21, No. 19, May 2, 2002
sword play's the thing
Mitchell, News Bureau Staff Writer
(217) 333-5491; email@example.com
by Bill Wiegand
Mary Foran (right) delivers a well-directed hit to Philip
Herrington during their stage combat class. They were practicing
under the watchful eye of Robin McFarquhar in the outdoor
amphitheater at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts.
If Robin McFarquhar
were to chart his life on a timeline, "The Three Musketeers"
would make a dramatic appearance
not once, not twice, but thrice.
"If you believe in synchronicity, curiously enough, the only film
I recall watching during my undergraduate days [at the Loughborough
University of Technology in London] was The Three Musketeers,
" said the Illinois theater professor who has spent the past two
decades schooling actors in the fine art of swash-buckling, sword play
and all manner of stage combat.
"I still remember the opening sequence, and exactly where I was
sitting in the theater, in the balcony," McFarquhar said. And oddly
enough, several years later when he was at something of a career crossroads,
McFarquhar found himself in the balcony of another theater, in Louisville,
Ky., where he was watching another performance of "The Three Musketeers."
This time, it was a stage production, in which McFarquhars girlfriend
McFarquhar was employed at the time by the UI theater department. He
had come to Illinois from London, where he was born and raised, to study
sports psychology in the kinesiology department, and was working on
a doctorate in movement psychology. But David Knight, then head of the
theater department, threw McFarquhar a curve ball when he offered him
a full-time position teaching movement classes. The would-be kinesiologist
waffled, unsure of which career path to continue along.
"It was a difficult decision, because I knew if I said yes, I would
never work in kinesiology," McFarquhar said. "But then I had
one of those synchronistic moments again. I remember sitting in the
balcony in that theater in Louisville saying, I want to do this!
And so he did. In 1990, McFarquhar found himself in another theater,
watching yet another production featuring the escapades of DArtagnan
and company. But this time the actors in a UI theater department
production at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts were
performing moves that McFarquhar had choreographed.
by Bill Wiegand
theater professor Robin McFarquhar is one of only three
or four dozen people nationwide certified as a teacher and
fight director by the Society of American Fight Directors.
"It was wonderful
because I had all these actors around me who I knew could fight,"
he said. "It was fun, but incredibly challenging."
And McFarquhar is always up for a good challenge. Among the toughest,
he said, are situations in which one of the actors has a good sense
of movement, but his or her foil does not. With such a mismatch, even
the best fight choreographers plans for the scene can fizzle,
and sometimes have to be scratched altogether.
"Often the best stage fighters, if they have dance or basketball
training, have some sort of awareness of their bodies," he said.
Those individuals, naturally, are a pleasure to work with. Still, McFarquhar
derives satisfaction from the shaping and molding process required when
working with less physically inclined actors.
"I like to watch the development of students over the years,"
he said. "Even if someone comes in with very little physical acting
background, I can give them a lot of skills by the time they leave.
Thats the joy of what I do."
And while what he does involves a mix of fun and games, laced with loads
of illusion, McFarquhar is well aware that its still serious business.
Thats because the swords, rapiers, daggers, knives, guns and other
weapons used on stage are the genuine article, not plastic imitations.
"In all the work Ive done, Ive never had a serious
accident," he said, quick to add that bruises, scratches and strained
muscles dont count. "That almost goes with the territory.
My job is to make it all as safe as I possibly can so no serious accidents
occur. I want to make actors look out of control in a way that theyre
in control of their out-of-controlledness."
Since 1983, McFarquhar has directed the movements of nearly every student
whos been through the UIs professional acting program. Undergraduates
and grad students alike are required to take a year of course work in
movement and stage combat with McFarquhar. Theyre also required
to take courses he teaches in circus arts, acrobatics and masks. At
the end of their training in stage movement and combat which
includes all manner of physical stage violence students are tested
by an outside adjudicator from the Society of American Fight Directors.
Those who pass muster receive stage-combat certification, a resume credential
that ultimately enhances their chances of landing professional roles
down the road.
McFarquhar himself is one of only three or four dozen people nationwide
certified as a teacher and fight director by the society. And by all
accounts, hes among the best in the business.
"Hes the best there is, and very creative," said Joe
Foust, a Chicago-based actor and fight choreographer who studied with
McFarquhar at the university. "There isnt anyone who can
touch him especially when it comes to court-sword fighting. He
excels in that," said Foust, who described a court sword as "an
incredibly intricate sword that looks like a long needle," and
requires actors to make stealthy, cat-like moves.
The Illinois alumnus added that he is awe-inspired by his former teachers
overabundance of energy and ability to focus on multiple projects simultaneously.
by Bill Wiegand
what you teach In
addition to teaching at Illinois, Robin McFarquhar (left)
frequently serves as fight choreographer for productions
staged at some of the top theatrical venues in Chicago.
"And he has
that Dick Clark wonder-youth syrup. What is he, 68 now?" Foust
quipped. Getting serious again, Foust said, "Robin has so much
to offer. I couldve studied with him for 12 years and still kept
learning. Hes amazing. Hes working constantly, but hes
always willing to put in extra time with his students. Hes even
acted in student shows."
In addition to teaching at Illinois, McFarquhar frequently serves as
fight choreographer for productions staged at some of the top theatrical
venues in Chicago the Steppenwolf, Goodman, Court and Chicago
Shakespeare theaters among them. His credits include the American premieres
of "A Clockwork Orange" and "The Libertine," starring
John Malkovich, at the Steppenwolf, as well as that theaters Tony
Award-winning production of "One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest,"
starring Gary Sinise. He also has directed fight choreography at Shakespeare
festivals in Idaho, Illinois, Utah and Virginia. Among his professional
credits, he counts more than 75 Shakespeare productions, including 10
runs of "Romeo and Juliet."
Most recently, McFarquhar worked with cast members of "The Royal
Family," which opened April 18 at the Steppenwolf. Actor David
New, who engages in a round of playful dueling in that play, praised
McFarquhar as "one of the best Ive ever worked with."
"The extraordinary thing about Robin is his humility as a creative
artist in the presence of the text," New said. "Most fight
choreographers tend to be creative and inventive, but they are not always
in tone with the story. Robin has this incredible sense of what is right
in terms of the fighting onstage. Hes a great collaborator as
well," said New, explaining that McFarquhar welcomes input from
Some of the actors McFarquhar works with in Chicago are former students.
"One of the great pleasures of what I do is that I can help students
get work," he said, "but sometimes students have helped me,"
McFarquhar said. In fact, his first big break in Chicago resulted when
a former student recommended him for a job.
"One of the things thats unique about theater is that its
very much a business of networking, especially in Chicago. People like
to work with people they know, so the thing is not to offend anyone."
By this point in his career, McFarquhar hardly needs to worry about
"The fight directors in Chicago all know each other," he said.
And up there, the running joke repeated in a tone that drips
with good-natured sneering McFarquhar said, is "Robin gets
all the big shows, and his students get most of the others."
There appears to be a good bit of truth to that statement. "I havent
sent out a resume in a while," McFarquhar said. People call me."
Calling next is the Utah Shakespearean Festival, where he heads this
summer to work alongside Kathleen Conlin, dean of the UI College of
Fine and Applied, who has worked as a resident director and casting
director at the festival for several seasons. Joining them will be UI
theater professors Henson Keyes, Leslie Brott and Bob Anderson, along
with a handful of current students and alumni.
This seasons rotation includes "Othello," "Twelfth
Night," "Cymbeline," "As You Like It" and "I
"Its a great festival," said McFarquhar, who must have
been more than a little relieved to learn that "Romeo and Juliet"
is not among the plays on the bill this year.