Monday, May 18, 2015

Dan Renkin (Feature Article)

Benton Locke-Harshaw as Robin Hood, crouching; Dan Renkin, fight choreographer;
and Callie Miller as Maid Marian rehearse for the Acme Theatre Company
production of "The Heart of Robin Hood," set for Memorial Day weekend. Renkin,
a Davis High School graduate now working in New York theater,
flies home every year to teach young Acme actors
realistic-looking sword-fighting skills.
Courtesy photo

When Robin Hood’s merry men engage with the Sheriff of Nottingham’s posse in Sherwood Forest this weekend, you can be sure that their swordplay will be a) realistic and b) safe.

This is due to fight coordinator Dan Renkin, a Davis High School graduate now working in theater in New York, who has returned to his hometown every year for the past six years to work with the young actors of the Acme Theatre Company to teach them the fine arts of stage fighting and handling those unwieldy swords.

Acme will present “The Heart of Robin Hood” Friday through Monday at the Davis Arts Center. The free production is its annual gift to the community as thanks for local business and community support of the company for high school-aged thespians.

Renkin never imagined he would have a career in theater, much less in New York. In fact, his whole career was really a series of fortunate accidents.

He remembers that as a young kid he enjoyed the productions of the Sunshine Children’s Theater, but didn’t get involved himself until some friends were doing a summer show with Acme at the Pence Gallery.

He came into the production late, but “they said ‘you can be one of the people we’ve never seen before for the funeral scene at the end.’ And so I got to stand around thinking ‘I’m not sure what I’ve gotten myself into, but this is really fun!’ ”

He graduated from Davis and headed off to UC Irvine to get a liberal arts degree “because that’s what we do in my family,” but in his second year, he realized he really missed doing theater.

“I wonder if they do that here,” he thought.

Renkin found an active theater program and began getting involved. He was also taking film classes on the side.

“Then there was a moment when I realized I had screwed up and had accidentally taken the first two quarters of the theory class that was required for the film major, but not for the minor,” he said. “There was no reason not to go ahead and get a second B.A. in film. I had no idea what was coming next.”

What came next was the recommendation of a friend who was working at the New York Conservatory.

“She spent a year on the phone with me saying ‘not only is this a really good program, but this would be a really good place for you.’ ” And so he went to New York.

He enrolled in the Circle on the Square Acting School and felt right at home immediately when the first person he met when he entered the building was Paul Shapiro, a fellow graduate of Davis High School. (Renkin later would collaborate with another DHS graduate, Ari Kreith, who runs Theater 167 at Manhattan’s West End Theater.)

“One of the teachers was B.H. Barry, the first fight director ever to win a Tony and the man credited with the birth of fight directing in America,” Renkin recalled. “He taught stage combat, which I had a little smattering of in undergraduate (days), just enough to convince me that it was not meant for me. I’m not athletic.

“But his teacher had been Errol Flynn’s stunt double, so he had certain standards for how you perform. All his drinking buddies and peers were people like Harold Pinter, writing very earthy, kitchen-sink stuff, not like Noel Coward, and he wanted to figure out how to make the fights natural like that.”

Barry found that he would treat fight scenes the same way he would treat them as an actor. It was easier to stage and the actors could remember it better; they also performed it more convincingly because they owned it.

“It became kind of an existential thing. And that made sense to me,” Renkin said. “That’s when the thing that was most terrifying to me became fun. When someone is quite literally the most skilled in the world at this thing that they do and they invite you to come learn more about it, you go!

“So I started going to his class. I assisted him on my first Broadway show, hoping that there would eventually be a second.”

Renkin also began filling in when Barry was unable to teach a class and eventually he began doing his own fight choreography (“I find mall atrias, for some reason, are a great inspiration for choreography ideas — I could slide down this railing, and jump over that table …”)

Then, six years ago, he was contacted by Acme Artistic Director Emily Henderson about helping with a show. She explained that Libby Renkin, Dan’s mother, had come to an Acme show and mentioned that her son did fight choreography and might be able to help out on their next production.

“So I cold-called this total stranger and said ‘I’m doing this play and it has 17 different fights and do you think you could come for a week?’ He said sure,” Henderson said. “It was really wonderful. He knew our style and everything worked perfectly.”

Added Renkin, “We had to explain to the kids who I was, and that I had been in Acme and graduated from Davis High and was now working in New York. When I told one of the students the year I graduated he said, ‘That’s when I was born.’ I responded with something completely unprintable, and we got along famously after that.”

It has been a win-win situation for everyone. Acme actors have learned professional fighting from a master, Renkin gets to come home on a regular basis to visit his parents, and Davis reaps the benefits of one of Acme founder Dave Burmester’s success stories.

How many other young-adult theater groups have an official fight choreographer who learned from the guy who learned from the guy who was stunt double to Errol Flynn and who introduced fight choreography to this country? Pretty cool.

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