that will be released soon.  There is another project we are announcing in a few weeks.   But I’m not supposed to say anything about it yet. Before everyone would say “Oh I’m doing this!”  Now you can’t say anything…

MG: It’s a funny business sometimes.

AP:  Yes it is.  So, that is my business side.  The Sword Experience is my one weekend a month special activity.

MG:  What is it like to stand in front of people you know are such fans, that are participating because they are eager to not only get your training and teaching, but to have that element of being able to work with you?

AP: Well, I wouldn’t be here without them, so it is really simple.  I think embracing who they are only gives you much more credibility.  You are not somebody better, you just have a different skill set that they do.  That is the way I look at it.  If you are kind to people and you respect them, I think you will get that respect back ten times.

MG: How does it feel, as an instructor, seeing someone that knew nothing walk away even if it is just minor knowledge?

AP:  I think it is awesome!  As I said I want to give them an experience. I’m not there to say I’m better than other martial arts teachers or instructors or sword people.  I’m just there to share the knowledge that I’ve learned, and give you a space to have a great time doing it.  Whether that experience allows them to move on and do more or just gives them a memory – a memory on a day like this, is something people will hold for a long time.  They will think, “That was a really cool day I spent.”  Giving that to somebody is a real blessing for me.  That is why I didn’t call it a class, I called it an experience.

MG:  Do you have any aspirations for the future, of what you would like to see it grow into?

AP: Yes!  We have a two year plan.  This year is about growing it.  I’d also really like to take it to team building for companies.  When you do something like this, you have to be very much a team so there is perfect synergy there.  After that, I’d like to take it even further to a full vacation.  You will go on a spot for several days, have the sword training, go to Mayan ruins or swim with dolphins, have yoga and massages; a complete package.  That is what I would like it to evolve into.

To learn more about The Sword Experience and find upcoming dates, please visit: http://www.theswordexperience.com/#home