The Man Who Gives Actors All the Right Moves

John Sipes is a study in stillness as the stage erupts around him. A sword-wielding actor bears down on him, but the movement director for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) is undistracted, seeking the key to the fight scene of the Bard's "Cymbeline": naturalness.

"The sword has to make contact as it comes down, guys," says Mr. Sipes, just in time to evade a flying blade. The weapon clatters downstage as actors yell, "Whoa, loose sword!" And Sipes adds, half to himself, "this time let's get it right."

The man who holds a unique post in American theater (fight directors and dance choreographers are common, but full-time movement directors are virtually nonexistent) gives actors the moves that will allow them to move an audience.

As to why highly trained actors would need such a coach, Sipes muses, "In order to reach out for another time, another place unlike your own, and make it appear natural, you must have technique." He adds that this work is particularly important for actors with what he calls "the American slouch." This look has a tendency to bring everything to the present, he says, rather than reach out to a different reality.

The primary requisite for the job is complete command of one's own physical instrument, which Sipes has achieved through a variety of disciplines including tai chi (a Chinese martial art), Suzuki (a Japanese movement technique), stage combat, fencing, ballet, and mime.

Sipes has also had to formulate an approach broad enough to help actors of all ages and fitness levels. Often, Sipes consults manuals of the time, in particular dance masters' guides. He points out that even during highly mannered times, they combined artifice with ease. This is his goal.

Sipes also works closely with directors. For "A Midsummer Night's Dream," he was asked to create a special physical vocabulary for the fairies. Early on, a clutch of supernaturals bursts in, fussing and nattering in a restless physicality, designed by Sipes, that sets a tone for the play.

Actress Tamu Gray says she worked with Sipes to create a hunchbacked character, for another show, without padding. The disability was an expression of a troubled thought, which Ms. Gray wanted to embody.

Libby Appel, OSF artistic director, thanks her predecessor for creating the post for Sipes, noting that he is invaluable for directors and actors. Since he goes into an actor's emotional and physical connection to the play's text, "This frees the director to go deeper into the overall work."

But Sipes's work often goes unrecognized. And occasionally an actor will resist his suggestions. Actor David Kelly says American actors may be the only performing artists "who have the illusion that their training days are over with school." And, Kelly says some don't want to lose what they see as distinctive characteristics they'll need for film and TV work.

But, says Sipes, he respects what he's asking of an actor. "When you enter a human being through their physical life, it's very profound."

For the movement director, who once aspired to be a priest, balance is the greatest satisfaction, onstage or off.

* Gloria Goodale's e-mail address is

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