Nick Evangelista: Thinking About Fencing
Nick Evangelista relates his beginnings in fencing in a very inauspicious way: “It was probably one of the worst first fencing lessons I’ve ever encountered in my forty-five years of fencing. And I’ve seen some doozies! That is how I began my life in fencing, day one at Ralph Faulkner’s famous Falcon Studios, in Hollywood, California, September 8, 1970. Everything was mind-numbingly foreign—all the terms I heard sounded like speaking in tongues to me. I wanted to be the Three Musketeers all rolled into one, but I wasn’t even one of the Three Stooges! Talk about downers. I did everything wrong. Plus, the fencing master yelled at me! I left the fencing school that evening with only one thought in my head, “Get me out of here!” My lesson was so traumatic that it took me a full two weeks to gather up enough courage to go back for lesson two. But,” he adds emphatically, “I did go back. Otherwise, I would not have found the rest of my life.”
For Evangelista, fencing quickly became a way of life. He eventually upped his Falcon time to twenty hours a week. He worked on basics away from the school as well. He suggests, “Students must take fencing home with them—thinking and practicing--and not just make their training a salle thing. I kept notebooks of my activities. This is a recommended pursuit for beginners. I wrote everything down—what I learned, what I saw, what I did right, what I did wrong, my thoughts, what my opponents did, everything. This exercise organized all the nebulous data thrown at me, and made it tangible. The act of writing information down stimulates both understanding and memory.”
There were also personal pitfalls: “I became my own worst critic, picking apart and magnifying every error I made. But, to my credit, I also tried to figure out what I was doing, in order to get a handle on all the bad stuff and fix it. And, little by little, it did start to make sense. Today, I see this as embracing now to become better tomorrow. But, back then, it was just clearing away the fog so that I could see where I was. After a while, I was able to put the angst to rest. I watched my opponents and saw how I related to them and them to me. I began to notice connective strands that bind a fencer tightly to his opponent. But I was just scratching the surface.”
On organized competition: “In the fencing tournament there are psychological demons to conquer. Fear of losing, the stigma of failure, crippling self doubt, the dangers of success manifested in an artificially inflated ego, losing sight of what is most important in one’s fencing life—finding the best that is in you. To master the effects of the competitive setting is to master what is best and worst in fencing. You can’t fence effectively with negative or distracting thoughts bouncing around in your head. Now I tell my students, “Don’t worry about winning or losing, or who the competition is, just be one hundred percent when you step out onto the fencing strip.”
In time, Evangelista took his fencing to Europe. “In 1972, I went to Europe to fence. I did this on my own, at my own expense. Fencing was most serious there. Back then, there were still Old World sentiments to be found. I learned how to treat fencing as a true way of life. I spent months traveling around Western Europe, fencing wherever I could dig up a school or club. It may have been some of the most important training I ever received, because it fixed a philosophy into my fencing that has kept me on track ever since. From that point on, fencing was more than a game. It was a life skill that taught lessons far beyond the fencing strip.”
After Europe, it was back to Falcon Studios. “There was so much to learn, and I wanted to know every bit of it. There was always something new to learn, to master.”
Then came teaching. Says Evangelista, “Teaching is the ultimate learning experience for a fencer. But I did not plan to be a fencing teacher. It truly came to me out of the blue. Mr. Faulkner just asked me one day to be his assistant. It was that simple. There was no fanfare. He needed an assistant. He trusted me and believed I could do the job. I said, ok. That’s how I got started.”
And what was teaching like? “I apprenticed myself to Mr. Faulkner for eight full years. I taught three, sometimes five, days a week. I taught all age groups. I gave as many as forty lessons per class. Teaching began at 5:00 in the afternoon, and sometimes stretched on until midnight. I taught in good weather and bad, when I was well and when I was sick, when I was enthusiastic about fencing and when I could barely stand being there. I worked with accomplished champion fencers and beginners who had no idea where their feet were. As a teacher, I had to learn a whole new way of thinking, a whole new language. I had to be able to see actions from both sides of the fencing situation, from that of the lesson giver and the lesson taker. It was three dimensional thinking. Fencing stopped being simply mechanical touches, and became a pliable, dynamic form that encompassed sport, psychology, history, physics, philosophy, social traditions, linguistics and communication, health and exercise, strategic theory, scientific inquiry, and art. To me, this is what made fencing so fascinating. It wasn’t that these things more important than the touch. They were the touch.”
In 1981, Evangelista opened his own school. “This was another major learning experience. I needed to expand my own authority beyond what I was able to express at Falcon Studios. When you work for another fencing teacher, you toe their line. Expressing too much individuality can be a problem. So, when I finally decided to leave Falcon, it seemed like the natural thing to do. Mr. Faulkner, who had always been like a grandfather to me, wished me well.”
The Maestro describes his own brand of teaching: “From this point on, the whys and wherefores became a regular part of my teaching. Foil, epee, sabre, it didn’t matter. I encouraged questions. It was my contention, and still is, if I couldn’t explain something, I shouldn’t be teaching it. My goal was to create independent, thinking fencers. I never really thought about producing champions. A champion. What does that really mean? Someone who wins a medal? I have medals of my own. They get dusty. I couldn’t see myself creating fencing machines. I’d much rather give someone skills that ultimately enhance their life, something that makes them a better human being. If someone out there finds this an inadequate reason for teaching fencing, I feel sorry for them. Of course, champions are worshiped in our society. But I leave egos, dominance issues, and spectacle to others who enjoy that sort of thing.”
1985 brought changes to Evangelista’s teaching career. With a fencing school that was growing by leaps and bounds, and a successful side business of training actors to fence for movies and stage, he made a decision that would change the course of his life. “In 1985, my wife and I decided to buy a farm in the Missouri Ozark Mountains. Why we did this were issues important to my wife, and I supported these. So, I turned my back on whatever fencing success was waiting for me in Southern California, and embarked on what the mythologist/philosopher Joseph Campbell referred to as ‘the Hero’s Journey.’ Basically, it was a leap of faith into the unknown.”
And what did this new life bring? “First off, I moved to an area where the only fencing anyone cared about was barbed wire. When I explained to locals what I did for a living, they generally laughed in my face. Secondly, I was a bad farmer. Not on purpose. I raised sheep. I had chickens. I milked goats. But farming was not in my genetics. I have much respect for farmers. It is a tough and demanding life. I have the scars to prove it. Strangely, though, the daily truths of country living ended up coloring my ideas about fencing. There is a “no bullshit” aspect to living with Nature. Timing is everything. You pay attention to your surroundings, you read the signs, or you are retired. Often these are life and death issues.”
Evangelista continues: “As for fencing, after a while, I started attracting students. It was a matter of patience coupled with shaky optimism and a commitment to fencing. People drove out to my farm to fence. It was very novel. Sometimes I taught outside, and livestock would be wandering across the walkway I used for my fencing strip. I also had plenty of time to think about fencing itself, to uncover more connections, and to refine my ideas. In a way, it was a big plus to be away from cities. There was less noise and fewer distractions. I also gave workshops in other areas. This led to writing fencing-related articles for magazines, something I had pursued back in California. In what could have easily been nothing more than a vacuum or a black hole, I was back on the road to teaching and learning.”
Then came the book writing. “If I am known for anything in the fencing world it is writing books that people either love or hate. This is because I say what I mean. I do not sit on a fence. Some people hate that because what I say is not what they do. Winston Churchill once said to someone who was being disparaged in public, ‘So you have enemies. Good. That means you stand for something.’ I must stand for something, because I definitely piss people off.”
The writer-maestro talks about his books: “It wasn’t much of a brain jog to go from writing fencing articles for magazines and journals to writing books for publishers. My first book was The Encyclopedia of the Sword [Greenwood Press, 1995]. It covered the vastness of sword-related topics from around the world, took five agonizing years to write, and taught me how little I knew about fencing.
Next on the agenda was, The Art and Science of Fencing [Masters Press, 1996]. "This was my how-to book. The Art and Science forced me to fully explore my own ideas about fencing, and to stand by them in print. I could have just written a textbooky kind of thing, but there are about a zillion of those around. I wanted to write a fencing book that was about human beings learning to fence, about frustrations and joys and mistakes, but also about success. So, I used myself as exhibit number one. Good and bad. Writers are continually being told, 'Write what you know. Write what you know.' This is what I know. Over the years, many people who have read the book have told me that The Art and Science made fencing seem accessible to them. I suppose this is why it is the best-selling fencing book of all time. On the other hand, there is also a whole gaggle of fencers who hate it, because it makes no sense to them. Oh, well…!
"Then I wrote Fighting with Sticks [Loompanics Unlimited, 1998], a book that delves into the world of wooden weapons, especially swords. It grew out of things I’d researched for my encyclopedia. To me, it is more anthropology than fencing. But it was fun to write.
"The book I am most proud of is, The Inner Game of Fencing [McGraw-Hill, 2000]. It was the first fencing book of the 21st century, and it explores the thinking part of fencing from a traditional standpoint. My working title was The Fencer’s Brain, which I think describes the contents more accurately than its current title. The ideas and conclusions expressed are all my own—I had no template to draw on--making it a completely original entry in fencing literature. People who had no connection to fencing have told me they read it on a whim, and it spoke to them of their own life endeavors. I thought that was neat.
"The Woman Fencer [Wish Publishing, 2001] is currently the last of my books. As the title suggests, it is a fencing book for women and girls. It is unique as the only fencing book, at least in modern times, devoted entirely to a female audience.”
Evangelista also published a fencing magazine from 1999 to 2006. “Besides writing books, I also had my own magazine, Fencers Quarterly. It was praised by many for its very eclectic and informative nature, and its unswerving dedication to the principles of the traditional fencing game. We had some wonderful writers working for us. But FQM was finally done in by the rising cost of publishing hard copy magazines. Inflation was one thing I couldn’t parry. I am very proud of what we did, though."
In 2001, Evangelista once again reprogrammed his life, selling his farm, and moving his family to the town of Springfield, Missouri, Missouri’s third largest city. He suggests, “It was time for something different.”
With this move came an increased emphasis on the business of teaching. Once established in Springfield, not only did the Maestro’s student rolls swell, but fencers; familiar with his writings began traveling from all over the United States, and as far away as Great Britain, to work with him privately. This was engendered in great part through the growing importance of the internet.
Evangelista also established a fencing club at nearby Missouri State University. A campus fixture for fourteen years, The MSU Fencing Society has always been one of the school’s more exotic student organizations. The Maestro is quick to point out, “Our club is run like a traditional fencing school. I teach students to actually fence. Basically, they have to learn something, or they don’t get to bout.
“We also have our own in-house tournaments that are open to both my MSU students and my private people. These events are run by traditional rules. By traditional, I mean, establishing clear priority for all offensive actions based on the logic of the sharp point, parrying when you are attacked by attacks that actually threaten, riposting immediately following successful parries. At the bottom line, we start with straight arm attacks, and take it from there. Behavior and manners are important, too. Saluting and shaking hands are a must. Running, screaming attacks, histrionics to impress directors, and tantrums are frowned on. Those who cause trouble are neither rewarded nor warned. They just go away forever. I have had a couple of those. Also, we do not employ scoring boxes to sort out ambiguity. Do I hate technology, as some have suggested? No. I love my DVD player, my microwave oven, and my computer. They can do things I cannot. But I can fence and make touches on my own, thank you; and I want my students to likewise have the intelligence and skill to produce touches that are obvious to all who are watching, without the benefit of buzzers and flashing lights. I do not say this as a challenge to do away with anyone else’s fencing preferences. It is simply what I do, because I believe fencing has the most value when it is inside us.”
Finally, the Maestro sums up his central thoughts about fencing, as he presently sees them. “For years, I’ve been gearing my teaching toward exploring the mind game of fencing: how to become a thinking fencer, rather than a reactor, on the fencing strip; how to effectively establish connects between you to your opponent that allow you to mold any situation to your advantage; to know when to be simple and when to be complex, when to oppose and when to give way; and especially how to take your opponent’s strengths and turn them into weaknesses. It is this imposing process, rather than the result, that fascinates me the most. Once you have the recipe, the touches take care of themselves. Forty-five years of fencing has taught me this.”