Lewis Shaw teaches Baltimore actors how to vomit, have sex, and battle on stage
Published: June 5, 2013
A week before The Beaux’ Stratagem opens at Everyman Theatre, six actors are on the stage trying to work out a tricky fight scene that involves flying swords. As four actors begin to sword-fight, Katie O. Solomon needs to get to the other end of the narrow stage so she will be in position to take one of the blades from Eric Poch. Everyone is slightly nervous and pauses as she skitters between their shimmering blades.
“Let’s do it like that,” Lewis Shaw says as everyone laughs. “That’s funny, I like that. If we can, be about to interrupt your activity, as she moves.” Shaw turns to the audience, which in this case consists of his assistant, the theater’s PR director, and me, and says “When in doubt, make it a bit.”
Standing there with his long, wavy blond hair and beard and his T-shirt that says “Kill Them All,” Shaw looks like a slightly more wizened version of “The Dude” Lebowski. And, indeed, in conversation, he is affable, laid-back, and winningly vulgar—on the other hand, he teaches people how to simulate fighting, fucking, and vomiting for a living.
“I’m the puke-meister,” he says of his role in God of Carnage, at Everyman earlier this season, which involved an uproarious amount of vomit. “That vomit gag took 40 hours before I could show it to an audience.” Megan Anderson, the actress who vomits, was fitted up with a pneumatic rig that came up through her shirt, and it really let her spew. But it had to be hooked up and unhooked, and the audience could see none of it. So, Shaw says, his job is much like that of a magician: He choreographed the scene so that the audience would be focused—through misdirection—on something else as the preparations were done. “I’m the David Copperfield of vomit.”
To make it worse, the artistic director, Vincent Lancisi, is what Shaw calls a sympathetic vomiter. “So we started with this puke and it looked like puke,” and he worried that someone, if not Lancisi, would vomit in reaction. The key, it turned out, was to exaggerate just enough to “take it a little past realism,” Shaw says.
That “little past realism” is, in some sense, the key to all of Shaw’s work. After all, in reality, a sword “is meant to fucking kill your ass, bad” as he puts it. It is his job to make it look like one actor is going to fucking kill the other actor’s ass—but not really. In other words, it’s acting.
Which is precisely how Shaw got his start. He is originally from Harrisburg, Pa.; in the late 1970s, a bad relationship brought him to Baltimore, where he spent a lot of time playing in Shakespeare. “You know, I’m a big blond guy so they throw you in those Shakespeare roles,” he says. “So I was doing a lot of fighting and it was a lot of fun and it was a nice way to keep busy—now, I’ve drifted away from acting completely.”
He spent years training with the Society of American Fight Directors, where he is now a certified teacher. “It’s the largest organization in the world devoted to safe fights onstage, and good ones,” he says. “You see a lot of horrible stuff out there.” He works with SAFD to train actor-combatants, three of whom are playing in The Beaux’ Stratagem. “It makes my life much easier,” he says. “The three I’ve trained myself have also received training other places. We have the same kind of language. I can give them my secret fight-guy code in numbers and nomenclature that is all Italian and French and strange fencing numbers.”
This mix of archaic Italian and French means that Shaw is as much a scholar as anything else. He spends hours poring over the history of weaponry, combat, and the culture around it. He can point out exactly how Romeo and Juliet is actually a comedy about Elizabethan sword-fighting manners, or, of The Beaux’ Stratagem, he can offhandedly say, “I mean, the play is set in 1700, but we’re playing it more like it’s around 1750 in terms of the weapons.” He finds that periods like 1750—when one fighting style began to give way to another—are the most interesting and dramatic, but he is also careful to make sure that it doesn’t seem like everyone went to “Billy Bob’s Fight School,” studying the characters to find out how each one would individually fight and then equipping them with the appropriate weaponry, most of which he makes himself. As we speak before the rehearsal, he carries a bonesaw that he constructed out of aluminum for this production. This part of his job, as well as the choreography, has brought him to the attention of the film industry, for which he has done a great deal of work. “If theater is a high-pressure industry, film is a really high-pressure industry. I’ve gotten a call where I had to make something by the next day and drive it up [to New York] myself,” he says. “You just have to pull something from your ass—but you’ve got to have something to pull.”
Because of CGI and close-ups and cuts, Shaw prefers the thrill of the stage (though he loves it all and wears the air of a man who can’t quite believe he is able to live his dream). He works for a number of companies around town and says he is able to make a living at it, depending on what you mean by “a living.”
“Sometimes I’m landscaping,” he says.
He says that The Beaux’ Stratagem is an ideal situation because Lancisi, who is directing the play, gave him free range with the farce’s elaborate fight scenes that use rolling furniture to make the fight appear to move all the way through a large manor.
The play was written by George Farquhar, an Irish dramatist, and first performed in 1707. But the version Everyman is presenting is an adaptation begun by Thornton Wilder in the 1930s. Wilder died without completing his adaptation, and Ken Ludwig finished a version which premiered in Washington, D.C. in 2006.
The structure of the play and the number of actors give Shaw a great deal to work with—but the small stage at Everyman also presents a lot of challenges, and as he works with the actors, he is constantly reminding them not to fall too close to the wall or not to swipe their swords downward “because the audience will freak out.”
By the end of a 45-minute session, the complicated sword-tossing scene has come together, though in a bit of slow-motion. Yaegel T. Welch and Danny Gavigan are fighting Eric Poch and Alexander Kafarakis. The metal dings of the swords colliding ring out through the empty theater. Katie O. Solomon runs to her place across the stage—and the gag works. Welch and Gavigan each toss their swords, supposedly to one another, but they are intercepted by Poch and Kafarakis, who play rather clownish villains, and who, like everyone else at this rehearsal, are wearing a mix of street clothes and 18th-century costumes. They hold up the swords with goofy, proud looks on their faces, just as Solomon and Megan Anderson each snatch a sword and continue the combat, using the sleeves of their shawls to aid in the fighting.
It is an impressive sight, and Shaw seems pleased with the night’s work when he dismisses them.
When I ask him if he could use his skills—and swords—to defend himself if he happened to be attacked when he left the theater, he says, “Fuck no. This is Baltimore. Never bring a knife to a gun fight.”
The Beaux’ Stratagem is at Everyman Theatre through June 30.
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