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Behind the Scenes: Iron Gate Exhibition

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by Meg Floyd

Today I bring you a brief interview I had the fun of doing with Jeff Tsay, the head of Forte Productions, the crew behind the HEMA Livestream Series, instructor at Forte Swordplay, and organizer of New England’s tent-pole tournament, Iron Gate Exhibition, the next event scheduled in the series. Jeff is going to give us a sneak peak behind the scenes of this year’s first annual Iron Gate Exhibition, formerly known as the Boston Sword Gathering.

HN: First off, can you give me a little bit of info about your background in HEMA and martial arts?

Tsay: Coming from a Chinese heritage, it was natural for me to explore that cultural context first.  I dabbled in a variety of Eastern martial arts for a number of years while I was at MIT in Cambridge, MA, but eventually found an awesome kung fu school (Wing Chun Kung Fu Academy) run by Sifu Stanley Jue in Boston, MA, who was trained himself in one of the lesser-known branches named Gulao, from mainland China.  It was where I got a very solid foundation on sensitivity training and the understanding that good clean technique can really allow you not just to control your opponents in the field, but dominate them.  It’s something I continue to strive for every time I step out onto the fencing floor.

It was well into that training that I was introduced to HEMA through a workshop held at the Higgins Armory Museum.  The idea that the mysteries of medieval and Renaissance swordplay were written down and just waiting to be discovered fascinated me.  At the time much of the study at the Higgins seemed more focused on stage combat than martial practice, so I found it exciting to try to apply my martial sensibilities to the historical research being done by Dr. Jeffrey Forgeng and crew.  Over the course of the next several years, I was granted the privilege of being guided through the wide wild world of HEMA history by the likes of Matt Galas and Dr. Forgeng, including fantastic projects like helping translate the compendia of Paulus Hector Mair.  Eventually, one thing led to another and I founded the HEMA club I currently guide today, Forte Swordplay.

HN: Could you tell me a little bit about your club, such as where you’re based and what manuals/traditions do you focus on?

Tsay: Forte Swordplay started like many HEMA clubs today I’m sure: a bunch of guys interested in playing with swords.  Our members often come from an eclectic martial background (e.g. kung fu, iaido, kendo, boxing, and of course fencing), which I’ve found valuable in our approach to combat.  While we draw most of our technical study of historical sources from the German Kunst des Fechtens tradition (any/everything from Doebringer to Meyer), our approach has evolved quite a bit over the years.  We used to put a priority on looking at historical techniques first, but over the years after gaining a fairly wide perspective on the German tradition, we started to put the priority on training this as a martial art and asking what any good martial artist should ask: “What are all the ways I can fight with this weapon?”

That took us rightly back to basics, and forced us to explore all permutations of basic weapon mechanics — some of which seem to be documented, and some that weren’t.  By focusing on these basic mechanics, it allowed us to put martial sensibility first and historical treatises second, to help sanity check the direction of our resulting techniques as we progressed.  It helped us avoid the trap of exploring only documented historical technique.  I’m pleased at the balance between theory and practice we have been able to achieve, though it’s getting more and more challenging to devote enough time to real depth of training with all the material now available at our fingertips (who would have believed it 10 years ago?!!!), as well as all the projects we’re getting involved in.

HN: Let’s talk about the Iron Gate Exhibition, or IGX as it has become known colloquially. The event has been around since 2011 or 2012, correct, previously as Boston Sword Gathering. What’s new about IGX this year, besides the name? What do you hope to achieve with this event?

Tsay: I think it’s worth remembering that the Boston Sword Gathering started back in 2009 as just a local gathering of HEMA groups local to Boston.  Responsibility for hosting rotated among a few local groups, and each of these was logistically simple enough that they sometimes happened more than once a year.  Since then, the BSG has developed into a major HEMA tent-pole event for the US, with the last one happening in 2012 being the 8th and final incarnation.  This year, to celebrate its evolution into a national and international annual event (because more than once a year would now be absolutely insane), we have renamed it Iron Gate Exhibition to reflect the idea that we are providing a showcase for HEMA that encompasses German traditions, Italian traditions, and others beyond.  While we always want to highlight the level of professionalism and polish that a HEMA event can be capable of, we also want to honor the messy tradition of experimentation and innovation that was a hallmark of the Boston Sword Gathering.

For this year, innovations include our first spear and dagger vs. dagger tournaments, the implementation of basic vs. advanced tiers in tournament scheduling, and a “triathlon” approach that will allow us to determine a “Best All-Round Fighter” across multiple tournaments.  And as if that weren’t enough, we have the honor this year of having a 4th day dedicated to scholarship hosted at the Higgins Armory Museum.

 

For those not aware, the Higgins is a well-known US arms and armor institution that is unfortunately closing its doors at the end of this year.  On their behalf, we at IGX invite all HEMA practitioners to attend this special day (9/23) and pay tribute to an institution that has played an important role in the evolution of HEMA.

HN: Now we all know you’ve been active in the tournament scene at large this year, particularly under the umbrella of Forte Productions, the group responsible for putting on the livstreams. Can you please tell us a bit about Forte Productions? How did it get started? What are its goals?

Tsay: The HEMA community is growing larger, more ambitious, and more complex every year.  Because the brain trust at Forte has a lot of expertise in technical matters (as in modern technology!), I’ve wanted to provide an outlet for our technical ability that would be beneficial to the HEMA community.  Forte Productions started on the design and manufacturing side with prototype spring-loaded sparring daggers that our colleague John O’Connor developed and allowed us to implement dagger tournaments safely and successfully at two HEMA events (BSG and Fechtschule America), and continues this year with prototype spears that will hopefully allow us to pilot spear competition as well.  It then took a bit of a quantum leap as we steered our brain trust toward solving the problem of bringing HEMA Livestream to the US.

Pioneered by the worthy Swedes at Swordfish, this seemed ideal as a medium for showcasing today’s evolving HEMA, and we wanted to make it a central component for the very first year of IGX.  To get ourselves ready, we committed to doing two serious livestream efforts earlier in 2013, which we have now accomplished at Fechtschule America and Longpoint.  We will be taking that combined experience, adding in some simple but significant production improvements, and hopefully outdoing ourselves at IGX for our final HEMA Livestream of the year.

While every year yields new HEMA news, one of the biggest headlines for 2013 has got to be how this year has been a banner year for HEMA Livestream.  And not only for the events participating the HEMA Series Livestream that we have helped coordinate (Fechtschule America, Longpoint, IGX, and Swordfish), but other livestream efforts suddenly occurring that we have not directly been involved in (go Schwertkampf Mexico!!!).  Hopefully we have at least inspired them (and others) to go out and try to use this medium to spread the word of HEMA.

But getting back to Forte Productions — where do we go from here?  Only time and the evolving needs of HEMA will tell.

HN: Anything else you would like to add?

 
Tsay: I think I’ve said plenty.  Keep up the good work, HEMA News!

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