“Smack!” The man falls back, reeling from a blow to his left cheek. Undeterred, he slams his palms into the chest of his assailant, sending him in the opposite direction. Soon enough, ears are grabbed, hair is tugged, and one man is thrown rudely to the floor.
While Hulk Hogan would be proud, WrestleMania it’s not.
What the fighters are doing is learning how to grapple theatrically in a Mason Theater Department course called Stage Combat. Usually taught in the fall or spring, this year is the first time the popular faux-fighting class is being offered over the summer.
So still not getting what the class is all about? The overview in the syllabus says it all:
“Pushing and Pulling, Punching and Kicking, Falling and Rolling, Silly and Dirty Fighting, Weapons and Armed Techniques, Building the Fight, Writing the Fight, Rehearsing the Fight.”
“Keep your distance!” he cries out like a trainer tutoring a boxer, as two students run through their lines and fight moves simultaneously. “Watch your feet.”
After class, Elston says learning to battle on stage is an important skill set for aspiring actors. There is even a national accreditation body—the Society of American Fight Directors—that certifies actors as theatrical fighters.
“This is something that is helpful on a resume,” he says. “But, more important, it is so much fun!”
The idea of theatrical combat, Elston says, “is storytelling through staged violence,” adding that’s the key is “to make it look real without giving away your tricks.” Moments before, one student demonstrates a trick by stealthily slapping his leg to create the sound effect as his other hand pretends to strike his partner.
Tricks aside, safety comes first in Elston’s class. He teaches his young actors to take it slow with their fight moves, trust their partners, and to remember that the one getting hit, thrown, or shoved “is always in control.”
Elston knows firsthand the effects of a staged fight gone awry. Once while rehearsing as Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet, a fellow actor accidentally hit him with an uppercut that broke his nose.
“All acting is based on a certain sense of risk-taking,” he points out, now laughing at the wayward punch.
Technically, Elston’s class is considered unarmed, meaning weapons are not allowed. But one day this summer he intends to permit his students to bring in a nonlethal weapon of their choosing (pillows are a possibility) to get a taste of armed staged combat.
For next summer, plans are in the works to offer an advanced class that would include more fake weapons. The department is also considering a class for area high school thespians, where they could become certified in stage combat.
Finding more students for the additional classes will not be an issue, according to Elston, as the course is usually one of the first in the department to fill up.
“There is always more demand than space,” he says.
The earth growled and rolled like crashing waves, causing ceilings to cave, walls to collapse, and roads to buckle. Among the chaos in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, that fateful afternoon of January 12, 2010, was Mason graduate student Regine Jean-Francois,who was visiting her parents over the Christmas break. She was scheduled to catch a flight back to Northern Virginia the next day.
When the quake hit, Jean-Francois was chatting with friends online from her mother’s office computer. “Pictures from the walls started to fall,” she recalls. “Then I heard was my mother yelling, ‘Earthquake! Earthquake!’”
Seconds later, they raced to find a way out of the building where her mother, Dr. Dianne Jean-Francois, MD, worked as country director for the Catholic Medical Mission Board. A secretary directed them in one direction, but that way out was blocked. Finally, after maneuvering through the dust and debris and out of the building, they darted into a clearing, where they started calling loved ones. Jean-Francois’ 92-year-old grandmother survived, but an uncle did not.
A public health student, Jean-Francois has been back to Haiti once since that horrific day almost one year ago. Last summer, she spent a month in Port-au-Prince helping run a camp for nearly 100 children affected by the earthquake and subsequent aftershocks. As part of her Practicum in Public Health I class, she evaluated the health of the children and taught them how to deal with emergency situations.
“The people of Haiti are very resilient,” she says. “But there is still much building to be done there.”
Despite the devastation, her parents still live in Haiti, where Jean-Francois was born, with her mother using her health care expertise to find medicine for ailing residents and prosthetic limbs for others with more lasting injuries.
In terms of helping Haiti heal, Jean-Francois hopes to follow in her mother’s footsteps. Which is why just five days after the quake, she reluctantly returned to Fairfax, prodded by her parents to continue her studies.
“My parents said I had to go back to school because Haiti would need people like us (educated public health experts),” she says, adding, “But it made me happy that I was there [during the quake], because I could be with my family, and I could help my mother,” who aided countless Haitians moments after the quake struck.
Jean-Francois, who also has a BS in psychology from Mason, will graduate this spring. She plans to remain in this area for a couple more years to gain valuable “work experience.” After that, she hopes to return to Haiti to help in her homeland’s continued recovery. Something, she says, that is possible—albeit, not without a great deal of work.
“We can get back to where we were,” Jean-Francois says without hesitation. “But it will take a lot of sacrifice and effort.”
Golden lion tamarins are tiny in stature but large in personality. Relegated to a narrow shrinking band of forest along Brazil’s Atlantic coast, the pocket-size monkey, as with so many other animal species, have struggled to maintain their place on Earth.
But lucky for these Lilliputian-esque primates, whose gold manes resemble that of a lion, researchers such as Jennifer Mickelberg, PhD Environmental Science ’11, are using their zoological know-how to find ways to ensure that golden lion tamarins stick around for generations to come.
“I really enjoy their charisma,” says Mickelberg. “They are always so energetic, and every day there is always something new that they are doing. That’s why I love working with them.”
While she often travels to Brazil, Mickelberg does much of her work saving this diminutive species from a windowless office in an off-the-beaten-path section of the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington, D.C., as well as from theSmithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, Virginia.
She began working at the Smithsonian facility in 2000, when she was hired to manage the golden lion tamarin international captive breeding program. At the time, the species’ population hovered around 1,100 in the wild. Today, with much of the credit going to dedicated scientists such as Mickelberg, their numbers now stand at 1,600, with more than a third of those born in captivity and reintroduced into the forests of Brazil.
“It is so exciting to see the population grow, grow, and grow,” Mickelberg says, while standing next to a glass-enclosed exhibit in the zoo’s Small Mammal House that contains several of the monkeys.
In the animal kingdom, golden lion tamarins are a fascinating lot. They live in monogamous family groups. Females almost always give birth to twins, and the males do most of the child carrying. “[Having twins] is really rare in the mammal world. So it’s kind of neat that they do this, and their tight social structure is really fun to watch,” Mickelberg points out.
Mickelberg, originally from Minneapolis, describes part of her job as being a “monkey matchmaker,” pairing male and female golden lion tamarins based on their genetic relatedness in the hope that they reproduce. She also travels annually to Brazil to work with officials there to help develop a management plan to ensure the long-term viability of the golden lion tamarin population. “They take the conservation of the golden lion tamarins very seriously,” she says of officials in Brazil, where the creature is emblazoned on banknotes.
In the United States, an international program to save the golden lion tamarin was born at the National Zoo in the early 1970s, when the species’ population numbered only 200. That program is now based in Brazil, but the zoo is still very much involved in the animal’s recovery. Recently, a big part of the zoo’s conservation effort has been a free-ranging exhibit, where the monkeys—outfitted with radio collars—are allowed to wander uncaged and untethered in a section of the zoo so they can be studied in a natural setting. Mickelberg heads this program, which involves volunteers who monitor the territorial monkeys, recording their behaviors and actions. (The program is currently on hold while a new elephant exhibit is being constructed.)
Mickelberg, who teaches part time in Mason’s College of Science, is also co-keeper of the golden lion tamarin studbook, a pedigree database containing information on all members of the species ever held in captivity throughout the world. She cites the book almost daily as she answers questions about the animals from zoos around the globe.
“For me, working with a species that was so endangered at 200 animals—and now we’ve come up to 1,600—is such a great thing,” she says. “I feel privileged to be able to work on this program and to work with these incredible animals.”
Mickelberg adds that while the species is still endangered, the monkeys are accomplished breeders and have thrived when reintroduced into the wild, two traits that bode well for their future.
“When given the opportunity, they do quite well,” she explains. “So as long as we can secure land for them in Brazil, there is a good chance they are going to make it.”
To learn more, visit www.savetheliontamarin.org.