Forever Employable Stories: Jared Kirby, Traditional fencing master and fight director

Posted on June 29, 2020.

In anticipation of the launch of my new book, Forever Employable, I’ll be sharing a series of interviews and stories from people from all different professions who have created a platform for themselves to make them forever employable. In this episode, I speak with Jared Kirby, traditional fencing master and fight director.

An amazing teacher can see that part of you that is invisible to yourself: swordplay, yes swordplay, as content can also build a forever employable platform

I have to admit that when I stumbled upon Jared Kirby’s website I was taken by surprise. The flag that he’s planted — one based on sword mastery, choreographed on-screen and on-stage fighting and stunt work — isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when I think about a forever employable career. But, this is the true power of diving deep into a specific passion and creating thought leadership and recognized expertise around it.

Jared fell in love with choreographed stage fighting at a renaissance fair in Minnesota when he was only 15. Within 5 years he was a part of this same show and learning how to create compelling stories for audiences using what he’d learned working with this group and it’s leader. Stage fighting was exciting, but what about actual sword fighting? 

Watch my interview with Jared Kirby, traditional fencing master and fight director on building a platform around his passion.

A friend of Jared’s went to Edinburg to learn exactly that. When he returned he brought Jared his own sword. Jared had found his next passion. He moved to Edinburg to learn how to use that sword and shortly thereafter met his next teacher — Maestro Martinez. It’s through a series of remarkable teachers that Jared honed his craft and was able to create the kind of storytelling he’d always wanted to. 

Jared continues today to deliver his knowledge and expertise in a variety of ways. He writes books on sword fighting, teaches the marital art himself, choreographs on screen fights and does stunt work for television. His broad expertise in a niche subject has made him the go-to guy for this type of content and skill. This is exactly what a forever employable career looks like. You plant a flag, dig deep and gain expertise, share that expertise broadly and then seize the new opportunities that come your way. 

Jared shared exactly how he did that in the interview. I hope you enjoy it. 


JEFF:     Welcome back to another of my accidental podcast series called Forever Employable Stories. This episode, I’ve been looking forward to for a long time, as we were looking folks to join us from outside of tech. My background has always been tech, product management, design. Looking for folks who can tell a Forever Employable story from outside of tech. We came across Jared Kirby and he graciously agreed to join us here today. I just asked him what his title was and how he describes himself. Jared is a traditional fencing master and a fight director.

JARED:       The traditional fencing master side of things came about because of the fight directing or more importantly, at that time, stage combat.

JEFF:     Stage combat?

JARED:       Yes, when I was 15, I went to our renaissance fair in Minnesota where I grew up. At noon, they had this huge chess match where people, instead of the knight kicking pawn, they cleared the board and they had a fight. I was blown away. I was like, “What is this magic?” I talked to performers afterwards and found out it was all choreographed ahead of time and they were doing these sword fights live every day. I was like, all right. I’m going to do that. At 15, I made that decision. I didn’t know I meant it so literally, but small town in Minnesota, I grew up in. When I was done with high school and a little bit of college, I moved to the Twin Cities, sought out the fight director of that chess match and started training with him. A year after that, I actually got cast in that very show. Five years after I saw that human chess match, I was working in that human chess match.

JEFF:     In that five years, you finished high school, did a little bit of college. Are you doing stuff to take you in that direction? Are you studying? Are you taking classes?

JARED:       Oh, yeah, constantly training with the fight director of that fair. It’s a man named Michael Anderson and Don Preston  was the other one that really did a lot of the training. Once I started doing it, I loved it. To me, I was also an actor; so, I was pursuing acting training. The sword fighting and the stage combat and telling a story through violence is what, at that time, I didn’t have the verbiage to describe it that way, but when I look back, that’s what I really loved about it. Not just the big knock ‘em out, blow stuff up kind of fights, but actually the ability to utilize violence as a storytelling tool. That’s where I’ve taken it now and we’ll talk more about that later.

I just loved it. I kept training and working on different weapons and refining my skill. It was a gentleman there that I worked with a lot. He’s one of my best friends. He moved to Scotland for six months. When he came back, he had met this group of people that were doing sword fighting for real. That’s the way we saw it because our only application of sword fighting was in stage combat, but these people that he met over there, Guy Windsor, Paul Macdonald, Garret Hunt; they were kitted up in masks and jackets with rapiers and long swords and hitting each other. That just seemed insane and of course, we did that then.

I always tell the story, when he came back from Edinburgh, we were corresponding via mail. We were actually writing letters back and forth because that’s how you did it in the 90s. When he came back, I thought he was the best friend in the world because he brought me a sword. That was his gift from Edinburgh. It was only like half a decade ago that I was talking to him and I was like, “Dude, I finally realized, that was the most selfish gift you’ve probably ever given. If I didn’t have a sword, we couldn’t have trained.” He came back and he hooked me. I had my own sword; he had his own. We started playing. That really started the fencing side of things and pursuing historical fencing; wanting to do this as a martial art.

After a couple years working with him, I moved to Edinburgh also because I needed a fencing master. I needed somebody to learn from.

JEFF:     Is Edinburgh a hot spot for fencing?

JARED:       Not necessarily, but think about the 90s. You didn’t Google fencing masters and find anybody. I’m in Minnesota and my buddy, Tim, comes back, and says these guys in Edinburgh are doing this. I don’t know other people that are really doing this. We were starting early web stuff. We were starting to connect other people; a guy in Germany, a guy in Australia, a guy in Arizona, I was meeting, but this was actually a perfect excuse to also live overseas. That had been on my list anyway. I packed up, moved to Edinburgh, and started training with him. Every week, there’s a group called the Dawn Dualists Society that I trained with twice a week. At the end of my stay there, that’s where I met Maestro Martinez, who was from New York, and he’s a traditional fencing master teaching Spanish rapier, which I’d always been fascinated by. I took a 1 ½ hour class with him at this seminar and it sealed the deal. I’d been thinking about moving to New York, maybe back to Minnesota. I didn’t know exactly what to do, but this man was amazing. Spanish rapier was amazing. I literally, at the end of that class, shook his hand and said, “I’m going to move to New York and train with you.” I’m sure he laughed afterwards. He was polite and not laughing to my face, but the joke’s on him because five months after that handshake, I was in his fencing academy. That was over 20 years ago. Been there every since. Training, teaching, became a fencing master certified through him four years ago. The thing that hooked me with him is that it’s a martial art. I’d only ever seen fencing as a sport, the Olympic sport, but that’s only 100 years old. Sport fencing. In Europe, we spent thousands of years killing each other with swords. We developed complex martial arts systems in order to do that. That’s the way that I teach sword work.

JEFF:    You’re teaching sword fighting normally. That’s kind of the main thing, but you’ve done a lot more than that. You’ve taken this knowledge and expertise and you’ve branched out far beyond just teaching people how to sword fight. What more have you done?

JARED:       In the fight directing side of things, what I was able to do – because I had these two passions that felt very opposite; martial arts with swords and stage and screen combat. The reality of fighting with a sword to defend yourself, studying it as a martial art, and complete pretend. What I was able to do was take what seems like opposites and really bring together the common denominators and that helped both clarify my passions but then let me see the symmetry between them and bring benefits of each into both. For example, having the martial arts knowledge of how to really use a rapier and then taking that to choreographed fight scenes and choreographing from a martial foundation, it grounds the fight in a reality that no audience member understands cognitively. That’s not our point. We’re not engaging people’s minds with theater and camera work. We’re engaging their heart and their soul. On a visceral level, every human understands that that looks more real. They’ll never be able to tell you why, but they will watch a fight that I choreograph and they’ll know that’s based in reality even when it’s fantastical.

JEFF:    You’re teaching fighting. You’re teaching stage and screen. You’re combining these two things. You’re doing your own stunt work, correct?

JARED:       Yes, stunts is its own category. With the fight directing I do, that’s like indie films and theater, which New York is rich with. A few years back, I made a commitment to professional stunt work as well. With that, I’m much newer in that realm because it really is its own thing. When I’m training people for stage and screen combat, I’m looking at actors and training them. It’s almost an acting base. We talk about actable choices from the reality of how the human body reacts to dying or a gut wound. Them we pull out and extract the actable choices. When I’m teaching or choreographing, that’s the group that I’m working with. Stunts is its own thing.

My story always begins with an amazing teacher. If you’re going to do something incredible, you need to have someone to teach you that but also to help guide you. I feel very fortunate. This stunt man, in New York named Chazz Menendez. He started a stunt school and someone actually referred me there. He got my head screwed on straight and started training there. Mostly, at that time, I just wanted someplace for me to train because I was doing a lot of teaching, a lot of choreographing. I really loved what I was learning there and decided to pursue that as well.

JEFF:    If I saw correctly, you’ve also done a little bit of editing and writing.

JARED:       Yeah, I have 4 or 5 books out. Mostly the stuff nobody would want to read unless you’re in this area. Have you watched The Princess Bride?

JEFF:    Of course.

JARED:       Thank God. We can still talk.

JEFF:    We know it by heart.

JARED:       You know, that you can find that Thibault cancels Capo Ferro. Capo Ferro was this – when I found out those were real fencing masters, that encouraged my historical research. My first book is a translation of Capo Ferro’s  treatise from 1610 that I worked on with my fencing masters. It’s great, but it’s dense. Reading historical fencing treatises are they’re treatises. They’re written for an educated audience.

JEFF:    From 16th and 17th century, no less.

JARED:       Yeah, it’s like picking up a medical journal. If you don’t know the jargon, you’re just going to be like, “Okay, yeah, cool.” I just submitted a manuscript for my next book which is coauthored with a director friend of mine on staging Shakespeare’s violence. We’re going through a two volume set. We’re covering all of, not just the explicit violence that is clear in the script; there’s a lot of implied violence where a character just says, “Why did you strike me?” Clearly, we need to choreograph a punch, right? Hamlet says at the beginning, as he chasses after the ghost, “Hold off thy hand.” Well, you better have Marcellus holding onto him then. I think the book is extremely valuable because we also cover potential violence. All these opportunities where you can use the violence as a storytelling tool, enhance the scene through violence.

JEFF:    Super interesting. I think, in my consumer non-expert opinion, the sword fight scene in The Princess Bride is the greatest sword fight in all of movies.

JARED:       I highly doubt you’re going to piss anybody off with that. I talk about it a lot. Without that movie and without that very fight scene, I don’t know if I would have started researching historical fencing as early as I did. It was very pivotal to my early development. What I say about that is I’ll put one of two hats on. As a traditional fencing master, when I watch the moves that they’re doing with those swords, it’s awful. They’re not even trying to hit each other most of the time. As a fight director, I hold up that fight scene as the epitome of – we had some basic rules that choreography in a fight should follow like a fight should always reveal character. Perfect. You learn so much about both of them. A fight is a story in and of itself. When you choreograph it, it should have a beginning, a middle, a climax, and an end. Brilliant. Every part of that side of things and with what he’s doing with what they know about sword fighting at that time is great.

JEFF:    I love it. The whole thing is amazing and they switch hands in the middle. He’s like, “I’m not left handed. There’s something you should know.” In the book Forever Employable I talk about some of the qualities it takes to become forever employable; qualities like entrepreneurialism, continuous learning and improvement, self-confidence, and reinvention. Not in that order. There’s a few that I think are relevant to your story. The first one I want to talk about is self-confidence. From my external perspective, it feels there’s a tremendous amount of self-confidence that has to come to place yourself, even in a choreographed fight, and then ultimately, to take on what most folks see as a sport and really kind of dig deep into it and bring back in a variety of different ways to increase awareness of it, increase your employability, and other things. Can you share a story from your past that helped you develop your self-confidence to explore this path?

JARED:       I’ll bring it back to those great teachers. As a teacher, I often talk about the stages of learning. Everybody starts off in unconscious and competence when you begin something new. You just don’t know how bad you are at it because you’ve never done it before. The sooner you can move to conscious incompetence, that’s when you can start to grow. It’s also a level a lot of people have a hard time with because they don’t want to recognize consciously how bad they are at it. Then you move to conscious competence and that’s once your skills have developed; you can do everything, but you still have to think about it and ultimately, your goal is unconscious competence. You don’t need to think about these things.

I think having a great teacher is necessary for that. I came to Maestro Martinez with a lot of illusions, a lot of my own thoughts about this. My greatest growth came from shutting up and just doing the work. You need a guide. You need a teacher to provide that path and then you’ve got to walk it. That’s one of the things that’s really difficult for people; to fight that ego and just shut up and do the work. When I say that, you also have to have a huge ego in order to do something like this. I don’t use ego in the way people think about it. I don’t mean egotistical. I mean the way that you think about yourself, you have to have a big ego. You have to care about yourself and you have to be pursuing something for yourself. I often tell people, part of what I do what I’ve done and I built this career the way that I have is because I simply pursued my passions with zeal. By doing that, I didn’t think about making a career out of this. I just knew that I had to do this. When I find something that I have to do, then I do it.

This last book is a perfect example. I talked to my co-author, Seth Duerr, the artistic director of The York Shakespeare Company. I talked t him about it 10 years ago. It’s a lot of work and neither of us wanted to do it. I’ve spent at least 5-6 years telling everybody that this book needed to be written, telling them to write it, “Hey, you should do this,

 and nobody did it. We finally sat down and we did the work because it has to be done. To be able to write a book about Shakespeare, that has never been written before in the history of Shakespeare, it had to be done. I had to pursue stunt work once I met Chazz and had that teacher in my life. I had to do the fencing.

JEFF:    Teaching is somewhere that I find myself today as I’ve developed expertise and experience. I find myself basically being a teacher and trying to always become a great teacher. I like what you said about teachers giving you the self-confidence to then explore your potential, lay out the framework, and then give you the space to go and realize that success. What do you think makes a great teacher?

JARED:       I’ll go with where my mind went when you asked the question which is an amazing teacher can see that part of you which is invisible to yourself. They’re able to recognize. For example, I didn’t have the easiest life growing up. I’ll never forget. I trained a little bit with one teacher who looked at me and they could see that I had the potential to do great things and also awful things. That’s up to the individual to determine which path they pursue in their life. I have the potential to  do either.  [I had one teacher that started telling other people to be careful of me because I may turn on them. He only saw the bad outcome that I could have. There’s another teacher, a southern Italian knife master I trained with, did this demonstration and he had all these knives laid out. I’ll never forget that the one that I was drawn to, to the point where I said, “How much?” And he said, “It’s not for sale.” I said, “Obviously, so how much?” That one that I was drawn to, it’s solely in assassin’s tool. I had no idea. I just loved it. I was drawn to it. He looked at me and from then on he calls me criminal. He could see that potential but also in a loving, joking way because he knows, and at the same time, could see that I pursue good.

A great teacher sees that part of yourself. I know in my students; I see what they can become and I can guide them in that direction. They have to do the walk. The best teachers, to me, recognize that and cultivate that.

JEFF:    We’re still in the midst of a pandemic and all countries are shut down to one level or another. With you, who tend to stuff with others in public, on stages, in public venues, some of that work is probably not happening right now, I’d guess. How has this ability to diversify the way that you share your knowledge and your expertise allowed you to keep working, to stay connected, to keep improving, to keep driving in opportunities?

JARED:       It was definitely scary. I had done a stunt job the week before and I had just gotten a contract for three weeks of stunt work on a new NBC pilot. We were only three days into that when it was shut down. Within a little over seven days, from that point, nine months of work disappeared. Everything, for the rest of this year cancelled. I was supposed to be in Italy in mid-May; then go teach in France and then back to Italy. It was going to be amazing. None of that happened.

What that let me do is step back and go, “Okay, why am I doing this? What do I want from this career?” It let me see, only by losing all of that, one aspect of what I love about this art. It doesn’t matter if I’m teaching or training, it’s that growth. It’s constant improvement. When I’m teaching, I love to make a correction and I love seeing the student be able to incorporate that and be better. When I’m the student, I love getting that correction, implementing it, and knowing that I’m better. That’s something that’s pretty much gone from this kind of format. What do I want to do with that? Every time we’re thrown a curveball, we’ve got to either rise to the occasion or fall. You’re not going to win them all but in this, it let me look at and start to get creative with what I do. Now thankfully for this technology, I have been able to continue to teach via Zoom, both the fencing as well as the stage and screen combat. That’s been helpful.

I think the importance that I didn’t think about until a time like this is really that diversity of income stream. It was awful to have most of my fencing work dry up; most of my fight directing work dry up. I had a couple of big contracts coming up in those areas that went away. The books, they continued to come in. The way that I taught – instead of just having teaching fencing at my fencing master’s academy, I teach at two different universities. One of those cancelled class but they continued to pay us. I was very grateful for that. The other one shifted all the classes to online; so I managed that. Even the way that teaching happens, having diversity in that. It wasn’t all just my studio and my space closing up. That’s where a lot of martial art schools are at, a lot of acting schools are at. That has really made it more manageable and in order to arise to the occasion, trying to think creatively and outside of the box about how to use this technology to do what I do.

JEFF:    One of the things we’ve been talking a lot about is taking the core value that you deliver. What is the core thing that you do, boiling it down, and then figuring out how to use the channels that you have available to you today to deliver it in new ways. It sounds like you’re really thinking about that and doing some great work. Thank you for sharing. Jared, this was amazing. I’ve learned a ton and I’ve got so many ideas that I want to go explore a bit further. Best of luck with everything. Thank you.