Monday, January 29, 2018

A Conversation with Lawrence Ellsworth

(Photo by Nina Harwick)
BIO: Lawrence Ellsworth is the pen name of Lawrence Schick. He began his career as a writer at TSR Hobbies in the late 1970s, where he wrote, developed, and edited a number of titles for the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons. He produced role-playing scenarios and magazine articles throughout the 1980s, culminating in the publication of Heroic Worlds: A History and Guide to Role-Playing Games (Prometheus Books, 1991, as by Lawrence Schick).
When Ellsworth’s father was a young man in the 1930s and ’40s he was a fan of the adventure pulp magazines. When Ellsworth was a boy in the 1960s, publishers were reprinting many of the best pulp tales in inexpensive paperbacks, and his father would buy them, read them, and then pass them on to his son. So Harold Lamb, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and Robert E. Howard enthralled Ellsworth at an early age. Poring through the libraries for any book in which the hero wore a sword soon led him to Dumas, Sabatini, Orczy, Tolkien, H. Rider Haggard, and Arthur Conan Doyle’s historicals. Ellsworth wallowed in swashbucklers.
In the early 1970s, just as he was beginning to think the genre was played out, the Richard Lester / George MacDonald Fraser films The Three Musketeers and The Four Musketeers proved there were still new ways to approach it. The scripts led Ellsworth to Fraser’s Flashman novels, and that sealed the deal for good and all.
In the early 1990s Ellsworth led a troupe of writers who produced live-action role-playing weekends for 50 to 100 players, specializing in historical productions with romantic themes. While writing and researching The King’s Musketeers for this troupe, he became fascinated with early 17th-century France. This rekindled his interest in swashbuckler fiction, and he has since become a noted collector and authority on the subject.
Ellsworth learned French so he could read Dumas’ novels, and Richelieu’s memoirs, in the original language. In the process he did a translation of The Three Musketeers for fun and practice. He has recently completed a full translation of Alexandre Dumas’ “lost” novel The Red Sphinx.
Ellsworth has attended the Taos Writers’ Workshop (Historical Fiction program) and the Algonkian Writers’ Workshop. He is a member of Washington Independent Writers and the Historical Novel Society, and attended the American HNS Conferences in 2005 and 2007. He has written scripts for comic books, has worked in radio and narrative voiceovers, and is an experienced public speaker. He has three children, Wyatt, Sanderson, and Honor, and lives in northern Maryland near Baltimore.
First, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me.  Why Swashbuckling tales?  What got you in to it?

It’s just one of the genres of fiction I grew up on (see Bio). They’re attractive propositions, with heroes who are nearly always fighting injustice, personal or general, but doing so by their own rules and their own codes of honor. And because the heroes are acting outside of orthodox processes and methods, they have to rely on their own wits and cleverness—and I love a smart hero.

Swashbuckling novels were all the rage and for a good long while one of the top fiction genres.  What do you think happened for them to fall out of favor?

They haven’t, they’ve just morphed from historical adventures into history-flavored fantasies. The Game of Thrones is just a grand swashbuckler saga with dragons, and George R.R. Martin’s extended epic bears a lot of similarities to Alexandre Dumas’s multi-volume Musketeers Cycle. Historical adventures themselves are still alive and kicking: look at The Vikings and The Last Kingdom, and even Outlander. We just had a fifth Pirates of the Caribbean movie. And then there are fantasy role-playing games, on the tabletop, PCs, and consoles. The Assassin’s Creed games are all swashbucklers as well. The DNA of the swashbuckler story is firmly embedded throughout our popular culture’s entertaiment.

If someone said they don't like books of this sort, besides your own work, which ones would you point them to, to change their minds?

Ha! See above. If they like action stories, I’d point them toward the giant bookshelf of novels by Bernard Cornwell; if they prefer duels of wit in drawing-rooms, I’d give them Swordspoint, the first of Ellen Kushner’s elaborate “Tremontaine” series.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but my understanding is you actually learned French just to better understand and translate some works by Alexandre Dumas.  That is serious passion and dedication. How was that process?

It was fun! Nobody is more proud of their language than the French, and there is a staggering quantity of resources available to a person who wants to learn, most of it low cost or free. Obviously millions of people speak French, including people you already know, and they’re nearly all eager to help you get it right. The internet has hundreds of tutorials and apps, and hey, Quebec is practically right next door! It helps if you can set yourself some big projects that can be done piecemeal—I did my first translation of The Three Musketeers as a tutorial, chapter by chapter, over a year and a half.

French seems like an especially difficult language to me.  Did you find it difficult or did your passion for the payoff outweigh all?  

It’s not so bad—it’s not like you have to learn a new alphabet, like you do for Russian, which I’ve also studied. The important thing is not to be afraid to consult experts when you’re unsure of something, like an idiomatic phrase. The internet is your friend in that regard.

Do you speak it/understand it well when it's spoken?  I guess I mean, in reading it and writing it to the depth that you had to learn to translate beautifully, does that translate to a better understanding of the spoken word as well?

To be honest, my conversational French is weak until I’ve been in-country and immersed in it for a few days. Once you start to think in it, you’re fine. Listening to the news in French is a great help.

I tried The Count of Monte Cristo at one time and just couldn’t get into it, so I stopped reading it.  Then I picked it up and read it cover-to-cover a few years ago and currently it's my favorite book of all time.  My first and second reading experiences came down to the skills of the translator. I wish I had understood different people translating a book can make all the difference.  I read that you translated The Three Musketeers by Dumas.  That one seems to have been done a lot by many publishers.  Can you tell me what is missing from other translations that you want to bring to it with your understanding of the language and the author?

Most published editions of the novel that you’ll find in bookstores and libraries still use translations that were prepared in the 1840s or 1850s, respectable but creaky adaptations endlessly recycled and reprinted, versions that simply don’t properly convey the energy and tone of Dumas’s original work. Though to be fair, those Victorian-era translators knew their business, and delivered exactly what their readers were looking for: historical dramas at the time were expected to be told in the stiff, elevated diction of writers like Sir Walter Scott and James Fenimore Cooper, and the translators saw it as their job to render Dumas’s unconventionally active prose into the more passive style then prevailing. But in doing so these early translations lost much of Dumas’s distinctive voice and tone, that warmth and vibrancy that leaps off the page in the original French. And that’s a real disservice to today’s readers, denying them some of the key virtues of this really quite modern writer. In translating this, one of my favorite works of fiction, I felt my most important task was to identify Dumas’s genuine voice and bring it to current-day readers of English, so they can meet the man on his own terms and really appreciate what he has to offer.

Have you found that the noble characters of many swashbuckling heroes have influenced your personal life in any way beyond mere entertainment?

Well, I did name my daughter Honor!

You also have an interest in swashbuckling films.  What are the top 3 everyone should see?  

That’s a tough one, because I love so many of them—I’m adding a whole section to my website called The Cinema of Swords! I think I’d have to go with the Errol Flynn Adventures of Robin Hood, Richard Lester’s The Three Musketeers and The Four Musketeers (I know, cheating), and Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai.

What about the top 3 authentic swashbuckling scenes everyone should see in a movie that perhaps wasn't so great?

“Authentic,” eh? Hmm. The final swordfight between the aging Robin Hood (Sean Connery) and the Sheriff of Nottingham (Robert Shaw) in Robin and Marian, though that whole movie’s great; there are some early scenes of nasty, period piracy that are just spot-on in the first third of 1924’s The Black Pirate (the silent with Douglas Fairbanks, Sr.); and the depiction of samurai warfare in Kurosawa’s Kagemusha is unequaled in film.

What other interesting or unusual hobbies do you have?

Between my day job, designing and writing video games as Lawrence Schick, my second career as Lawrence Ellsworth, and the wonderful challenges of being a single parent, that’s about all I have time for! I used to run and play in a lot of live-action role-playing games, but I haven’t done that much lately.

I like to end each of the conversations with advice from the expert on what the reader can do right now to take a step in the direction that you did.  This can be how to grab a little of that swashbuckling panache, to advice on pursuing passion. Anything at all. What can you tell them to get started?

Set your own goals, play by your own rules, and then you’re the one who decides when you’re winning. Set out to be good at something you like, because if you like doing something, being good at it will naturally follow.

Thank you so much for taking the time!  

Readers, for more on Mr. Ellsworth, to purchase his books or to review The Cinema of Swords go to 

Friday, January 26, 2018

Advice from Eleanor Roosevelt

"Do one thing everyday that scares you." ~Eleanor Roosevelt

Monday, January 22, 2018

A Conversation with Burlesque Performer, Siren Santina

Siren Santina is a burlesque performer, educator, and producer from Knoxville, Tennessee. Miss Santina has traveled throughout the country, performing at burlesque and vaudeville festivals from coast to coast including notable events such as The New Orleans Burlesque Festival, The Show Me Burlesque Festival, The New York Nerdlesque Festival, and The Burlesque Hall of Fame’s “Movers, Shakers, and Innovators” showcase. She made it reign as Queen of the inaugural  Southern Fried Burlesque Festival in Atlanta, GA and represented the United States at the World Burlesque Games in London, England. Siren is the Co-Founder and Creative Director of Salomé Cabaret Burlesque Revue, Lead Instructor of the Salomé Cabaret Burlesque Academy, and Executive Producer of the Smoky Mountain Burlesque Festival.
You can find her on her website at and on social media (Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter) as sirensantina.

First things first, how did you get started in Burlesque?

Kismet. I didn’t necessarily go out and pursue burlesque. It came to me. I was an active participant in our local goth subculture. When a promotor from the community decided he wanted to have a burlesque performance as part of one of his special events, he started looking for people from within the community that had stage experience or interest in burlesque and pin-up culture. I was already known to him as a singer, and had spoken to him about how much I enjoyed a visiting performer with burlesque influence, so I ended up on his short list of folks to discuss the idea with. The rest, as they say, is history!

What is the biggest misconception about burlesque that you’d like to correct?

I think the most common misconception regarding burlesque that I encounter is the art-form’s relationship to “stripping” as we know it in today’s culture. Sometimes I encounter folks that consider burlesque to be the synonymous with the type of dancing seen in modern-day gentlemen’s clubs (i.e. “strippers” or “pole dancers”). I encounter others that are staunchly opposed to the comparison of the two art-forms, implying that one is better or worse than the other and that both are entirely different animals. The truth is that the art-form exists somewhere in the middle. I believe it is important to be aware of the art-form’s history. Burlesque dancers in the art’s heyday WERE adult-industry entertainers. While their performances may have been less risqué than those of today’s exotic dancers, they were no less a part of the sex work industry of that time. I like to explain the difference like this: “Strippers” are performing to the audience’s definition of seduction, a set of unspoken standards often driven by the male gaze. “Burlesque Dancers” are often performing to their own interpretation of the same thing, highlighting what they personally find attractive or arousing about themselves regardless of how it fits into society’s beauty standards. Are the two different? Yes, they can be. I, however, don’t find them to be nearly as disparate as some people describe.

Tell me about your first burlesque performance.
My first burlesque performance was a bit of a “trial by fire” experience. I began performing in 2006, while the neo-burlesque movement was still relatively young. While there were developed communities practicing the art-form in larger cities, the resources available to us here in the conservative Southeast were extremely limited. There were no shows being produced that we could attend for inspiration. There were no classes being taught. We built our material based on written accounts of live performances and clips of vintage stag films from the internet.
I had been approached about performing in Knoxville’s first burlesque show based on my stage experience as a singer, and it was my intention to provide live vocals while other more confident performers disrobed. This was a common format of the vaudeville and variety show striptease I had encountered in my research. When our big group act was complete, the emcee started introducing each performer from one side of the stage to the other. As each name was called, the performer ripped off an extra part of their costume and took a bow for the audience. This improvised reveal sent me into a panic. I was not prepared to take my costume off and I was embarrassed by my size at the time. When my name was called, I made the split second decision to follow the pack. I ripped my skirt off and braced myself for the backlash of the audience. To my surprise, my plus-sized pantslessness was met with applause and adoration.
I was approached by a multitude of audience members after the show, many of which were also plus-sized or otherwise unconventionally shaped women. All of them expressed gratitude and pride in my participation, in my bravery, in my confidence. I realized in that moment how important it was that I had taken off my skirt. Although I had felt terrified and insecure I had sent a message to those watching that my body (and others like it) was beautiful, desirable even, and deserving of sharing the spotlight with those more closely resembling society’s ideal.

Tell me who/what inspires you from the following:

Old School Burlesque:
I am inspired by the glamour of old school burlesque in general. Finding recorded performances of classic burlesque starts can be challenging. Many were never recorded, and those that were have often had the original musical accompaniment replaced with jarring or disconnected generic canned music due to copyright concerns. Jennie Lee, founder of the Burlesque Hall of Fame museum, is a favorite based on her contributions to the modern community. Candy Baby Caramelo was an inspiration to me as well, as comedic, singing burlesque performers were not necessarily the norm in the artforms heyday. I got to see her perform several times at the BHoF weekender in Las Vegas and always found her campy shtick to be sexy AND entertaining.

I am routinely inspired by the innovation I see coming out of the neo-burlesque community. At this point there is a long and established history, with documented examples of art-form archetypes. I love seeing someone pay tribute to that history while applying their own unique spin. For example, Iva Handfull is known for performing fan dances to modern, electronic music. She uses the same traditional fan dancing movements, but alters the speed and affect to fit the more modern accompaniment. The result is a very different, non-traditional fan dance. I am also completely enamored by performers who have mastered another art-form and incorporate it into their striptease performance. For example, Mr. Gorgeous with hand balancing, Midnite Martini with aerial silks, and Roxi d’Lite with cyr wheel. I attempt to do that myself by incorporating my music talents into stripteases with live vocal accompaniment.

What Non-Burlesque sources inspire you?

I am inspired greatly by strong female entertainment personalities, particularly those specializing in comedy and/or music. Carol Burnett, Lucille Ball, Bette Midler, Vicki Lawrence, and Julie Andrews are particular favorites.

Do you make your costume pieces or buy them/alter them? 

I am the daughter of a retired Home Economics instructor and professional costumier, so the majority of my costumes are hand made. Some of my costumes are created to ready-to-wear bases, but all have at least some level of unique hand-crafted embellishment that help them to illustrate the creative vision of the piece for which they are created.
What is your favorite costume or piece?

My favorite costume piece is probably the tail skirt I use in my turkey trot act. It is an unusual and unexpected costume element that I collaborated with my mother to create. The skirt construction is based on a common peacock costuming trope. I hand-cut every single feather in the costume out of crafting felt, so it has a unique “elementary school theatrical production” aesthetic.

What’s your favorite burlesque moment (This can be past or present/yours or someone else)?

My favorite burlesque moments are almost exclusively surrounding the “legends” of burlesque, the women and men that were performing in the art-forms heyday that are still actively involved in the community as mentors, teachers, and (in some cases) performers. Every year at the annual Burlesque Hall of Fame Weekender in Las Vegas, NV the organization holds a panel where the attending legends speak about their lives and take questions. It is always impactful in many ways to hear these incredible individuals talk about their lives. Depending on the era in which they performed, their experiences were very different. Some speak about the glamour of the stage, others speak about the work ethic the burlesque lifestyle required. One message that is consistent amongst them all is female empowerment. Even those that performed only out of necessity to support themselves spoke about the independence the work provided them. Burlesque, in its early days and now, allows women to control how they present themselves to an audience, glorifies the beauty of womanhood in all its various forms, and demonstrates the power that women have to captivate… with as little as a ripple of chiffon or revealed wrist.

The best piece of advice I ever received was from one of the legends at this annual panel. She told those of us in the room “If you can’t fix it, feature it”. Those words echoed in my mind as I later watched her perform. Unable to walk or dance, she performed her act seated in a wheelchair. Rather than treating the wheelchair as a restriction interfering with her previous abilities, she utilized the chair as a prop. It might as well have been Dita von Teese’s giant martini glass they way she lovingly slid her legs across the arm rests to assist with her hosiery removal. She turned the focus of the wheelchair into a celebration of innovation rather than a hindrance or obstacle to navigate. I use that memory not only when facing challenges in my burlesque performance, but also when facing challenges in my day to day life.

What’s the funniest (or strangest) burlesque experience you have had?

I think one of the funniest moments in my burlesque career was rather early on. I was debuting a new act in which I sang a song with some quite suggestive and inappropriate lyrics. I looked out into the audience and was surprised to see one of my college professors sitting close to the stage. As I walked out to great him, I heard a familiar voice. I turned to find my mother as another surprise attendee to the show. The two of them ended up sitting together, chatting about some of my collegiate vocal performances, both excited that I would be singing in the show that night. When it came time to perform I was extremely nervous. What would my professor think about my song choice? Would the graphic sexual lyrical content embarrass my mother. I found out near the end of the first verse, shortly after dropping my fourth or fifth musical “f-bomb” when my mom screamed out in a moment of silence “THAT’S MY DAUGHTER!!!” I couldn’t help but laugh, and neither could the audience. I did them both proud that night, in a weird and awkward way.

Tell me about a time your act went awry.  How did you overcome it?

My acts have gone awry on several occasions. I love to create authentic, organic performance experiences and structure my material in a way that leaves room for improvisation. My performances are tailored to each specific audience and their unique energy and response. For the most part, when something doesn’t work in an act the way it is supposed to it creates an opportunity for me to react in real time and add completely unplanned elements to my performance. Some of the most magical moments of my career have happened in those situations.
Other times stage accidents haven’t been so happy. Relatively early on in my burlesque experience I gave a performance in which I severely injured myself. Part of the act included me cutting through some fake blood capsules that were bandaged to my wrists atop of steel safety plate. For this particular performance I had forgotten my safety plate at home. Thankfully, one of the other performers was able to secure me a solid metal guard and I continued with my act as planned. When I approached the stage effect in my act, muscle memory took over. I glided the knife through the blood capsules as usual, but then felt a snap. It took my brain a couple of seconds to understand what had happened. The blade had slid off the side of the plate and cut through the side of my arm. I looked into the audience and yelled “I cut myself!” The audience roared with applause, thinking it was all part of my act. I screamed again, “No, really. I cut myself. Does anyone know where the closest hospital is?” I then proceeded to step out into the audience and directly into the car of a front row volunteer. I headed to closest emergency room and endured the most awkward medical experience of my life.
Needless to say, that act has since be retired and I now teach a class to help students safely navigate performances and respond to unexpected challenges as they arise on stage.

What’s your favorite move?

My favorite moves are the old standard bumps, grinds, and peels. At burlesque’s height in popularity, stripteases were performed to accompaniment by a live band. Musical elements, particularly those performed by the percussionist, were used to accent the dancer’s movements. In today’s burlesque performances, which are often accompanied by recordings, the reverse can be applied. Bumps are perfect for quick percussive accents, grinds for repeated motives, and peels for long legato melodic elements. I use these choreography elements intentionally to emphasize musical cues and parallel compositional elements, effectively creating that same collaborative effect between myself and the music that was present in traditional performances.

Do you have any other extracurricular activities besides burlesque that might surprise someone?

I am a classically trained singer, originally focused on choral performance and direction. I occasionally belt out an operatic aria for a burlesque show, but more commonly use that skill to incorporate showtunes or jazz standards into my performance. This year I have also started to experiment with drag performance, focusing on gender illusion and exaggeration. This allows me a platform to express my femininity in a way that depends more on my general appearance and mannerisms than my actual physical form. It has been a similarly insightful experience of self-discovery.  

What do your family and friends think about your burlesque?

I am lucky to receive a great deal of support in regards to my burlesque. My mother attended my debut performance, collaborates with me on costume design and construction, and frequently suggests songs or concepts for performance. I have been doing this for such a long time now, most of my closest friends have become part of the burlesque community themselves – either as fellow performers, producers, or dedicated fans.

Do you associate the body-positive movement with your work, or is it simply burlesque for the glory of burlesque?

I definitely associate the body-positive movement with my work. The neo-burlesque community does such an amazing job of glorifying performers, regardless of their size, age, gender expression, or personal interpretation of what is sexy. One of the most fulfilling parts of my personal experience has been teaching and mentoring new performers and observing their journey to the stage. Watching as students discover their best assets and ways to creatively showcase them is an inspiring experience. As each performer’s confidence builds, so does my love of the art-form.

What one piece of advice would you give to rookies thinking about trying burlesque?

My advice to a new performer would be to remember that BURLESQUE IS SUBJECTIVE. There are quite a few highly opinionated voices in the burlesque community at large, and sometimes those voices can be discouraging. The most appealing aspect of this art-form to me is the creative control that each individual performer has, and it is important to remember that in the end there is no right or wrong way to perform burlesque. Yes, take feedback from your peers. Yes, learn from your mentors and take their advice into consideration. But also, create art that YOU find fulfilling. Don’t let another person’s idea of what burlesque is or isn’t determine how you express yourself on stage.

Is there something you would like to add that I’ve not asked?

No, I think you covered A LOT. I’m so excited to see you embarking on another project! Things have changed in our group dynamic since you left. If you ever feel inclined to stop back by and see if you’d be interested in stepping into the occasional performance, PLEASE DO!

 Will you tell us where we can see you perform?

You can see me perform regularly with the Salomé Cabaret Burlesque Revue. Show schedule and ticketing information is available at

Thank you so much for taking the time, Siren. I want to say that not only are you an excellent performer, you are one of the most welcoming audience members I’ve ever seen. Your face watching others at work whether they be rookies or pros is always one of appreciation and pride. That is a rare thing!

Friday, January 19, 2018

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

A Conversation with Marina of ArtPool Gallery

Marina, thanks so much for taking the time to talk to me.  I just love your shop ArtPool Gallery and stop by there once or twice every time we're in St. Pete.  What made you think up the idea to open such a neat shop?

I have always loved creating, being an artist and studied fine art for my undergraduate and masters degrees. The idea of opening a shop right out of school was a dream come true and it has been a wonderful adventure for the past 10 years come April.  I always enjoy collaborating with my community so running a shop has been a fantastic process.  I have met so many amazing and wonderful people like yourself through the process.

How do you find your items to sell? 

I have been buying and selling, collecting and hunting vintage for over 15 years.  We buy items when we travel and bring them back to St Pete. I am always searching for that next best thing to bring my shoppers.  

Do you make any of your items?

Many, I make most of the jewelry in the shop.  I love creating and making unique one of a kind pieces for my stylish community. 

I feel like your merchandise is chosen with care.  Was there ever an item you put up for sale that you thought was amazing that customers just didn't go for?

Not really and if something didn't have enough spunk them I just take it apart and rework it. Nothing goes to waste here, we love re-purposing and recycling.

What advice do you have for others that are crafty and would like to try to start selling their items?

Get out and go for it.  Nothing like the present to follow your dreams.  Markets are great, etsy is an awesome resource.  Create and wear your designs, you are your best advertiser and marketer. :) 

Have you ever made something that just turned out so bad you didn't want to show anyone?  I know I have.  If so, what was it?

Nope, even weird things are good things.  Everything makes us better, even our so called failures.  Thank god I have had a loving mother who has even treasured by weirder artsy items and framed them, but looking back, some of the strangest art that did not come out as I intended is some of my most successful work.  I guess the true art is in acceptance of creativity and not being our worst critic which is easy for an artist to be.  Picasso once said "It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child."  Experimentation in art is such an important part of the artistic process. 

You have some very interesting events going on at your shop year-round. What's your favorite and can you tell us why or a little about it?

We host artistic collaborations throughout the year in the form of Art pARTies and Crafty Fest Markets.  I love both so much because of the community aspect of supporting other artists and giving them a stage to promote their talents and grow their audience with our established art buyers.

What thoughts were you having before you opened your doors for the first time on the first day of the shop opening?

This is going to be awesome!

You really have a family operation going--your mom helps out in the shop (she's such a sweet lady) and your dog, Franklin, even hangs out there.  What does it mean to you to have your family with you in this venture?

It means absolutely everything.  My finance works with me too and runs the mens collection and his vinyl record store right next door.  To be honest it wouldn't be the same with my family.  They are all a huge part of my life and working together is the best thing ever.  They mean the world to me and are beyond supportive.  I am so thankful and blessed to have such an incredible family.

What other interesting or unusual hobbies do you have?

Dog training, specifically dog agility.  Our doggy Franklin is such a sweet and smart boy who we have loads of fun with.  He is a super shop pup and absolutely awesome team mate on the course. 

I would recommend to others to go out there and follow your passions, never give up and drink coffee. :)  Being a small business owner means working 80+ hours a week.  Make sure you can live on ramen for as long as you need and be passionate about your work thoroughly.   You can and will succeed so don't be shy and remember you only live once so do it up sooner than later.

Thanks for taking the time to share your experiences!

You are so very welcome.  Hugs and much love to you and your family.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Quote from Nietzsche

"Better, however, to be foolish with happiness than foolish with misfortune, better to dance awkwardly than walk lamely."  ~Nietzsche

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Unstuffed Sweet and Sour Cabbage Rolls

Cabbage Rolls were one of my favorite recipes that my mom used to make, but they're really time consuming to stuff each cabbage leaf.  I found this recipe once in a magazine, Bon Appetite.  It's delicious and takes a time saving technique of not stuffing the leaves.  Win/Win!

 Unstuffed Sweet and Sour Cabbage Rolls

1 (2 lb.) head green cabbage, quartered lengthwise and cored
1/2 c. reduced-sodium chicken broth
3 garlic cloves, thinly sliced, divided
1 large onion, thinly sliced
1 Tbsp olive oil
1/2 lb. ground beef chuck
1/2 lb. ground pork
1 (28 oz.) can whole tomatoes in juice
1/3 c. dried cranberries
3 Tbsp red-wine vinager
1 Tbsp packed brown sugar
2 Tbsp chopped flat-leaf parsley

Accompaniment: steamed rice

Place cabbage in a deep 12-inch heavy skillet with broth, 1 garlic clove (sliced), and a rounded 1/4 tsp of salt.  Bring to a simmer over medium heat, then cook, covered, turning cabbage occasionally, until very tender, about 45 minutes.  (Add more broth or water if necessary.)

Meanwhile, cook onion and remaining garlic in oil in a heavy medium pot over medium heart, stirring occasionally, until golden, about 8 minutes.  Increase heat to medium-high and stir in ground meats along with 1/2 tsp each of salt and pepper. Cook, stirring and breaking up lumps with a wooden spoon, until no longer pink, about 3 minutes.

Stir in tomatoes with their juice, cranberries, vinegar, and brown sugar and simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally and breaking up tomatoes with spoon, until slightly thickened, about 20 minutes.  Season with salt.

Pour sauce into skillet with cabbage and simmer, uncovered, 5 minutes.  Serve sprinkled with parsley.

Monday, January 8, 2018

A Conversation with Rookie Stunt Performer, Stephen Koepfer

First Stephen, thanks for taking the time to talk  You're a man of many accomplishments particularly in martial arts, but I want to focus on one aspect that I find absolutely fascinating.  You are both a stunt performer and a fight choreographer.  How does this even start?  Did you always want to do this or did you just fall in to it, so to speak?

I have been interested in television and filmmaking since childhood. It has been kind of a lifelong dream actually. Even as a kid I was making movies on Super 8, informally learning to shoot and edit film. Later, I even went to several summers of camp for filmmaking in my youth (man I wish I still had all those films and videos). I really just learned to love the whole world of making movies during those years. So many films in my youth, like Raiders of the Lost Arc and American Werewolf in London for example, really inspired me to engage that side of my creativity. Oh, and Best of the Best! I loved that film…LOL. Watched it thousands of times! Back then I was really interested in special effects actually and would spend a lot of time playing with latex molds, building models just to blow them up, burn them down or destroy them somehow…LOL. In any event, film was still a goal of mine up until beginning college at the School of Visual Arts, but after college my professional life went in different directions.

The one constant during all my life despite my winding professional life has been martial arts, which I made my profession in 2005 when I quit my day job to run my then two year old gym full time. As technology became available making it easy for anyone to make rudimentary films, and my notoriety in martial arts became a bit more significant, I started to drift back to TV & film. At first with this new thing called YouTube, then later producing instructional martial art DVDs and creating or collaborating on video content for various martial arts websites. Eventually, in 2007, I was hired to be a technical adviser on an episode of Travel Channel’s Human Weapon. That re-launched me into the business in a more serious way. Over the last 10 years I have gotten increasingly involved in that world including film production and during the past several years, stunts, which have become somewhat of an addiction for me.

My first stunt job was in 2010 on a low budget music video. I choreographed a fight and performed in it as well. To be honest, it was not really that great and I did not quite know what I was doing, but it was a learning experience and looking back, I can already see my style was starting to develop. We had some rudimentary John Wick style stuff in that fight, like a crazy rolling kneebar gun disarm. I was adding in dynamic grappling and throws that have now become really popular in fight scenes.
Then in 2014 I produced a proof of concept pilot for my friend and writer/filmmaker Sean Fitzgerald who was pitching a television program. The pilot, Choke Artist, centered around an underground fighter in NYC. Aside from all my producer duties, I choreographed the fight, trained and rehearsed the actors (who were both pro fighters), scouted the location, drew the storyboards, etc. I pretty much served as fight coordinator for that scene, though I did not even know what a fight coordinator was at that time.

The pilot ended up screening on Fox Sports because Al Iaquinta, a UFC fighter was in the scene. Once it aired, it got the attention of a veteran stunt coordinator named Doug Crosby. After a few meetings he encouraged me to pursue stunts more seriously, which I did.  What better way to combine my knowledge of film and martial arts? However, stunts are not simply doing martial arts on film. While having solid martial arts was my “in” to the community, I have a laundry list of other skills to learn and develop.

From that point, my good friend and student Paul Varacchi, who is an accomplished martial artist in his own right, set out to get more involved in the business. Paul also had goals of getting involved in stunts. Three years later, we are both in SAG-AFTRA, working in the profession and run Breakfall Studios together - an open training program for professional stunt performers that operates out of my gym.

Would you mind naming just a few places where we might have seen your work?

Though I do have a significant bit of film and television experience, I am very much a rookie in the stunt business. Also, if I do my job right, you won’t see me at all! But, I have been fortunate to work with teams on some incredible productions including John Wick: Chapter Two, Netflix’s The Punisher, NBC’s The Blacklist and the Saturday Night Live. I have also worked with very many talented and incredible people on smaller independent films, short films, student films and the like. This is really where you can hone your skills and build relationships that will carry you forward in the business. The New York stunt community is pretty damn awesome. Regardless of the project’s size, I love working with these people. There is a real sense of camaraderie that does not exist in many other professional communities I have been a part of.

You were kind enough to send a screener of a documentary you co-Produced and co-Directed with Matthew Kaplowitz called Concrete and Crashpads: Stunts in New York. What an education! There is soooo much that goes in to making a brief few seconds of kinetic action on screen visually pop.  Are there particular things you do to get the creative process going? A particular environment, tool, or anything?

Honestly, like anything else, it is very much a “use it or lose it” proposition. Creativity is a muscle you have to exercise. So my peers and I are always training, trying bits of new choreography in training, learning new skills, and training with different stunt coordinators and performers. We are always trying to stay fresh and expand our game. In addition to our regular martial arts training, we spend many hours a week training stunt specific skills – rolls, falls, acrobatics, wire, etc. Myself, I spend easily 10 hours a week (if not more) training specifically for stunts, on top of running my gym, teaching martial arts and all my other responsibilities. You are always trying to stay prepared for any job you might get. When a stunt coordinator calls you, you better be trained up and ready!

We try to shoot practice fights as often as possible, or help others we know with theirs. We often shoot our training sessions, just to keep the camera skills fresh. Knowledge of how to perform and sell to the camera is critical. Shooting just a few beats of a fight scene in training can teach you a lot. Practice fights are literally when we create choreography, shoot it, edit it, etc. This allows us to really dig into choreography concepts, learn camera angles and refine our editing skills.

We often give ourselves what we call “3 hour challenges,” which is when one of us picks a location, we assemble and give ourselves three hours to choreograph and shoot a fight scene in that unfamiliar setting. We then give ourselves an extra 48 hours for post production (editing, after effects, etc). Unless our intent is to create a finished product for display, most of the time only we see it, critique it, and assess for our successes and failures. I will also share the videos with trusted stunt coordinators and ask for their critique as well.

Before watching the documentary I would have assumed all the work happened on the set, but now it looks like stunt team work each scene out before you ever get on set.  What's the average time that goes in to a scene before you hit the set and does that reduce your time spent on the scene?

In an ideal world scenes are rehearsed and ready to be “plug and play” on shoot day. For major productions the stunt coordinator will create the choreography with trusted stunt professionals and shoot what are called “previs” (short for pre-visual) to present to production. A previs is essentially a video storyboard. The stunt coordinator, camera operator and stunt performers will shoot all the projected fight scenes in a film or TV episode, edit them, show them to the director & production for approval. This generally happens throughout a season of a show, but often all at once or fewer intervals for a film. Production may suggest changes or they may not. They may scrap a fight completely if they don’t like it.

Once everything is approved, a new crew of stunt performers will be hired by the coordinator (sometimes the same people from the previs, sometimes not) to shoot the actual scene that will appear on the show or in the film. This new crew will rehearse the scene before it is shot. So, the more smoothly and professional this process is, the quicker and more economical the actual shoot will be. Time is money, so the faster and more perfectly the scene is shot, the better.

Having said all that, the average day player stunt performer like me, doing expected skills (basic falling, fighting, weapon handling, etc.) will often get no advanced rehearsal. Stunt performers are expected to know and perform many basic things without explanation or instruction. In every major production I have been this year, the only rehearsal I have had was on set. So, never ever claim to do something you can’t do. You will risk the shoot, your future in the business and most importantly the safety of all the team. If a coordinator calls you to ask if you can do a 30’ high fall, a stair fall or a car hit, you had better be honest…even if it means losing a gig. Keep in mind this is for basic gags like “run, shoot, get shot, fall down.” More extensive fights do get some rehearsal time.

Some of the protective equipment seems like it would end up getting quite bulky.  Have you ever had on so much gear, you don't know how you hid it on film or are there tricks to making this look seamless?

Most stunt performers have more gear than they know what to do with LOL. For example, I have four or five different back pads. Some more low profile, some more visible. Some that can take more impact, some that protect you less. Some which cover just the spine, some that cover much more of the back. Forget elbow and knee pads! There are too many kinds to count. In essence, we acquire protective equipment and gear from many other professions and use as needed depending on what the gag entails. We often re-engineer gear from other professions to suit our needs. This business is a gear-head’s paradise! Most important is to be ready with your kit when you show up to set. Knee, back, elbow hip and tailbone are a given. If you show up without a solid kit, you will look like an amateur and risk future jobs.

Having said that, pads are sometimes not considered, even if you bring them. Particularly for female performers who often have wardrobe where pads can’t be hidden. My good friend Tina McKissick is an incredible veteran performer (she is profiled in Concrete and Crashpads). Tina once had to so a car hit and crash the windshield in a bikini! Where are you going to hide pads in a bikini? I always say that the women are more badass than the men in this business. If your character is in a mini skirt and heels when she falls down a flight of stairs, you will have very few pads on when you fall down those stairs. This is not a profession for the timid. You have to be all in.

My husband, Mark, occasionally tries to show me films from the 1970s and he assures me that the Burt Reynolds film Hooper is a must see, so have you seen it and what do you think of it?

Ha! I saw it a looong time ago. I would have to re-watch it to answer that question. But, I will say that the stunt performers of that era are legendary tough mofos. I think they might look at today’s advanced protective equipment and safety trends and think we are a bunch of babies LOL. Those guys and gals are real ground pounders. It was a different era and stunt performers then really took a serious beating (not that today’s guys have a walk in the park!)

Do you have a preference between doing someone else’s choreography, working you own, or is it all a pleasure to you?

I like both aspects. Not sure if I prefer one over the other. I enjoy the entire process. Making films is all about collaboration. It is the creative collaboration I really enjoy; being part of a crew. I will say that for some bizarre reason, I get off on stair falls. When I first started training them, I was nervous as hell. But after doing it, I get a serious rush. It is kind of a sick addiction.  

When it comes choreography, are you a purist or do you see a place for wire-work and CGI?

What really matters is the viewer and the final product. If they like it, I like it. Riding the wire is a blast and is not a new thing in the business. But, in all honestly, I have only done it in training. I have not done a hand pull or serious wire work on set yet. That day is coming soon I hope, and I am ready to go when the time comes. Regarding CGI, for me it comes back to the final product. If I can’t see it, it is awesome. But, I have seen some productions and practice fights where the CGI is detectable. That definitely sucks. I would rather have no blood splatter or squibs than crappy looking blood splatter. Crappy CGI is a distraction that takes your attention away from the action.

Having said that, advances in wire work, rigging and CGI have made the profession much safer. There is less need fire burns, high falls, car hits, explosives, etc., because of it. One can debate which is better, but it has made the profession safer. But in the end, sometimes the real stuff just looks better. Audiences may not know why they don’t like a scene, but they do know what they like and don’t like. For example, if a punch to the face does not sell well, the viewer may not be able to articulate why a fight looks fake, but they know it does. Same goes for CGI.

When I think of stunt work the touchstone would be Jackie Chan in his prime.  What's your professional evaluation of his work?

Ha! He should be evaluating my work! I am the rookie, he is the legend. Anyone who does not admire and appreciate what Jackie Chan and his team can do should just un-friend me on Facebook right now LOL.

It seems a thankless job, how do you feel not usually being recognized/appreciated by the audience as realizing it’s you in the film doing the awesome parts?

I am not in a scene to be seen. I am there to contribute to the success of the production. Bottom line, I don’t want to be seen. If you are a stunt performer and your priority is to be seen, you should consider modeling or acting and get out of the stunt business. Do I think the stunt profession needs more credit and recognition? Definitely. How can you nominate Mad Max for a best picture Oscar and not recognize the film’s stunt coordinator? But, for me personally, it is not about being seen at all. It is about being part of a crew and making great creative films.

As the stunt man/woman you would have to wear what the performer wears in the scene.  Clothing can be so restrictive of the full range of motion you'd need when fighting/doing stunts. Are you ever consulted on this or do you have to work with what you get assigned?

You work with what you get. But, you do have some say regarding sizes, etc., when you go to wardrobe for a fitting. I always get a bit larger than my actual size so I can accommodate pads under my wardrobe. I always assume I will be wearing basic body pads.

Stunt men/women (Zoe Bell comes to mind) and fight choreographers being somewhat invisible, in your professional opinion, can you name a few people who should be household names?

There are so many amazing people out there! I don’t know if stunt performers should be household names or not. But, some contemporary performers and coordinators on the list would include Andy Armstrong (read his book!), Chad Stahelski, J.J. Perry, Phil Silvera, Jackson Spidell, Debbie Evans, Heidi Moneymaker, Darrin Prescott, David Leitch, Christopher Brewster, Cort Hessler and Eric Jacobus. I mean the list can go on and on. Those is just off the top of my head. There are so many incredible stunt professionals in our business. There are guys like Charlie Picerni who has been killing it in the business since the original Start Trek series! Legendary performer Hal Needham received an honorary Oscar in 2012, as did Jackie Chan last year. Paula Dell, who died this year at the age of 90, was a superstar in the business. But, it all started with our great forefather Buster Keaton!

There is a great web series called Stunt Stories hosted by veteran performer Corey Eubanks. If you want to learn about the business and some of the legendary performers, definitely give it a watch. If you follow the Concrete and Crashpads Facebook page, we often post stories, interviews and articles about the business as well.

When it comes to stunt work, do you specialize in fight scenes, fall work, car stunts or something else?

Right now, I would have to say fights as that was my in, but I am always training to expand that.

I'm guessing yours is a rough job.  Do you have a particularly notable or unusual stunt that led to an injury?

Thankfully no. I am going to try very hard to keep it that way ;)

This seems to be a job that you need to trust those you work with.  Do you find it's best to work in a team over and over again, or is the integration of a new co-worker easy because it's understood that everyone in the field has to be at that level?

Absolutely. Trust is essential. The more you work with folks, the more you trust them and the more you will work. This may be the toughest factor for rookies to overcome – building a trust in the community. If there is no trust, there is no work. It is a slow process, and it should be. Getting in this business is a slow burn that can’t be rushed.

Do you have a handful of films that you could point to to say,”This is as good as choreography or stunt work gets! These are the ones to see!”?

Currently my favorites are the John Wick films, Kingsman and Deadpool. I walked out of Deadpool with my mind blown to bits LOL. The church fight scene in Kingsman was epic.

Before your first stunt on a professional shoot there had to be butterflies.  What was running through your head?

My first union stunt gig was on The Blacklist last season. I was literally in the union a week when I got the job. Yes, I was damn nervous. It was a 2 day job and I was playing a mercenary. The stunt coordinator Cort Hessler is an Emmy winning legend! Tina McKissick, his assistant said to me - only half joking - about my tactical gun handling skills: “You will be front and center, don’t F- it up or you won’t work again in this town!” I had a good laugh with her on the phone, hung up and maybe pooped my pants? I had serious butterflies. But, I guess I did OK because I was hired again for another episode a few weeks later.

What's next in the pipeline for you?

I honestly don’t know. This business is up and down, oftentimes very last minute. There is a adage in this business that says “if you want a job offer, book a trip.” I had a ten day trip to Japan planned last month. I would be there coaching the US National Combat Wrestling team at the Combat Wrestling World Championship. Of course, I got five calls to submit for stunt gigs during that time! But, since I have been home? No calls. That is how the wind blows in stunts. But, it is all good. I just keep training, keep hustling, keep doing good work and trust that the right people are noticing and the jobs will come. There is no rush for me. I want to do this right.

We always like to close these conversations with advice from you the expert directed to the reader. Can you name one thing anyone can do right now, to grab a little bit of that stunt glory--like faking a punch, how to fall out of a chair, anything at all?

I would suggest to just start filming stuff on your own. Have fun, create your own fights and start filming. It is so easy today. You have to keep training and keep filming. Those days you don’t want to train, you need to train harder. Find what makes you unique and show the world. But, for me it all started with making home movies. So, go have some fun and shoot something! 

Thank you so much for taking the time.  I really appreciate it!

My pleasure!

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