I was once told, as a compliment I believe, that the reason I was good at my job of combining combative behavior with performance, was because I "looked like a woman yet thought like a man." My first response was, "Which one?" The comment did, upon reflection, propel me to explore the differences in gender expectations within the combative arts.
"The Intersection Between Combative and Theatrical Arts: A View"
What I found was a general attitude with women in combative performance was that standards were low, as were expectations. Provided that the woman's appearance compelled, her ability to fight and to portray the attributes of warriorship were irrelevant. When you see a bear dance, you don't evaluate how well the bear dances; it's so amazing that the bear dances at all.
My path began with an interest in the transformative potential for women in the combative and theatrical arts. My dissertation focused on Joan of Arc, and I am still fascinated by the woman and the performance potential of this young woman. Bernard Shaw said in 1934, "It is quite likely that sixty years hence, every great English and American actress will have a shot at 'St. Joan,' just as every great actor will have a shot at 'Hamlet.' And, true enough, the list of great actresses who have played Joan and written about the transcendent nature of that experience include Lynn Redgrave, Jane Alexander, Judi Dench, and Uta Hagen, to give a much abridged list. Their writings support both the quality of the role and the nature of personal transformation that occur when women are allowed to explore the intersections of combative nature with performance.
Male and female approaches to the warrior archetype differ significantly, and this difference must be acknowledged through the performance process. The warrior concept is a part of male consciousness at a very young age, while females tend to investigate warriorship later in life, generally following a great sorrow or grief, and then move toward a decision on whether or not to embrace this role. Because of this process, women warriors tend to greater complexity and ambiguity in their view of themselves and their world.
I myself traveled this road. While I had studied the theories of warriorship and warrior cultures, martial arts, combat, and performance, did not myself choose the role of warrior until after a bout with breast cancer, a truly Amazon disease. Somehow, the process of anger, grief, and sacrifice led me to an inner transformation into the archetype that had only been intellectual to me during my investigative period.
I believe in a quality of female warriorship which is not becoming a better model of male. Rather than out-macho the guys, true Amazons strive to combine women's ways of being and living with the qualities of warriorship, which are not gender- based. This new hybrid is vitally needed within our society and needs to be reflected within our performing arts. Perhaps it is not so much that this bear fights, but rather why this bear chooses to fight. And fight well.
For it is not the fight itself which is the purpose here. It is the function of the fight within the larger point of the storytelling. When the performance becomes about the fight for its own sake, the combative tool is misused. Certainly, within our own society, combative behavior can devolve into a fight-for-fights sake, and both men and women lose their way by losing sight of the overall mission and its purpose. As artists, we must fight our own battle to prevent this devolution within our performances.
And, ultimately, it is not "thinking like a man" or "a woman" that speaks our truth to our audience. It is finding the language of humanity, and showing the diversity that defines us. For it is our unity in diversity that colors both combative arts and theatrical arts, and exemplifies the very nature of their intersection.
Dr. Rupkalvis looks to combine her knowledge of perceived violence and its effect on modern audiences with the historical wealth of warrior cultures and individual warrior experiences. Her studies have led her to discover the warrior role in Native American, Japanese, Tibetan, and European traditions, as well as in modern America. Her writings have been published in journals such as The Fight Master and Coalition Works. Currently a technical advisor associated with Warriors, Inc. and Stunt Grunts, Inc. along with her own company, Axe of Courage, Dr. Rupkalvis has worked on such projects as the films Starship Troopers, Bad City Blues and Wag the Dog, the television mini-series Rough Riders, and live performances such as Star Trek: The Experience which recently opened in Las Vegas. Her roots in live theatre include her long association with the Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia, the Ring of Steel in Chicago, and many Renaissance Festivals and other historical theatre events. She is active in the Society of American Fight Directors (currently Treasurer), the Los Angeles Fight Academy, and works for the National Women's Martial Arts Federation.
This spring, Dr. Rupkalvis will be traveling to China to study that
culture's impact on the combative and theatrical arts. Meeting and
training with professionals in traditional and modern theatre and
film, along with fight choreographers and martial artists, Julia hopes
this experience will inform her own work and broaden her approach
to training, choreography, and performance.