About time we had something a bit different around here, I figure. Couple of weeks ago, someone got in touch with me via Facebook (the Winterbirth fan page, to be precise), and I thought the story they had to tell was so interesting that … well, here it comes. Meet Richard Alvarez, a real live knight in shining armour. Some of you, it turns out, know exactly what he looks like already. He’ll introduce himself, and then I’ll pitch him a few questions. Hope at least some folks find this as interesting as I did!
(Note, the photos appearing are, in order of appearance, by and copyright Cat Connor, Ron Koberer and Linda Alvarez. No use without permission, please).
RA: I’ve always been fascinated by the renaissance and medieval eras. In college I studied fencing, and went on to pursue teaching as a Classical Fencing Master. Simultaneously, I’ve pursued my interests in media production, theatre and film. This parallel track led me to performing at the first Renaissance Festival I ever attended in Houston Texas, back in the early seventies. A friend and I formed a Dueling Team we called “Triomphe”.
We performed as “Triomphe” for eleven years at the Texas Renaissance Festival. In the early eighties, I met four young men who had been hired to perform the joust. A few years later, they invited me to joust with them at a show in Chicago that summer. ‘I can’t ride,’ I told them. ‘That’s okay, we’ll teach you.’ So in the summer of 1984 I started my career as a professional jouster. A few years later, I was asked to take over the managing duties of the company, and I formed “International Action Theatre”. We had three companies of men, with four to six horses each – touring the country all year long. In addition to renaissance festivals, we did Wild West shows and stunt work for films and theme parks.
In 1994, I officially retired from the renaissance festival circuit. I have focused on my filmmaking and screenwriting endeavors for the most part since then, though I did manage to merge my two interests in 2005, when I produced my award winning documentary American Jouster.
A few weeks ago, I was sitting at home when I got a text from a friend. It was a jpg, and I couldn’t quite make out the image. I handed my phone to my son, and he squinted at it saying, ‘It looks like YOU! Yeah, I think it is you, on a poster or maybe a book cover … Fall of Thrones? No, the Fall of THANES?’
I downloaded a larger image from your website, and couldn’t for the life of me remember where the photo came from. I know I didn’t pose specifically FOR the cover, so the photo had to be an old one. I began to scour my hard drives, trying to match the shot on the cover with something I might have on hand.
Bingo! In 2005, I responded to a call from a student filmmaker, John Joynert, who was working on his senior thesis film. It was called Pro Meus Rex – and the story centered on two live chess pieces who meet in a fantasy forest setting to battle it out. I played The Black Knight and another actor played The White Pawn. During that shoot, unit photographer Ron Koeberer took a number of still photos (Ron does amazing work, and you can view some of his shots at www.koberfoto.com). It turns out that Ron had listed a few shots from Pro Meus Rex with stock photo companies online. Apparently whoever did the layout for the cover of Fall of Thanes licensed the image through one of the stock agencies.
And that is how I wound up on the cover of Fall of Thanes.
BR: Given that you started out as a classically trained fencer, to an outsider like me it looks like a pretty radical shift in weaponry and fighting style when you get into the medieval end of things: possibly in my ignorance, I imagine much less finesse and much more brute force being involved. To what extent are skills or instincts or techniques transferable between the fencing and the medieval side of things?
RA: “Mixed Martial Arts” is a very popular form of sport entertainment right now. You see fighters combining different skill sets from different martial arts training against competitors with other skill sets. This is possible, primarily because the main component is the same for all martial arts – The Human Body.
In terms of using a blade – the target is the same regardless of era – the weapon has a point and/or edge. The human body moves the same regardless of era. What changes are the tactical applications of point and edge – especially in response to terrain and armor. So it really was just a matter of understanding what the weapon was designed for, and what the target area was supposed to be. Probably the most difficult of the medieval weapons to master (for me personally) was the flail – damned unpredictable rebound. And of course, getting used to wearing armor and the limited visibility of a helm.
BR: I’m fascinated by the practicalities of this whole business. The horses in the jousts, for instance. How much specialised training is needed to get a horse to do what you need it to do? Can any horse be suitable, or only those with particular physical or mental attributes?
RA: We have always selected horses primarily for their temperment. They have to be sound of course, and capable of supporting the armored rider. (Rule of thumb – a sound working horse can carry/work with one third of it’s own body weight … this is a ‘rule of thumb’ – not a hard and fast law). Breed was not as important as temperment. We ‘auditioned’ horses by asking them to do a specific set of drills. Such things as passing another horse, riding with flags, riding close to/at a man on the ground. The horse didn’t have to perform well, it just had to show an aptitiude to be trainable. We didn’t always have the luxury of time in training horses.
BR: There must be risks involved, no matter how skilled and practised someone is. Have you ever been injured yourself or – and I suspect this might be even more alarming – inadvertently injured someone else?
RA: Bumps and bruises happen every time you fall off a horse, and we did scheduled falls in every show – so sure, people got bumps, bruises, scrapes and the occasional dislocation or break. In stage combat – you can generally expect to get the odd scraped knuckle and bruise from your partner – but you really do train hard for safety’s sake.
I’ve probably given my share of knicked fingers, and clipped hands – but I don’t keep track of those any more than I keep track of the ones I’ve recieved. It’s part of the game. My own worst personal injury came fom a ‘knee to knee’ collision in a cantering pass with another rider. We were NOT armored – this is the same sort of injury one typically gets in playing polo.
BR: I know you played a specific character during your jousting career – Sir Richard, Early of Greyhame. Is this name just an identifying badge, or did you have personalities (good guys and bad guys!), plots and backstories developed for the characters you all played? I guess I’m interested in how much of this is theatre – complete with fictional narrative – and how much is demonstration, stunt show, sport etc.
RA: The character I portrayed “Sir Richard – The Earl of Greyhame” was usually a bad guy. Tall dark and bearded – yeah, I looked the part. And lets face it, it’s more fun to be the bad guy! Our shows were carefully choreographed, and scripted. There was always room to ad-lib lines with the court and each other, but we all knew where we were going, and what was supposed to happen on the field.
In the jousting business you will sometimes hear the distinction made that a particular company does ‘Theatrical Jousting’ while another company does ‘Sport Jousting’. What this usually comes down to is whether or not the hits delivered during the joust passes are choreographed or spontaneous.
In a theatrical joust the hits are planned, usually a specific number of hits, with a ‘dismount’ at the end. This is a running, full speed fall. The fall is followed with horse to ground combat – and another dismount – followed by ground combat and possibly a bloody ‘kill’. (Depending on the philosophy of the company and/or the faire regarding kills and blood).
In a ‘full contact’ or ‘sport joust’ show the jousters are trying to unhorse each other. Again, there is usually a prescribed number of passes. They may or may not succeed in unhorsing their opponent. They may hit, or miss. There may or may not be a fall. After which, they will usually give a demonstration of combat that may or may not be choreographed.
Understand, the EXACT SAME SKILLS are needed in either version of the show. You MUST be able to controll your lance to hit a target, and control your horse. You must have an excellent seat to maintain or deliver a hit. THE HORSES DON’T KNOW if the combat is real, or ‘choreographed’. They are being asked to perform the same tasks either way.
BR: Given your professional involvement in film and media, have you got any particular favourite movies set in the medieval or renaissance eras, either in terms of entertainment value or the vividness or accuracy with which they capture those eras? How about books, fiction or non-fiction?
RA: My favorite fight choreographer has got to be William Hobbs. (A Brit as it happens). His best films in no particular order – Robin and Marion – the end fight between Sean Connery and Robert Shaw as the aging Robin and Sherriff is a classic (One of my all time favorite films too). The Three and Four Musketeers – Dick Lester’s version – shot as one film but released as two, starring Michael York as D’Artagnan and Oliver Reed as Athos. Still some of the best rapier work on film. The Duellists – Ridley Scott’s first feature film – and the film that turned me into a Napoleonic Era buff. Excellent smaill sword and sabre work – and the best film ever for capturing the gut-wrenching terror of personal conflict. All these films are William Hobbs work. (He also did Zefferelli’s Romeo and Juliet and the latest Count of Monte Christo and Man in the Iron Mask – so yeah, if his name’s on it, I’ll watch it).
Best written description of the mindset and action of a duel … for my money, is the final duel between Oscar and The Eater of Souls in R. A. Heinlein’s Glory Road. Of course, Heinlein was a sabre fencer – and it shows.
For just plain fun, and insider’s reference – The Princess Bride – the book and the film, with their reference to actual period fencing masters and books. The fight in the film is also extremely well done – in the classic Old School Hollywood tradition.
As for recommended reading – one should read the actual period fencing manuals. Many are now available on-line. (Back in my day, you had to got to a real library, and check out the books IF you could find them).
BR: Thanks, Richard. I’m very grateful to you for taking the time to satisfy my curiosity! And to round things off, a nice clip of Richard talking about his film American Jouster, and the life of a touring knight:
And here’s the short, but great fun, trailer for American Jouster:
You can also see a promo video for Noble Causes Productions – a company Richard rode with in 2006/7 – here. It’s a fun little watch, too.
Thanks again, Richard. It’s been an education.
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