Carrie Brewer is a beautiful young woman with a mane of wavy red hair. As if this wasn’t enough to break a few hearts and pass a few auditions, Brewer has a tireless energy that comes from having a mission: to bring more opportunities to women in theatrical combat roles. Brewer has pursued stage combat training since college, and is a member of the Society of American Fight Directors. Frustration with a lack of women’s roles led Brewer to found the Lady Cavaliers, a women’s action-theatre company based in New York City where she is Artistic Director. Brewer and her company are creating more action roles for women by developing new material and performing it themselves. Their first successful venture, an off-off Broadway production entitled Gloria, premiered in October 2000. Timeout New York exclaimed: “Sexy women, deadly swords, verbal pyrotechnics – how is it possible no one thought of this before?”
I first saw the Lady Cavaliers as a part of the Fringe Festival, an offering of short, strange performances downtown. Their presentation took place outdoors on the plaza of the Henry Street Settlement building, and included sword fights, quarterstave fights and a small woman wielding a 12-foot bullwhip.
This interview, originally
taped in March of 2001, caught Brewer in the midst of a flurry of activity,
a pace she has maintained, fired by a sense of loving every minute of it.
Deborah Klens-Bigman: Okay, the first thing I’d like to ask you is if you could tell me a little bit about your background in the theatre and in stage combat.
Carrie Brewer: Let’s see, okay…
DKB: …keeping in mind that we only have half an hour.
CB: Sure, I will be brief. I’m only 26 years old so this is not
going to be very long. I went to school at the University of Connecticut,
studied acting and graduated in 1996. Since then I was sort of just
hopping around doing regional theatre, Shakespeare festivals, things like
that. I started with stage combat when I was at the University.
I took my first class with Robert Walsh and then eventually did a production
of The Three Musketeers, where I played Lady DeWinter. Allan Sutit was
one of the fight masters and an excellent, excellent teacher. He
was the fight director. He also taught kind of a seminar as well
as doing just the choreography for the show.
That’s when I started to really realize that this was excellent. I could do this and people were saying “Oh right, there’s natural ability going on.” He gave me these really cool throwing knives and we had lots of fun.
I graduated from college, and the next time I picked up a sword again was on the Disney Cruise line, strangely enough. We did a big show called Voyage of the Ghost Ship. There was this massive battle between the pirates and the sailors. The sailors were the boys, of course, and the girls were the pirates. We had masks and hats and gloves and boots, head to toe - we were ghost pirates. It was this huge five-minute long battle scene. But, because we were the first cast on the ship and the show was delayed in opening for about six months, it ended up being a year contract. Rick Sorvelei, who was the fight director, is also the fight director for almost all Broadway shows. He and I just studied for a year, because we were kind of killing time for awhile. Then he named me his fight captain. So on all the days that rehearsal was just twiddling our thumbs, we would go into another room and he taught me everything. That’s when I really fell in love with fight choreography. After that he asked me to be his assistant at Yale. It’s just been snowballing since then.
DKB: Tell me a little bit about beginnings of the Lady Cavaliers.
CB: Okay. I got to New York and my first class was a small sword class, and I noticed that there was about 70% women in the class. It was only really 12 people or something like that but I think eight or nine of them were women. And then you know, there’s a little fight world here in New York; it’s a little society almost, and a lot of them are women. All the men used to talk about “I’m going off to do this show” or “I’m going to the New Jersey opera and I’m going to do a battle scene in this,” but for the women, all there was to do was to take classes. And I started wondering why nobody has done anything about it, because I was sitting here and after a year I was getting frustrated already, thinking “I can do this, I can fight a lot better than a lot of these men I’m fighting, and yet they’re doing shows.”
So, it took me a little while, because I was new in this world. Nobody knew who the heck I was, so for me to stand up and say “I’m starting this company,” their response was, “Who are you?” So it took me a little while to sort of build up the right props and everything, and once I did, I just thought, “This is ridiculous. We’ve got to do something about this.” I got together with a friend of mine, Alexandra Ornitz, who directed the first show, “Gloria,” and some of my other fight friends, my girlfriends from the classes, and just started talking about it. Everybody was really into it, saying “I’ll do it, I’ll do it.” Then we sat down with a couple of bottles of wine for several evenings and brainstormed, you know and just thought all right, are we going to do Shakespeare shows? Are we going to just play the men and fight in the male scenes or are we going to make up our own? We just went through all the permutations. Most of them were relatively uneventful. My husband, Peter Hilton, actually is a playwright, so after about a month of trying to decide what we could do and trying to figure out what was going to be innovative, he said “I’ll write a play for you.” And that’s how it started!
DKB: That’s nice!
CB: Yeah, I know, I was really lucky. So then we had auditions, and about six months later, we had Gloria.
DKB: So Gloria was your first production and the group got started around last year (2000) or a little before...
CB: Yeah, it was around March of last year; it was just about this time last year.
DKB: That was fast, actually.
CB: Yeah, it was really fast. Actually the first thing that we did was the Fringe Festival. We used some of the fights we were working on for Gloria but they weren’t ready yet, so we took the pieces that we had and made up a silly little script that kind of linked them together and that was about a 15 - 20 minute show. That was in August - and then we did Gloria in October. But the Fringe Festival was really important for us, because it was the first time that we were out there, the first time the world had seen us or heard of us so, you know, it was good.
DKB: This is one of those academic kind of questions. I watch television like everybody else, and I keep seeing more and more action programs. There’s one that features a woman with a sword who wears like a lace mask…
CB: Queen of Swords.
DKB: Right, Queen of Swords! I haven’t been able to bring myself to watch an entire episode, actually (laugh)…
CB: …Neither have I (laugh)
DKB: Has the increase in female action heroines on TV helped women in stage combat yet? I mean, has there been any trickle-down effect?
CB: It’s what we’re plugging. It helps us tremendously. It started with Xena, you know, and she turned everybody’s heads because they’d never seen it before and it was excellent. Since then I’d have to say that with Queen of Swords, from what I’ve heard and the snippets that I’ve seen, she’s an actor and she’s learning how to fight. They cut the fight scenes so many times, all you see is a face and then a sword and then, you know, she doesn’t really fight.
DKB: Right, you see the face, the sword, then the effect of whatever technique.
CB: It’s just like cut, cut, cut, as opposed to pulling out to let us see her actually do her thing, so I don’t know that she does, quite frankly, and that’s a little annoying. But, even though it’s a little bit cutty, anyway it does help us; it definitely does, because it excites everybody. But the Lady Cavaliers is not something that is so new that people when they see it, think “What the hell is this? I’ve never seen this before; this is weird.” They’ve been tempered before that with seeing it on TV. Then seeing it live makes it only more exciting, because everybody has a little bit of a judgment against TV, because they can do tricks. Seeing it live I think is just … it proves to people that it can be done. You know, the more TV shows that are out there, I just hope that they start to use actual fighters, you know, rather than trying to make them look like fighters. I mean did you know that Buffy, of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, she’s a black belt in karate?
DKB: I did know that actually…
CB: …and that’s great!
DKB: You can see it in the fight sequences. They show her actually doing stuff...
CB: …which is great. I wish that there were more people like that. All the film stuff too, film is following massively. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is up for Best Picture. You’ve seen it, I’m sure.
DKB: Yes, I’ve seen it.
CB: I thought it was fantastic, and it helps my cause so much. I just think that seeing it live only makes it better.
DKB: This is a pet question, because I’m working on this myself. How do you see the relationship between stage combat and martial arts? Do you see any intersection between them?
CB: Definitely, oh definitely. It’s not something that I’ve had all that much experience with. I’m now taking a night class with Michael Chen. I’m taking some Shaolin with him - that’s the kind of style we’re working on with the knife right now, which is excellent. He’s got me wanting to take Kung Fu (laugh). He and I have had a talk about it. He says, “I think this is the style for you,” but it’s all over the place, all of the kicks and everything, but it has a love for history and the tradition and...It’s fascinating, and it’s where it all came from. Stage combat all comes from martial arts. I mean, I think that they’re definitely linked in so many ways. I’m sorry I’m not being very articulate…
DKB: That’s okay. We’ll clean it up in the editing process.
CB: Okay. (laughs)
DKB: So you had the production of Gloria, which was pretty successful was it not? The reviews you sent me were pretty favorable reviews.
CB: Yes, the press was great!
DKB: I know you had some backers’ auditions recently. What do you see as the next step for Lady Cavaliers?
CB: Well, there’s a couple things that we’re working on right now. There’s a show that Judi Lewis and I - Judi was in the first production as well, she is now signed on as resident artist tour company member. She and I are putting together a pirate show based on Anne Bonny and Mary Read that we’re going to be doing this summer. We’re going to set it up as a “two hander,” - a two-woman show - that we can take anywhere, a little traveling trunk show almost, so that we have that in our back pockets that we can pull out. We’re also working on a show called “The History of Women in Dueling,” based actually a lot on what David E. Jones’ book Women Warriors. The book is great - he’s got some great fodder for this show.
Carrie Brewer and Judi Lewis
DKB: There’s some really good stuff in there. You should look through his bibliography, too.
CB: Oh, I have, definitely. There’s also a book called The Jewel
by Robert Baldric. He’s got an entire chapter on women dueling.
So that’s another little show we’re keeping around. With Gloria,
several people have the script from the backers’ audition, a couple of
really big production companies, which would be great. So, I’m looking
to move it up to the next contract.
I want to do it Off-Broadway. The feedback that we got from the backers’ audition was excellent. There was a guy from Cameron McIntosh and he said “I can see this Off-Broadway…let me have the script,” and so it’s kind of in the waiting process right now.
We’re still writing and we’re still keeping it going, but it could take awhile.
A lady cavalier
DKB: Do you have a favorite weapon or a favorite style?
CB: Yeah, swashbuckling is my big thing, just single rapier, good ol’ pirate stuff, Errol Flynn stuff. It’s just so much fun.
DKB: Oh it is fun, yeah.
CB: It’s the weapon that I feel most comfortable with - rapier and dagger is actually - because there’s so much going on, you know, it keeps your left hand as active as your right hand and that is really important to me. Otherwise, your other hand is just hanging out for a little while. I’m really into the whole pirate thing, that’s my favorite time in history, you know. I think it’s brilliant.
DKB: This is another question I have to ask, just from a personal interest. Tell me about the bullwhip lady.
CB: The bullwhip lady! (laugh) Alexandra Ornitz is her name.
She… I think she did, I don’t know what she was in a past life, but she
could crack a whip, like, the minute she picked it up.
It’s astounding. She learned probably about two months before the show, before you saw her at the Fringe Festival and, she just, it was just a natural ability with her. She and the fight director, David Hastings, would go in the park and she would just crack. She learned all sorts of different cracks and she then got her own whips, and she’s just great at it. I wish there was more to tell, other than she just had it in her. She picked it up and she knew how to do it. I’ve tried and I can crack it once every five times, but she’s just really good at it.
DKB: That’s interesting, because, certainly when I was at the Fringe Festival in August, that was the thing that really woke people up, you know, who were kind of sitting around that open area.
DKB: It was the sound of the crack in the air. People walking by on the sidewalk suddenly thought “Whoa, what’s that?” you know, and there’s this little person with this long, long bullwhip. That was pretty incredible. Very cool.
CB: It’s very cool, it’s very cool. I think she’s still doing it. I just saw her the other day actually, she’s in the knife class with me and she’s working on some sort of Old West production. I’m sure she’s going to use her whip in there somewhere.
DKB: That makes sense, yeah.
DKB: Is there anything else you’d like to bring up?
CB: I’m really into the research on the women warriors. There have been so many.
DKB: Oh there’s lots of them.
CB: All of these women who have been leading armies into battle - women were at the helm of it, you know. It’s just a whole ocean of things that I can’t wait to dive into. And I’m struggling right now with whether or not it’s something the rest of the world is going to be interested in or just those of us that it lights our fire, you know what I mean. I would love to do a show about the history of women in dueling but it’s really only a couple of centuries - 17th through 19th centuries - that it was prominent. I’d love to do the history of women in combat, just women in warfare, because they’re these queens that have just been left out. That’s sad to me. I think we learn about all these men who haven’t been very good in their lives glorified in history books. There’s a lot of women out there that have just been neglected. I would love to teach people about that, but I don’t want to be preachy, you know, I just want to have fun. The reason that I do this is because I get a big kick out of it. I know a lot of other women do too. It’s fun and it’s theatrical, and I think that it is so enticing to just about everybody. When we did Gloria there were two or three ten year old girls that were brought by there by families. Afterwards they were running around going “Yaah, yaah!” with their little fake swords. That’s great, ‘cause the little girls love it. I can see Gloria being an action figure one day, you know.
DKB: Why not?
CB: Just like Xena. She’s a heroine. Obviously men like it because they think it’s sexy, for whatever reason, and that’s great. If you like it, fabulous. Women like it because it’s empowering. I think it kind of spans across the boards, it’s entertaining and theatrical, but to me it’s even more than that. To me, it’s really about the history and the condition we’re in now. I’ll tell some older men, just in conversation or going to a dinner party or whatever about doing stage combat, and I very often get the response of somebody raising and eyebrow and saying “Right, okay, women fighting? Hmm. Can you really use a little sword?”
DKB: I remember dating men from time to time, and I would say “Well I do martial arts,” and this look would come over their face and they would say “Really?” and I’d say “Yes,” and they would say “Well, what kind do you do?” and I’d say “ Japanese sword.” It would be my last date, you know. (laugh)
CB: Yeah, really.
DKB: Well, I didn’t want to go out with them again anyway if they were going to be like that.
CB: Exactly! I mean, either they are intimidated, or they don’t believe you. I was walking around with my staffs the other day, -- I bought these lovely rattan staffs -- and I was in the subway and some guy said to me “Oh that’s a big stick for a little girl.” I just looked at him and nodded and went on my way and he said “What do you use that for?” We were standing on the subway platform together so I couldn’t really not talk to him, so I said “Martial arts,” and he said “Oh. Not really martial arts, right?” and I said “No, really martial arts! And I’ll kick your ass right now if you keep talking to me like this!” I get so mad because people don’t think that we can do it. And so there’s a drive behind the Lady Cavaliers that is based in the history and the tradition of women fighting; just the fact that there’s a part of me that wants to prove to the world that women can fight just as well as men. If I can do it through theatre, great. I’ll do it that way, and it will be entertaining at the same time, fantastic.
DKB: Sounds all right to me.
CB: I know.
DKB: Can you explain a little bit about the training for stage combat, do you actually learn the phrases that make up a particular fight scene or do you just train in the technique first and then learn the choreography as it’s created for a particular show?
CB: We train in technique first. If we were to take a basic rapier and dagger course or broadsword or whatever, you’d learn, standing in front of a mirror first, how to place the weapon. You know, this is what’s called position “one.” This is where your hand goes and what part of the body it’s supposed to be protecting. Then you go through all the different parries and cuts and learn how it’s all placed. Then you go through a series of drills with a partner, then you do a scene walking and then you do it standing. So you definitely do basics first, but most of the practical applications come up when it comes to the fight. So, midway, or even earlier than that through a course, you start to work on choreography. You’ll learn a five-move phrase and you’ll perfect it for two classes, and then you move on so that in the end you have a fight that has three different phrases that are all quite long. So through all of that you learn how to do all the stuff that is incorporated. For example if you take a single rapier course, you’re going to need to use some of the techniques that you learned in the unarmed course, ‘cause that’s where it’s all based. I mean, you have to know the physical distance away from somebody. For example if you “pommel” somebody - take the pommel of the rapier and smash somebody’s head in - you’re going to need to know how to do that. That’s the kind of technique you would have learned in unarmed combat first. So it’s all very technique based at first, then the choreography comes quite soon. That’s where, that’s how you have to put it all into practice.
DKB: I’ve done some work on kabuki tachimawari, and they actually teach the fight choreography for the scene as the technique, so people are actually doing both at the same time. That’s one of the reasons why some of the fight choreography is so very old; because it was passed literally from body to body. I’m going to do some work on it when I go to Japan, later this Spring.
DKB: I also want to visit some martial arts dojo who practice the same style, to see how similar or different their learning is. What I’ve found so far, actually is similarities even over space and distance. People who don’t know each other but do the same art form can actually do it together.
DKB: That’s how similar the teaching has been from the source coming down.
CB: Right, that’s very important. Actually a lot of the rapier and dagger stuff, if you go into the old fencing manuals of 17th century, the number system that the Society of American Fight Directors uses is based on that number system. You can go into any of these really old books and you’ll see them doing a parry in “tierz”, which is “three,” so it’s the same thing, which is really excellent. Anybody who has studied these fencing manuals can pick up and say “parry in three” and everybody will know where that is. A lot of my teachers actually use the good old Italian words. What the SAFD is trying to do is to make it a common language that everybody, all over the world can use. Obviously there are different schools; Canada, England, etc., but the SAFD is based on the 17th century number system, and they want to make it universal.
DKB: Ok, well that’s basically it, I think. Thank you very much.
CB: Thank you!
The “two-hander,” which turned out to be the swashbuckling play Bold in ‘er Breeches, enjoyed a successful run at New York City’s South Street Seaport (on the deck of the ship Peking) in the summer of 2001. Later, members of the group filmed A Double-Edged Sword, a story adapted from a true account of a pair of women duelists. The next step for the group is a symposium on women in stage combat which will be held in New York City in October 2002. For further information on the activities of the Lady Cavaliers, visit their website at www.ladycavaliers.com. All photos are courtesy of the Lady Cavaliers.
Copyright 2002 Deborah Klens-Bigman