The sun is shining as LSA Professor David Doris leads his class into the Law Quad for an exercise. Suddenly, a large group of disguised figures appears from out of the distance and charges the unsuspecting students, engaging in simultaneous sword battles around them. Once finished, the attackers flee, leading their witnesses to wonder what in the world just happened.
They will later learn that this was a staged event set up by their professor and The Ring of Steel, an organization on campus that focuses on learning various aspects of staged combat from different eras. The members of The Ring of Steel mostly use their talents to create fight sequences in local films and professional theater, like the Michigan Opera Theatre, and to create live performances of their own that can be seen at Renaissance festivals, haunted houses, science fiction conventions and even weddings when the bride is kidnapped from the altar.
“Ring of Steel” refers to the group’s pride in its swordfighting abilities, as well as to its social cohesion.
“We’re swinging swords at 200 miles an hour at each other’s head and if I can’t trust you, I can’t perform with you,” said Christopher Barbeau, the organization’s maestro. “It’s a double entendre – it’s a ring of friends, and it’s also the sound that steel makes when it hits (steel).”
“I’ve come about three days a week for the last three years, and picked it up relatively quickly because I came from a dance background and had the physical coordination skills,” added Diane Miller, the student president and a junior in the School of Music, Theatre & Dance. “That helps a lot with martial arts. My favorite weapon is broadsword because it’s big and heavy and barbaric.”
Members can learn a variety of martial arts techniques including aikido, jiu-jitsu and tae kwon do, and can also take advantage of the group’s collection of 2,000 weapons, including whips, visually stimulating light sabers and semi-automatic guns with plugged barrels.
Aside from weapons, The Ring of Steel also focuses on stunt work. During fight sequences, it is not uncommon to see one of the combatants fall off of a high surface, jump off of a mini trampoline and flip in midair, break through sheets of glass or be completely enveloped in flames.
To be lit on fire, the actor must wear underwear made out of Nomex — the material worn by racecar drivers — and get soaked in heat-resistant stunt gel applied to many layers of clothing. The actor must then be covered in rubber cement. Once the heat is felt, the actor falls to the ground and is extinguished by multiple onlookers.
“We can pretty much do every burn in the movies,” Barbeau explained. “There’s a little bit of timing and skill on your part in how you move because it’s real flames. You have to make sure the fire doesn’t go in your face.”
For some of its other stunts, The Ring of Steel uses special equipment not commonly found on a college campus.
“We use quick-release shackles (for entrances by flight) that aren’t intended for human use,” Barbeau said. “We’re all using it for human use but it’s manufactured for releasing a sail. They’re learning on professional-level equipment. This is what is used in Los Angeles.”
With all of these dangerous weapons and stunts, one may wonder how many injuries can result from being a member of The Ring of Steel. However, each of the fights are calculated and rehearsed, with the actors memorizing each physical movement, fall to the ground and drop of their weapon.
“In telling the story of a fight, we have to make it bigger and a little slower than a real fight, and we can build in safety protocols,” Barbeau said. “So this is kind of like wrestling your dad over actual fighting.”
“I’ve got a couple sword scars, but to be honest I probably have more scars from my cat,” added Dave Melcher, a ‘journeyman’ in The Ring of Steel, or the equivalent of a second-degree black belt. “Like any sport, injuries do happen.”
According to Barbeau, theatrical combat is one of the earliest forms of drama, with documented pictures of cavemen reenacting their victory over thousand-pound bison. From here, The Ring of Steel has marked the evolution of staged combat over 1,800 years, learning the styles of each era leading up to present day. In addition to fighting, members are expected to perform to music and participate in small skits that inspire battle.
“You can’t certify fights without having a performance because that’s the ultimate integration of things,” Miller explained. “You have the martial arts, then the ancient swordplay techniques, then the musical elements of rhythm and … the choreography and then on top of the pyramid is acting, so you have to be able to keep everything in your head and recite things.”
“There are stuntmen who learn to perform stunts at a high level and … they’re just doing a stunt anyway, but they have to learn martial acting,” Barbeau added. “Like reacting to head punches and things like that. They have to sell being in pain from a bad landing.”
The Ring of Steel prides itself on performing scenarios from a variety of different genres, usually customizing its shows to the type of event and audience. In the past, The Ring of Steel has created shooting battles in the Wild West, medieval swordfights and renditions of Shakespearean plays such as “Romeo and Juliet.” Barbeau alone has choreographed more than 500 stage performances in his 39 years as The Ring of Steel maestro.
For LSA senior Breezy Mullins, her favorite performance was set outside of the Quality 16 movie theater for the premiere of “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.” The show, themed around the movie, featured Mullins as a cleaning lady whose mop was stolen by Indiana Jones.
“It wasn’t like other performances where you fight and sit down; this one was constant, it was to music and it made you feel like a Hollywood stunt person, because it was at the level of Hollywood stunt work,” Mullins said. “We did gun work, explosions, fire, sword work, high falls, rolling, a little bit of everything.”
The Ring of Steel will put on a series of performances entitled “Midnight Madness” on Main Street every Friday in December outside of The Black Pearl restaurant. Viewers will be taught about staged combat and will be able to watch three- to five-minute skits lasting for a total of about two-and-a-half hours. Playing off the name of the restaurant, the group will fight as pirates and and will also perform scenes with musketeers and “Star Wars” light saber battles.
“Our big theme right now is pirate shows, my favorite show in our repertory theater,” Miller said. “There was this one that had a four-way fight – there was cutlass versus rapier and dagger. We had two of those going at the same time and then at one point they intersect. That’s a fun show.”
For many members of The Ring of Steel, the organization is more than just a local group of students and townies. Melcher has been with the group for about 11 years, and with all of that training, according to Barbeau, still only knows about 70 percent of what The Ring of Steel is capable of. Even Barbeau admits that he is still learning new techniques after almost 40 years of experience, and continues to find new excitement every year.
“Light us on fire, throw us through a third-story plate glass window while we’re swinging a flaming broadsword,” he said, “and we’re very happy people.”