Behind the Scenes Fight choreographer aims for realism in Elements’ ‘Julius Caesar’

August 07, 2014

For fight choreographer Nick Sandys, stage combat is about far more than just steps and actions – it’s also about character.

“I teach people what it’s really like to be involved in violence, and not only give violence, but also receive it,” says Sandys, who is also an educator, actor and director. “I’m talking to actors about making it real. In ‘Julius Caesar,’ every character has a name. You’re killing people who you know, and that changes everything. It’s a cruel war, brother against brother.” So he wants the audience to feel the visceral reaction that the actor does when violence happens, and he wants to make sure “those emotions carry through for the rest of the play.”

Sandys talked about his methods while in Orleans for three days last month working with the Elements Theatre Company cast of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar.” He had already trained several of the actors in the basics of stage combat when they traveled to his workshops in Chicago, and this intense summer time was to address the specifics of this play in this space.

The show is a struggle between ambition and loyalty, power and love, in 44 BC Rome, with the Elements interpretation inspired by the myth of battling brothers Romulus and Remus. The show is being performed Friday through Aug. 14 outdoors in the stone atrium of the Church of the Transfiguration. The area by the ocean includes columns, large bronze doors and massive fir beams, and there will be pillars of fire surrounding the stage.

“The weight of the structure itself, and the sheer mass of the stone, add a certain gravitas to the story,” assistant director Christopher Kanaga, who plays Mark Antony, said in a press release. “After all, these are weighty subjects being explored – life and death, murder and revenge, republic vs. monarchy – and the decisions that these men make will last for decades to come. This structure is built to take that kind of weight.”

The outdoor setting, though, makes it even more complicated to make fight scenes realistic, notes Elements spokesperson Jennifer Lynch, because it’s so hard to hide tricks when audience members are close by on different sides of the action.

But solving such problems is what Sandys does as he travels around the country to help theater companies. He’s largely based in Chicago, where he has been involved with Remy Bumppo Theatre Company for 12 years and artistic director there for two. As an actor, he’s performed in more than 150 theatrical productions nationwide, including off-Broadway and Texas; he’s also directed many others.

Early athletic training, though, led him to stage combat, and Sandys is a certified fight director with The Society of American Fight Directors. His credits with those skills include more than 35 productions at Lyric Opera of Chicago and more than 25 at Goodman Theatre in that city, as well as on Broadway (Steppenwolf’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”), and at The Metropolitan Opera.

Sandys, who has masters’ degrees in English literature from Cambridge University in England and Loyola University, likens Shakespeare to opera in its storytelling scope and how it tests so many of an actors’ skills. And both opera and Shakespeare improve, he believes, when actors are excited about having swords in their hands. “The energy of what we’re doing brings the play alive in a very different way,” he says.

The weapons being used for Elements’ “Julius Caesar” are very specific. The Roman swords, daggers and shields are replicas of the real thing from the Roman Empire, though the blades are constructed specifically for use on stage and screen, Lynch says.

Such attention to detail is important, Sandys says, because the play is set in a time that is a transition between ages, between “a culture that was barbaric and a culture that deems itself republican and that is facing its humanity is a different way. … The story is universal and the weapons help to ground it in a specific time and place.”

The weapons have an added dimension for the Elements show – the actors use them almost as musical instruments to create an original acoustic background. The shields and spears are used for percussion to create a dissonance, he says, for “battlescape” scenes and others.

The “Julius Caesar” production begins at the end of a five-day Shakespeare retreat for actors and Shakespeare enthusiasts in Orelans. As part of the group’s yearlong celebration of Shakespeare’s 450th birthday, the retreat has offered intensive theater immersion, including lectures and discussion, voice and movement workshops, scene study classes, and master classes with guest instructors.