“We Started This Lightsaber Sh!t” The New York Jedi Story

When I was beginning to write this post, it was originally meant for the 11th Anniversary of the founding of New York Jedi. However, in light of recent events it became something else entirely. I will not be discussing the LFL law suit, nor of Michael ‘Flynn’ Brown except in historical context. I have neither the legal experience, nor the emotional capactity, to discuss the situation at this time. I would be remiss to talk about NYJ without mentioning it, but I also think my talking about New York Jedi is something that needs to be done. I don’t claim to be objective or impartial on this, so don’t even ask. And if I blink around a subject, it’s because I feel it ties in to the above stated situation. As I am no longer a member of NYJ, it should go without saying that my words reflect my opinion only. Also, there will be language in this, you have been warned.

So let’s begin at the beginning.

It began in the summer of 2005. A group of friends were in an apartment in Greenwich Village. One of them had just gotten the recently released lightsaber replicas released by Master Replicas (this was before they were made by Hasbro). This was around the time of the prequels, when talk of the Star Wars and the Jedi had just become a hot subject again. This was also the first time there were movie accurate lightsabers, and not the cheaper plastic toys with telescoping plastic that we’ve all played with as children. So two of the group, who had some martial and performance experience, took the new sabers to the roof of their apartment and began to duel with them.

Now, New York City–especially The Village–is a place where you expect to see some weird shit in your day. We have cowboys in their underwear singing in Times Square, we have flashmobs doing silent dance parties in the parks. And, for the most part, the City treats this all with a level of indifference. It’s one more weird thing on the way to wherever we need to be at any given point. But, of course, we’re also just as likely to start calling out to the weird thing and get to know it better.

So imagine being on that rooftop, messing around with your friend with the shiny new lightsaber and suddenly you get people shouting from their apartment windows.

“Go Blue!” “Get em Red!”

This kicked off a chain of events. One of those fighters on the roof tops was Michael Brown, more commonly known throughout the community as “Flynn”. The moment inspired him and his friends to do something with this strange little toy they were playing with. And so, on Halloween, a group of people dressed as Jedi and Sith formed up with at the annual Halloween Parade in Greenwich Village and did fights up the parade line, with the 501st surrounding them in a perimeter (The Perimeter would later become a tradition for NYJ parade runs, sans the 501). The performance was an overall success, and that might have been the end of it if not for what came next: people approached the performers and asked “Where do you teach that?” and “Where can we learn?”.

And that was the beginning of New York Jedi. I never learned who came up with that name, I’d always assumed it was Flynn. It was a simple name but it made the statement. I’ve seen a lot of group names before, and nothing had the punch of New York Jedi. It was like the concept of the “Dread Pirate Roberts” the name did just the right trick in setting an impression. But with the name firmly down, the group of nerds led by Flynn and Mike Zhang began to form. Keep in mind at that point things were not as nearly coherent as most groups are now.

It was a place for martial artists, performers, athletes, entertainers, artists, and writers to come in and jam. That’s why when they decided to create characters to present on stage, they created stuff out of what they wanted to do. That’s why you got Jedi Yautja (the species of alien in the Predator movies) or Fremen Fedaykin taught in the ways of the Force. That’s how we got Dar’Thulu, the sleeping Elder One that dreams beyond the Force or one of the last sons of Krypton being raised by the Jedi.

That’s one of the magic things about Star Wars in general. There was nothing to really say at the time whether any of these things couldn’t be in the Star Wars Galaxy. So we played with that, toyed with it. Some of us even used the sandbox to create our own species and worlds. It was fan fiction with a pulse. There was always the unspoken rule of “So long as it feels like it can be in Star Wars, make it happen.”

It was also during this time that the group began to acquire several of the instructors that would form the basis of our education. Amongst them were Teel James (TJ) Glenn, stuntman, fight coordinator, renn faire veteran, and a writer of pulp novels and a damn good guide on writing fight scenes; Scot Ferrara, a fencer and eskrimador in the stylings of Cyrano De Bergerac. It was through him that we received the letters system of attacks that formed the basis of my education with the group.

And, of course, there was Damon, better known in the community as General Sun. Damon developed the first functional sword style based on something from the Star Wars Universe: Shii Cho. It is this contribution from NYJ that has made the most impact in the community, I believe, with many people still looking at Damon’s sword form as a model and basis for their sabering skills.

New York Jedi was also built on the principle of ‘no experience required’. You didn’t have to be an athlete or martial artist or stuntman or actor. You just needed the drive to want to do something and celebrate your geekiness. The core curriculum, as loose as it was at times, was based on a potluck of the experiences of the membership pool themselves. It would not have been as surprising to go to class one week for a class on kung fu principles and the next week to be on improv. Eventually, the membership would develop their own skillpool, specializing in others.

Most importantly, there was the notion that we were doing something else. Yes, we were a bunch of nerds pretending to be Jedi. We were also trying to play pretend the best way we could. We were learning swordplay for performance purposes. We weren’t about combat, but the illusion of combat. It’s stage magic, and the first thing you need to do to make the magic work is to make people believe it’s real, even in a little way. And while we were learning it to help, we had all become involved in preserving those styles. We’re in a world now where the sword is outmodded and outdated, and the traditions we were taught-however in part they were-now live on in what we all do and teach.

The second most lasting thing that New York had created for the sabering community was the (now defunct) forum SaberWars. In part, it was the NYJ head of operations and main hub of inter-and intragroup communication. It was also the source of conversation, demonstration, critiques, event promoting and even fiction writing for not just the members of New York Jedi, but of the various groups that had formed in the subsequent years. New York Jedi was the first, but they weren’t the only ones for long. Many different schools of performance and martial studies had joined to talk with their fellow saberists.

You have to keep in mind that there was no strong community at this point. Most of the saber manufacturers were just getting started. Ultrasabers was working mostly with PVC and copper piping, to give an example. Many groups were just getting started, most of them following a similar tack as New York Jedi.

After a few years of activity New York Jedi, like all organizations, began to branch off. Some groups were formed by members who moved. More often, though, it was because of the most common reason any group branches off: members disagree with how things should be run. Some wanted more martial arts, some wanted more dramatic performances. Some simply didn’t agree with the management and decided to become management themselves. These things, as in every group that decides to last long enough, happens.

This is also where I come in. My first session with the New York Jedi was in fact a Town Hall meeting in Februrary of 2009. It was immediately on the heels of a section of the groups members breaking off to form their own groups. New York Jedi, however, kept going along. Having spent the subsequent seven years in the group or, at the least, serving as a satellite, I know that this persistence is largely thanks to the membership of New York Jedi. When an event was planned, these were the people who woke up at ass earlier o’clock to get to a convention, or haul their costume and lightsabers on mass transit to work until the event. When whoever was on audio tech screwed up, someone always had a backup plan. When the convention schedules got jumbled, people bit the bullet and gave up their fights.

I often joke (or really half joke) that New York Jedi was a group that worked in spite of itself. A group of weirdos should not last a decade without imploding, exploding, or just burning out. Part of that is due to the ubiquitous nature of Star Wars in the mainstream consciousness. If we were a TRON group, or a group based on the Matrix or Lord of the Rings or some other hot ticket IP in the past decade, we’d have never lasted a week after the sequels came out. We also made it through because the membership fought to make it work, both for the audiences and for themselves. They fought because they thought it was something worth fighting for. And the amazing thing was the fact that these were volunteers. They weren’t in it for money, there was no money to make. With costuming, buying and building of props, this hobby cost quite a bit to buy in. They were in it for something else. The chance to perform, the chance to inspire, the chance to maybe make themselves and others believe in more than what there is at the moment.

One of the coolest moments that happened to me as a member of New York Jedi was when we were at a Shadowcast of REPO! The Genetic Opera out in Long Island. We brought our lightsabers because of the song Zydrate Anatomy, a glowing blue vial. Near the tail end of the show, two of the cast members pull out those cheap telescoping lightsabers and began dueling each other through the theater. As we made our way out at the end of the show, the director came up to us and said that she knew we were coming so that fight was for us. I had been to conventions, had met celebrities, had been on set when NYJ was on The TODAY show, performed and written shows, and THIS was the coolest moment. Because game respected game. This is why the title of this post comes from REPO! as well, and because it fits.

I can speak for myself in that New York Jedi helped me develop my voice as a writer. Me writing fiction about my special snowflake Not-Quite-a Jedi helped me develop concepts for stories that I am still working on today. I have also written shows for the group that have been performed Off-Off-Broadway. I have also performed and worked on tech for several of their shows. This year in particular the group achieved a milestone of doing a series of full stage productions at conventions, something we’d been planning on doing since before I joined. At every convention, we had a narrative plot that continued on, creating a long term story. It was an achievement.

I do believe our greatest performance was our take of MacBeth. We had done two charity shows of an abridged Scottish Play, complete with Shakespeares language, just with nouns changed to make it more in the vein of Star Wars. For those of you who haven’t tried, Shakespeare isn’t easy to perform. Especially when you’re a bunch of upjumped nerds looking to just find reasons to fight with lightsabers. And, to be brutally blunt and vulgar, we were fucking good.

And looking back. A lot of what I do now can be formed by the community that was New York Jedi. This blog, the seven forms paper, my experiences with larping as a player and now as a designer, they all have roots back to here. I joined New York Jedi shortly after graduating from college, and not really having anything to do with my self and my world. You here college goers going on about those four years being the best of their lives. I got to be a Jedi when I got out, so there goes that theory. I joined because it was a crazy idea, I stayed because the people there made it worth it. There are members who I consider family, who I have stood for at their weddings and will most likely call upon them when my time comes. This is not the sort of thing that leaves you if you let it in.

With all that is going on right now, and with the 11th anniversary of it’s forming coming, I wanted to extend this to the members of New York Jedi who have stuck through the worst and best parts of our years. Thank you. Thank you for your time, dedication, and selflessness. YOU started this Lightsaber shit, and whatever happens next I can only believe will be just as spectacular.

 

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SAFETY. RESPECT. ARTISTRY. REVELRY. COMMUNITY. HONOR. -The Words of New York Jedi
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