Standing in what is called “the bowl” at the Hill Cumorah, two young men stood looking at each other.
“How do we do this?” one asked.
“Ok, you attack me,” the other replied.
Then, as if they were much smaller boys, the sword in the hand of the first came down on the staff of the second. They laugh and try a different move. Around them, 40 pairs of other young men are engaged in the same actions, laughing, lunging, striking, jumping. In terms of a boy being in a summer play, swordplay is pretty much a dream job. Except the two men in the middle are barking orders. This isn’t childhood pretend. This is seven days to become Nephite and Lamanite warriors fighting in an epic battle scene. In seven days, these 80 young men need learn to be believable on stage.
Music from a dance scene being staged farther down the bowl wafts through the Hill Cumorah, and above them on the stage, another cast group is learning how to be a better mob against Samuel the Lamanite. But these guys aren’t fighting quite right, and director Ward Wright calls in his warriors. He reminds them of their three safety rules – most likely something their mothers never warned them of in their youth sword battles when they just banged their swords against each other. They dutifully repeat after him, “Eye Contact! Distance! Terminal Assent!”
He impresses on the warriors the import of their scene – and its brevity. Each pair may only have 25 seconds of fighting, 10 to 15 moves, but they should all be winded by the end of that.
“What you do makes a difference,” Wright said. “None of this (demonstrates weak fighting). So make your fight realistic. Make it look good.”
He sends them out to improve. Each young man was paired with a partner, most just met that day. They are asked to get to know each other and where to find each other in case one or the other is late to practice. They are responsible for each other now.
And they have to figure out how to choreograph their battle to the staged death.
“Try to go like this or that,” one young man says.
“And I’ll do that (swings his staff)” his partner answers.
“And then I’m going to sweep your leg…”
“And I’ll dodge it!”
“And then you’re going to jab at me, and then I’ll die.”
And swords and staffs swing and blow.
Wright calls them back in. He knows he isn’t working with professional actors. They cannot – must not – give anything less than 100 % on stage, and he has one week to train them. Any weak acting in any part of their scene can draw the crowd’s attention from the whole play. Practices are short. These young men need to focus.
And in that moment, he starts to work on their feet. While not all understand acting, most understand sports.
He and another director walk timidly around each other. Doesn’t look very intimidating, right? Would they get very far in basketball or football standing flat footed? But now, front leg bent, back leg straight, be on the balls of your feet– they now have the basic ready stance that goes with pretty much every sport Ward can find to compare it to. Now they can add tension to their movement and move from being boys staging sword plays to men ready for battle.
From the stage above them there are cries of “Repent! Repent!”
The young men don’t seem to hear. They practice the new footwork with determined smiles and laughter. And more than one does what they have been asked from the beginning – they consider their place in scripture.
“I understand more completely how their lives were lived,” said Cody Bywater, 16, of Tremonton, Utah.
And, he is also getting proper sword fighting lessons, which in his words is simply “awesome.
— story by Amanda Lonsberry, photos by Sarah Williams
by Sarah Williams on 07/7/2016