For more than 20 years, Nick Sandys Pullin—a member of the Society of American Fight Directors—has taught stage combat at The Theatre School, showing students how to bring realistic fights to life in more than 40 shows so far. Outside DePaul, he’s choreographed  violence for more than twenty-five Chicago, regional and Broadway theaters, as well for the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

Sandys is also the resident fight director at Lyric Opera of Chicago and the producing artistic director at Remy Bumppo Theatre Company. He’s received four Joseph Jefferson Nominations for choreography, eight for acting, and two for stage direction. In 2011 Chicago Magazine named him Best Actor. That same year, he won an Artistic Achievement Award from The Meier Charitable Foundation for the Arts.

Here Sandys talks about the art—and fun—of fighting on stage.

Fight choreographer, actor, producer, director, teacher—you wear a lot of hats.

Most actors have to piece together a life in the arts. We even teach our students to think of themselves as entrepreneurs so they can fit into the art community in lots of different ways.

When I came to Chicago in 1992 as an aspiring actor, I had to find a way to pay for my theatre habit, and that included teaching at The Theatre School and choreographing for Lyric Opera.  But my interest and skill in stage combat developed long before that, of course. 

While an undergraduate at Cambridge, I channeled my enthusiasm for sports—rugby, cricket and field hockey— into my theater work. I was the one who’d say, ‘Sure, I’ll throw myself over a table, because I know how to fall down without hurting myself.’

Then, early in my career, I was cast as a character who had to do French kickboxing; the fact that I could come flying across the stage, jump, kick and land right on the spot, and not actually kick anyone in the face, earned me my Actors’ Equity union card. So, I learned fighting on-the-job to a certain extent, until I came to Chicago, where there is a real fight community and a lot of good teachers. I was—and am— very fortunate because stage combat is a wonderful, fun thing to be able to do. And it can even get you ahead in the business.

How hard is it to become a good stage fighter? 

Very.  Fighting is the hardest work any actor ever does; it takes precise technique and full emotional commitment. Like all martial arts, it can be a lifelong study.

At DePaul, I teach six combat classes, two of which prepare students for certification by the Society of American Fight Directors. Everyone learns unarmed combat, as well as rapier and dagger, which is the Shakespearean-period style of sword fighting. Those skills give students a basic vocabulary for fighting of all kinds. In the advanced classes, for those who want to continue, I teach large two-handed weapons, such as broadswords or quarterstaffs, and smaller more modern ones, such as knives or smallsword. And if they are really good and really interested, I’ll teach a few the exhausting sword-and-shield.

I love working with actors who are at the very beginning of their careers.

In my classes, the students gain a drive for perfectionism because, in stage fighting, the actors have to be 100 percent in control—emotionally, physically, mentally, technically—while appearing to be 100 percent out of control. When a sword is in hand, or when a fist is pulled back, every move has to be inch-perfect. To perform it really well, you have to maintain an absolutely extreme edge. For the actor, there’s adrenalin during the fight and exhaustion after. The fighters have to do everything the other actors are doing in the scene, sharing space and energy, but with lethal weapons in play.

What’s special about the way you teach stage combat?

I understand context. The moments before and after the violence are as important as the fight itself. A good fight has a good story; it’s an extension of the human issues that drive the plot.

During a fight, language has broken down. Nothing is left for the characters but to clash in a way that’s physical and primeval. It’s good versus evil, one man against another, one family against another, one regime against another, one way of looking at history against another. So, a staged fight shouldn’t be just entertaining, unless it’s a swashbuckling scene in Peter Pan. No, a fight is frightening: It’s nasty, it’s injury, it’s death. I want the audience to experience that.

I’ve spent years in practical engagement with my art. I’ve choreographed more than 45 shows at Lyric Opera in Chicago and three at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. I’ve taught dozens of Juliets to stab themselves; I’ve shown world-renowned Carmens how to street fight. I’ve shaped hundreds of fights with fists, knives and swords, choreographed scenes of chaos and carnage, large and small. I am lucky to be at the top of my game, and I bring that experience to my students, helping them find their strengths, fit into the arts community, and do what they love. 

Do you have a few tips about staging a good fight?

First, the actor has to take up as much space as possible. When an actor walks into a room, he wants to control that space. When he walks into a room with a sword drawn, he has to control that space. He needs to understand energy and reach. This goes ways beyond technical blocking. Becoming as big or as small as the role demands requires a huge amount of body awareness.

Second, a really good fight shouldn’t draw attention to itself as a fight. Rather, it should be an extension of character: It comes out of the story and it goes back into the story; it doesn’t stop the play, but rather completes the text with movement instead of words.

Third, of course, is safety. That’s the main point, isn’t it? Unlike fighting in film, fighting on stage requires brilliant precision, over and over again, every performance. An actor skilled in fighting looks dangerous, but is in control. That’s why each fight should be shaped to the skills of the actors. I push my students to their limits, but not beyond.

Being a good stage fighter takes work, work, work. Behind one minute of stage time is 10 hours of choreography and 10 more of practice and repetition. Because, while perfection is impossible, every true actor wants the next performance to be better than the last.

Photos: 1) The Theatre School production of "The Royal Hunt of The Sun" directed by Ian Frank and 2) Nick Sandys Pullin as  Arthur in "Camelot" at Light Opera Works.