The fight scenes of “Romeo and Juliet” will include real sword play on the Belleville West stage starting with a matinee for area junior high schools on Oct. 5. Fight choreographer Jeff Rice, of Edwardsville, visited the campus Wednesday to teach the high schoolers how to handle the weapons.
The blades of the swords and daggers they practiced with weren’t sharp, but their points were. So Rice, who said he specializes in “organized chaos,” started slow with a lesson on how to remove weapons from their scabbards — cross-body holders — without throwing them into the audience.
“Everything I’m telling you, I’ve seen. I’ve actually seen actors do that,” Rice said during the instruction.
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When Rice moves his sword, it makes the quick whooshing noise audiences expect to hear in a fight scene. The young actors will get there eventually.
“Once you get really good, you can make that noise,” he said.
Belleville West senior Julius Catchings, who plays main antagonist Tybalt, said during practice that he’s “going to be so strong by the end of this.” Fellow actor Wade Cook, a junior, agreed. Cook plays Romeo and previously performed in the school’s production of “Peter Pan” as antagonist Captain Cook.
“It was good exercise,” Cook said of the sword fighting practice.
“Romeo and Juliet” is the first play Julius is performing in, and it’s his first time picking up a real sword, he said.
“Do plastic swords count? When I was little, I had a load of them,” Julius said. His only other experience with swords is from playing the video game series “Assassin’s Creed II”.
“In the game, that’s the only weapon I like,” he said.
But swords in real life are nothing like Julius expected.
“It’s like shear epic-osity,” he said. “I feel like Ezio (the main protagonist of “Assassin’s Creed II”) now. The only difference is he’s from Italy and I’m from East St. (Louis).”
Despite the slightly sore knuckles he felt after gripping the weapons for hours Wednesday, Julius said all the practicing he’s going to have to do — nearly every day after school until the October performances — is going to be nothing but fun. He’s in all three of the play’s fight scenes.
Julius said it’s going to be more difficult for him to memorize the Shakespearean lines than the choreography.
“I was in Latin dance (class) my sophomore year, so I’m used to being able to pick up on moves,” he said.
His favorite of the three fight scenes is with freshman Alex Johnson, who plays Mercutio, Romeo’s close friend. Julius will also fight Romeo — played by Cook — and Romeo’s cousin Benvolio — played by freshman Johanna Holm.
“It’s a different kind of energy,” he said of the choreography in the fight with Mercutio. “It’s just really cool.”
This performance is Rice’s eleventh time choreographing “Romeo and Juliet.” In his day job, Rice works in IT for aircraft manufacturing company Boeing. Julius said he made a good first impression on him Wednesday.
“He’s a funny guy. It doesn’t take a lot to make me laugh but it takes a lot to keep me laughing. If you can keep me laughing, you should be proud of yourself,” Julius said of Rice. “... He’s a cool dude, too. And I learned something from him.”
One lesson Julius took away from the practice: the victim always controls the violence in a fight scene. Rice said what that means is the attacker isn’t aiming for the victim’s body. Instead, the victim’s weapon has to make contact with the attacker’s, and the victim has to sell it to make it appear real.
Julius said he’s pleasantly surprised to be using the real weapons in the performance.
“Originally, I thought we were going to use like foam swords, and was just going to be like hacking at each other and there would be like sound effects,” he said.
The Belleville West High School performance of “Romeo and Juliet” will take place Oct. 6-8, with matinees for area junior high schools Oct. 5-7.
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