is the grass any bluer...

is the grass any bluer...
on the other side?

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Oh, Henry! Layton Takes No Prisoners

As I said in my prior post, throughout my coverage of local theatre over the past few years, the casts and crews may change, but there are two names who are consistently mentioned in connection with any quality production:  stage manager/props princess Natalie Cummins and onstage combat expert Henry Layton.

However, of all the stories I've written about local artists, writing a piece about fight whisperer Layton has been both one of the easiest and yet also one of the most difficult.  The gravy part was getting quotes from people who have worked with the area's foremost onstage combat guru; the hard part was getting him to talk about himself.  Turns out this relatively unsung mock-battle hero, while entertaining, witty and talented, is one tough cookie when it comes to patting himself on the back...and good for him...but I finally got him to cough up a few details, and in the spirit of wanting to provide a good read, I will save the best - his words - for last.
Since he's been working behind the scenes at the Arboretum for quite a while, there is no shortage of Layton Love within the SummerFest casts and crews, both present and past.  Accordingly, when I asked some folks I knew he worked with, the response was quick, articulate and passionate, and so I share with you herein a sampling of what his friends and theatre family had to say.

Adam Luckey (SummerFest's MERCHANT OF VENICE's Shylock) first worked with Layton in 2000, in Romeo & Juliet - and most recently, just a few years ago in Macbeth 2008.  Luckey describes his admiration for Layton's expertise, stating, "I think what makes him a great choreographer is his ability to craft those huge epic battles, while keeping track of a dozen actors with sharp implements of destruction in their hands, keeping them safe, and making them all look like they’ve been doing it for years. And he can create all of this on the fly. Not to mention his patience. It really is quite astonishing."

Like Luckey, Tom Phillips (Mr. Darcy, PRIDE & PREJUDICE, SummerFest's second show in this year's lineup) first worked with Henry on Romeo & Juliet.  "That's when stage combat became a whole new ballgame. Then followed Three Musketeers and Robin Hood.  Henry's both a great choreographer and a great instructor, and both are important. Plenty of people are good at one or the other, but rarely both, and rarely at his level."

"As a choreographer, he's obviously studied quite a bit, and he's picked up many ideas and tricks that he can bring to a fight scene. He has a great imagination for seeing how a fight can go, and can bring all these ideas into the mix. With Henry, it's rarely just a sword fight. He comes up with things that wouldn't even occur to a lesser choreographer, such as yours truly."

"However, Henry's also very good at showing people HOW to do what he does, which is just as important, if not more so, than being a great choreographer. He breaks down the fight into its smallest components, making sure those are done properly, precisely, safely, and in your muscle memory. He then takes those components and builds a story told THROUGH the fight. Each move is a word, a sentence, an argument, a retort. So his fights end up being very involved, and very rich."

When I asked playwright and director Bo List, he, too was quick to sing Henry's praises. "What a pleasure to be able to talk about one of of my favorite people! I've known Henry maybe 13 years, since meeting him and seeing his work at THE LEGEND OF DANIEL BOONE.  Since then, I've had the opportunity to work with him four times (I hope I'm not forgetting one!): on Paragon Music Theatre's CRAZY FOR YOU, UK Theatre's TITUS ANDRONICUS, my own version of DRACULA at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe (he could not join us, alas) and most recently Banta Productions' EQUUS at the DAC (he was responsible for the uber-cool horse choreography)."

"I love working with Henry, as he understands (and inspires) the role of trust in the rehearsal process between collaborators. He is prepared (and almost better, knows how to get things done quickly on the fly). He's a very physical animal - thinking not just with his head, but with his whole body, and quickly at that. Boundless energy, never missing a beat.  He makes even the least experienced performer feel confident in what they're doing - and look good doing it.  And he is always deeply, personally invested in what he's working on. Nobody does theatre for the money - at least not anyone I know - but Henry really spends as much time as it takes (whatever it takes) to make things right, and once things are right he tries to make them even right-er. Maybe that means he works extra hours or skips work shifts to attend rehearsals, but he does it and your show (or my show or the audience's show) is much better because he's willing to sacrifice his time, money and energy toward the good of the show."

Another thread that runs through the theatre community, apart from the admiration for his intellectually intricate instruction, is the appreciation for Layton's relentlessly sharp sense of humor.  List agrees, "I confess that there are maybe five people in the world I laugh the most with, and Henry must be one of them. He knows how to laugh at himself, when to laugh at others and how to make others laugh. He's perfect."

Kentucky Classical Theatre Conservatory (KCTC) director Trish Clark - who by the by is stunning in her role as Mrs. Bennet in this year's PRIDE & PREJUDICE, which opens next Wednesday - affirms the theatrical community's affinity for Layton. "The thing about Henry that I think all the artists in Lexington would join in to confirm is that, when it comes to Stage Combat, Henry is simply a 'natural.'  He is a natural fighter, he is a natural choreographer, he is a natural teacher. I delight in watching him work. I delight in watching his focus become so concentrated with this natural passion and gift he has for the sport. It really is very special. Gifts like that define you and a person has to have joy in their existence when they have found that gift and been given the opportunity to work with it. I would love to see Henry doing what he does best every day of his life.  I have loved Henry for a long time and I am grateful for all his dedication to this community."

RENT performer Taylor Eldred agrees. "The first time I worked with Henry was in the summer of 2005, when he was the fight director for CYRANO with Joe Ferrell; worked with him doing rapier and dagger combat at the Lexington Shakespeare Institute that year (now known as the KCTC Intensive); and he also did fight choreography last year for the 'Sad Tale of the Beauxhommes' in ONCE ON THIS ISLAND with Margo Buchanan.  In addition, I took his broadsword class last summer at the KCTC Intensive, as well as his rapier and dagger class this year and have done a bit of unarmed combat with him."

"Usually in his classes that involve bladework, he takes us through safety, parries and footwork first. Keeping fighters safe is a major tenet of Henry's teaching. One of his greatest strengths as a fighter is his technique. You can be sure that when you fight with Henry, that his targets are right on point and that he'll always take care of you as his partner. His targets are on and his bladework is so precise because he took the time to learn his parries and footwork correctly and to the point that he could do them in his sleep. So the fact that he practices what he preaches to his students in his classes is what makes Henry such a great role model for the kids, as well as an excellent instructor. After he teaches them those techniques and is sure that his students are ready, he choreographs a simple but exciting fight for them to learn and practice on. What was so neat to watch in these last few weeks with the high schoolers was their excitement when he asked them to bring in a scene with some sort of conflict in it so that they then could learn to act a fight. One group brought in a scene from TOY STORY where Buzz Lightyear and Woody fight. Another group brought in a scene between Cecily and Gwendolyn from THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST.  It was cool for them to see how acting and fighting could come together, and they could put what they had learned to use in a practical application."

Eldred adds, "From my experience with Henry and from other actors' experiences who have worked with him more in depth and recently, Henry adds to the show in a number of ways. He is always prepared to work, but he welcomes input from the cast. He can make anyone, even the most inexperienced fighter on the stage look like a badass (pardon my language but there's no other word I can think of!!). He choreographs the fight from one move to the next so that the whole fight has a sense of realism to it. He makes it look dangerous (because it should) but because his choreography flows from one move into the next, it is not hard or awkward to do. He pushes his actors to find the 'fight' in themselves, encourages them to really 'go, fight kill!' and be clear with their choreography so that the audience will be able to follow their intentions in the fight, which I'm sure is a director's dream-come-true. He is a true professional."

Taylor recently was behind the camera in a video posted on YouTube with Layton and Nick Vannoy (who, with Eldred is performing in RENT.  Vannoy also worked with Layton while at Dunbar High School, and in last year's King Henry IV, Part I at the Arboretum). This clip of an elevator battle serves as a perfect glimpse of Layton's work.  "Nick and I thought it would be cool to film a fight with him and Henry. Henry had been choreographing a short assassin-style elevator fight with the high school students and Nick wanted to link this fight onto his professional website. It took us about 2 hours last Thursday to work out that fight in the elevator and how to shoot it. We shot it in the Fine Arts building elevator. It was cool to put in the time to actually make something like this work, and very cool to watch Henry and Nick in action. Both of them are great fighters."

Here's the clip - enjoy!


Layton advises his 
interest in doing stage combat began in high school at West Monroe, Louisiana.  "It was recommended to me that I try to get into the international stunt school in Seattle, Washington, so during the summer of 1996, I applied and got into the international stunt school with the United Stuntmans Association and the national stage combat workshop with the Society of American Fight Directors in Las Vegas, Nevada.  Since then, I have traveled the country choreographing and teaching, and  for the past 7 years , I have been performing motion capture stunts and fights for video games: The Chronicles of Riddick , Saints Row 1-2-3, Enclave, Knights of the Temple, to name a few."

Although Henry is not working on any of the productions for this year's SummerFest, he's been teaching at the Conservatory, and from all accounts, his work is exemplary.  He reflects on what his principle considerations are in teaching, and explains, "My biggest challenge and/or my main focus is getting the students/actors to realize that stage combat can't happen without true acting intentions.  Lots of unseasoned actors/students think combat is in theatre only to look cool, when nothing could be further from the truth. I believe stage combat is one the best acting exercises out there -- the stakes are never raised higher than life of death, and thats what we do in stage combat.  Now , having said all that, my greatest focus is keeping everyone safe, while fostering students to understand and apply truthful acting to their stage combat techniques."

Layton emphasizes a lasting impression as a teacher is his greatest reward.  "It's seeing the students come back year after year and seeing that they actually retained all of the techniques from the previous year, even though I haven't worked with them over the course of that year."

He believes the biggest challenge when doing stage combat outdoors - as is the case with SummerFest's outdoor stage at the Arboretum - is obviously coping and dealing with the weather. "There are very few outdoors stages that are designed to operate under bad weather conditions. so if your stage is wet from rain, you either cancel the show or try to do 'rain pace,' with the combat choreography.  That's where you act at 150% and move at 50%."

By now it's plain to see what makes Layton's contribution to local shows so valuable.  He's not only good at what he does, but he transcends the role of instructor by his devotion and hardwork.  He highlights the importance of acting and doesn't forget that theatre is all about convincing the audience to suspend reality, to momentarily lose their everyday worry and focus on the story that is unfolding on the stage.  When asked what he would like those who attend SummerFest to know about the event, he said,"I would tell them what it's like to get up at 9 a.m. and go out to the arboretum (on a Saturday morning) and run your show twice back to back with an hour break in 95 degree weather."

Not surprisingly, Henry Layton has a few secret talents:  "I can speak Shawnee, and I can play the trombone."

Somehow, that makes perfect sense and there is no doubt that he's simply splendid at both.  Play on!

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