For authentic fight scenes, Folger turns to Maryland swordmakers

October 18, 2013

If you’ve never been to Baltimore Knife and Sword, you’ll probably never find it. There’s no sign outside the small blue building a ways down a winding stretch of Marriottsville Road next door to the log cabin that swordmaker Kerry Stagmer calls home.

Don’t take it personally. They just really don’t want to be found.

“We deal with some public,” he says. “But we don’t deal with the public unless they already know where we are.”

Stagmer’s been in the weaponry trade for over 30 years. He and his older brother, Emory, who is no longer with the business, founded Baltimore Knife and Sword (then named S.N.S. Arms and Armor) in 1983. They were vendors at the Maryland Renaissance Festival until 2001. Since then, alongside his younger brother Matthew, Stagmer have been selling wholesale through a dozen vendors to 75 renaissance festivals across the country and creating custom weaponry for theaters, Disney, video game manufacturer Ubisoft and other clients.

Baltimore Knife and Sword cranks out more than 1,000 weapons a year. Stagmer estimates they’re one of only four distributors in the country operating on that scale. He was the only swordmaker Casey Kaleba called when Kaleba found out he’d be fight-directing Folger Theatre’s “Romeo and Juliet.”

Custom made swords take center stage during the Folger Theatre's staging of Shakespeare's famous play, "Romeo and Juliet." The fight director and sword maker tell The Post's Whitney Leaming why real swords were needed. (The Washington Post)

Kaleba has done “Romeo and Juliet” more than 30 times. This isn’t director Aaron Posner’s first time at the Romeo rodeo, either, and Posner suspects he’s been to 10 productions of the most tragic edition of “Family Feud” ever made.

Both Kaleba and Posner wanted to do something with the fight scenes that no one had seen before, and Posner had an additional request: “I knew I wanted it to feel dangerous. . . . There’s a reason that young people like carrying weapons, and it’s image and energy and power.”

“I feel like a lot of fights look fake,” he said. “Because people are so worried about safety, they look safe.”

Kaleba woke up in the middle of the night with a solution: Why have one sword when you could have two?

“I called Kerry up the next day and said, ‘Is this a thing that can even be done?’ ” says Kaleba, standing next to Stagmer outside Knife and Sword. “And then magic happened.” The two-sword method, which Kaleba says the actors have likened to “dueling Cuisinarts,” allows the cast “to explore, on a much smaller stage, shape and rhythm and syncopation in a way that we wouldn’t be able to do with a larger blade.”

Stagmer had “less than a week” to meet Kaleba’s request. “And that’s probably generous.”

“Six blades, three pairs, were custom built for this show,” Kaleba says.

“To give you a perspective, our custom work can typically [take] one to two years,” Stagmer says. You’d think the guy who makes weapons for a living would be the one in control of the transaction, but Stagmer’s is a service industry. “You become at the beck and call of the customer,” he said. “And the higher the profile of the customer, the more demanding they are.” He holds up some of the custom daggers that Knife and Sword is making for Disney’s Broadway production of “Aladdin.” The daggers have to be ready for the pre-Broadway engagement in Toronto next month, Stagmer says. “I’ve been getting five calls a day from Disney.”

Fortunately, Stagmer and Kaleba have worked together for years. Kaleba knows Stagmer’s stock and capabilities, and Stagmer knows Kaleba will speak on behalf of the swordmaker to the theater. “There has to be a good relationship between the fight director of the theater and the swordmaker . . . or it’s going to hold up the whole production,” Stagmer says.

For “Romeo and Juliet,” the paired sets of swords fit into the same scabbard, one made to fit the left hand, the other to fit the right. The concept, Stagmer explains, “is as though you made a much larger sword and cut it down the middle.” They’re a matched set.

Stagmer and Kaleba, though, are a mismatched set, at least as far as aesthetics go. Stagmer, 49, looks a little like Ron Swanson, if Ron Swanson left “Parks and Recreation” to join the cast of “Game of Thrones.” He has a bushy, reddish-white beard that ends several inches below his chin. The hair on his head is tucked under a round brown hat; his jeans are tucked into black galoshes. Kaleba, 35, has a voice that makes him sound like he’s always smiling and could easily be mistaken for one of his MFA students at Catholic University.

Stagmer apologizes for the state of the workshop, which would not look out of place in the early 1900s. “It’s a wreck, but that’s how we like it.” The stone-walled room is filled with polishing and grinding machines. The only modern appliance, a stereo blasting what Stagmer thinks is the score to “Star Wars,” still looks about 20 years old. Matthew Stagmer, 30, is grinding a rough surface onto a Damascus sword, sending a shower of sparks through the air like neon confetti.

Stagmer holds his hands up to block the glare. “Sorry,” he says. “That light’s just bad for your eyes.”

Then he takes another sword off the table to show the slight color distinctions in the blade. “That’s 40 layers of steel,” he says. “Like rings of wood would be.” He picks up what look like silver slap bracelets. “This sword started out as little strips of metal like this.”

Outside, blacksmith Sam Salvati whacks at a square bar of steel until it folds into a leaf. The power hammers all around him were made long before he was born: one from 1918, another from 1941 and third dating to the 1930s. Stagmer says the method by which weapons are made hasn’t really changed since. The Genius Bar for the dagger industry is a forge and a grinding belt, same as it ever was.

The weapons for “Romeo and Juliet” were purchased by Kaleba, who rents them to Folger for the production. Should you like a six-sword set, it’ll set you back about $2,500. On the bright side, Baltimore Knife and Sword weapons come with a lifetime guarantee.

“Actors really like Kerry’s weapons,” Kaleba says.“I’ve put a lot of people’s weapons in actors’ hands over time. They just respond.” It’s all very the-wand-chooses-the-wizard. “The balance is really nice. It’s really human. You get it in your hand and it sort of guides you in a really nice way.”

Rex Daugherty, who plays Romeo’s rival, Tybalt, agreed. When “you hold the weapon, if you just hold it straight out, the blade doesn’t pull your hand down. It’s just evenly balanced, so it essentially becomes an extension of your arm, instead of dictating to your body where the weapon must go.”

Daugherty has plenty of stage-fighting experience — this is his fifth time working with Kaleba — but has never fought with two swords simultaneously. Using two shorter swords requires the actors to engage in “pretty close combat,” he said. “It’s move your body or else steel will get you. . . . The fight is constantly moving.”

Stagmer says that the weapons are safe only insofar as the blades are smooth, instead of sharp, to the touch. “They’re made to be tough rather than made to be sharp,” he says. “But essentially, they are the same thing” as a “real” sword, and Stagmer makes sharp weapons for clients who desire them (like reenactors and professionals in full-contact tournaments).

In addition to needing to look the part, swords also have to sound the part. “It’s very, very important that they not just sound right but that they sound like what the audience thinks they should sound like,” said Stagmer. Audiences have been conditioned to hear a chiming sound, like a bell, because sword fights in movies are dubbed. “That’s one of the things we’ve worked very hard [on], to create a process so all of our weapons ring like bells. It’s important for theaters so that when the actors go out there and the swords hit each other, they don’t go ‘clack.’ ”

Kaleba promises that even though these fights look more dangerous, they aren’t any less safe than typical stage combat. “It’s a lot of trickery,” he says. “It’s sightlines, it’s angles. . . . You’re making the audience think they saw something that never really happened. And a lot of it is the relationship between the swords, the actors and the choreography.

“When all those things come together right, you can get something that’s dynamic, that’s athletic, that’s exciting, and it’s going to make an audience go ‘ooooh !’ I’m always chasing that moment of an audience going ‘ooooh !’ The adrenaline of watching a piece of violence. Because I don’t think an audience should ever be bored by violence. I think that’s not why Shakespeare wrote ‘Romeo and Juliet.’ I think he wants us to react to it.”

Romeo and Juliet

Through Dec. 1 at Folger Theatre, 201 East Capitol St. SE. www.folger.edu, 202-544-7077.

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