Saturday, November 14, 2009

Sword(play) Master

John Elliott found his calling during a matinee production of Hamlet.
“In the Laertes fight scene, part of a fencing foil broke off, flew through the air and stuck in the seat next to a large, overweight gentleman sitting a few rows in front of me,” said Elliott. “He passed out and voided right there.”
Elliott, who was training in fencing at the time, knew the swords given to actors were not usually of the highest quality.
“Actors would come and ask to borrow swords and the instructors gave out the stuff fencers wouldn’t even touch,” he said.
After the play, he approached the director and asked why no one had checked the stage equipment. The director had no answer.

In the years since, Elliott has traveled many roads, but theatre is one of his driving forces.
When he’s not building sets, he acts in at least two plays a year. If he’s not doing either of those, he choreographs fight scenes.
“I always tell my students, if you’re going to do theatre, do theatre. I try to set an example,” said Elliott, a Eugene resident.
Karloff and the knitting needle
Elliott enjoyed theater from a young age, but an encounter with Boris Karloff cemented his love of the stage.
He was stage managing for a community college theatre in Anchorage, Alaska, when members of the theatre decided they wanted to do something big to end the season.
Adhering to the old adage of “it never hurts to ask,” members of the theatre wrote to Karloff’s agent to ask if he would come and perform “Arsenic and Old Lace.”
In the theatrical production, Karloff portrayed Jonathan Brewster, a homicidal ne’er-do-well. Karloff had played the role more than 1,800 times when the theater company sent its letter. He accepted the invitation.
“If you can imagine a 16-year-old trying to be as professional as he could, that was me,” said Elliott.
In one scene, Karloff’s character threatens to torture the bumbling hero of the play, Mortimer.
“They provided him with a civil war surgeon’s kit filled with the most grotesque things you can imagine, with screws in them and all of that,” said Elliott. “He fiddled with that for a bit and during a break he came to me and said, ‘John, can you get me a knitting needle?’”
As soon as possible, Elliott phoned his grandmother who filled the request.
“During the opening night, (Karloff) holds up the worst of the civil war tools, puts it back and then he picks up the knitting needle. He looks at Mortimer and he measures the distance between his eye and his ear with the needle,” said Elliott.
Members of the audience moaned and audibly squirmed in their seats. Elliott was hooked.
To arms, to arms
As a child in the Alaskan wilderness, weapons were no stranger to Elliott. He carried a Woodsman rifle to school every day.
“The school even had a shelf for the older boys who carried their guns to school. It kept them out of the reach of the younger students,” he said.
He began fencing in high school as a way to fill the time between the end of classes and the time his bus left to take him home.
After high school, Elliott spent a decade in the U.S. Army Special Forces. The one thing that remained a constant was weaponry.
He became a certified expert with 23 different combat weapons.
After his military discharge, he yearned to return to theatre. He found a niche in fight choreography.
There were few people able to teach fight choreography with any historical accuracy. There were fewer still crafting safe stage weaponry.
Elliott started by making swords and has built up a “boutique armory” over the years. It includes edged weapons from almost every era, fencing foils, pistols, whips and tomahawks.
“You’ve got to think of it in terms of technology. The more technically efficient armorers became, the lighter and faster weapons became,” he said.
He also trains actors to use them properly.
Elliott’s favorite plays are those that require an element of physicality.
“If you can’t move on stage you lose one of the tools that you have to present what you’re trying to present,” he said. “You can only do so much with a face. You can only do so much with a voice. You need to put the body, the face and the voice together to make a character.”
Elliott can teach something as simple as a slap or a fall or as sophisticated as a whip duel, but safety comes first.
“If a man is choking a woman in the scene, the first thing I do is teach the woman how to break a choke hold,” he said.
Beyond that the possibilities are limited only by the physical prowess of the actor.
“Musicals that have fights in them can be a challenge because the players are sometimes singers who’ve never acted,” said Elliott.
On rare occasions he finds someone with just the right skill set to make stage magic.
“If you want to do it badly enough, go work on the trampoline and we’ll do things that will make the people in the movies jealous,” Elliott said.
He’s a fan of the late Gene Kelly because of his athleticism and his ability to do a kip up with a sword in hand, but for overall style he suggests Highlander.
“The Highlander people were very good about putting the weapon into the century of the story. He carried a samurai sword because it’s one sword that can transcend each of the centuries,” said Elliott.
Elliott keeps a rigorous pace of theatre involvement, but he’s found more and more of his time is consumed with keeping up on the latest technology.
Expert certifications aside, nothing compares to hearing about tactics from soldiers with their boots in the mud.
“If I get a student who’s just come back from Iraq, I invite him out for a beer. You learn about all the things not included in the textbooks,” said Elliott. “Like soldiers in Vietnam covering the tips of their rifles with prophylactics to keep out water and mud.”
Weapons technology keeps changing, but Elliott’s measuring stick for a job well done never has.
“It’s when the mother of the actor playing Hamlet stands up after the final fight and says, ‘Johnny, are you okay?’ Then I know I’ve done a fight the way it should be,” he said.
John Elliott can be found online at

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