Working with Air

Movement and fight director John Sipes talks with actor James J. Peck during a rehearsal of The Tempest (2007). Photo by Jenny Graham. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival. 2007. The Tempest by William Shakespeare. Directed by Libby Appel. Scenic Designer: William Bloodgood. Costume Designer: Deborah M. Dryden. Lighting Designer: Robert Peterson. Photographer: Jenny Graham.

In most jobs — police, teachers, therapists — the last thing you want is trouble. The career John Sipes has developed for himself is just the opposite: He teaches people how to fight.

On stage, that is.

John Sipes

Age: 55

Job title: Movement director and fight choreographer; also teacher at Denison University in Ohio

Salary: On contract for $1,600 a week at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Education: Bachelor's degree at Loyola University; Master's of Fine Arts degree at Indiana University; certified, trained member of Society of American Fight Directors

How long on job: Since 1995 at OSF

If you could have your dream job today, what would it be? Resident director (with a little fight choreography on the side).

"It's fun. I'm responsible for all the violence that's done at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival," says a straight-faced Sipes, quickly adding that he's also responsible for making sure that not one blow, thrust, chop, slap, shove or bang hurts anyone.

So far, it's worked. There are some unavoidable bumps and bruises, he says. But no stitches, no real pain — and it all has to look like convincing, bloody mayhem, something not easy to do when you're competing with movies and TV, where they've mastered the art of realistic assaults and murders.

Sipes choreographs all the non-dance stage movement in the OSF plays. To do it, he has to get inside the mind of the director, playwright and characters. "The play doesn't come with any directions about, OK, put your foot here, then lift your arm," he notes.

It's a lot more complex than it looks, but it's enjoyable, Sipes says. It's like playing detective and trying to come up with a creative solution that solves all the problems around movement.

"It's like working with air. I'm trying to figure out what sort of movements are appropriate for each particular character, while thinking of the movement as an extension of the dialogue," he says.

It's a little hairy and a little scary working with real knives and swords, even though they're dulled — and real guns that shoot blanks and whose barrels are plugged, Sipes acknowledges.

"We're afraid of getting hit, for sure, so it's our job to devise weapons that are safe. It's a challenge at the festival because the plays go on for a long time and you have to make sure the actors can take that blow or fall for months. So we think about safety all the time."

Sipes has to make sure the gunshots and other sounds aren't too loud for actors and audience, and that guns go off in a safe direction so the discharge from the blanks doesn't hurt the actors.

In a recent "Richard III," the broadswords were too heavy for the actors over an extended period. Sipes found swords made of aircraft aluminum, realistic looking and "light as a feather" (but you still wouldn't want to take one in the chops).

How does the actor know when to duck when the sword is swiping toward his or her head? The actor ducks first, which is the cue for the blow to follow — all of which happens in a split second, of course.

It's an unusual job, one Sipes wouldn't part with, though it takes a back seat to his true love — directing.


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