Fight director U. Jonathan Toppo prepares for 31st season at OSF
By Jim Flint for Ashland.news
When all is said and done, Oregon Shakespeare Festival Resident Fight Director U. Jonathan Toppo has one overriding goal: Try not to kill the actors.
In 30 seasons on the job, he has a perfect record.
Stage combat is one of the oldest theatrical illusions — slashing, punching, kicking, shooting, sword-fighting and more, but with no bloodshed. The underrated art of stage fighting uses no stunt doubles or computer-generated images.
Toppo also acted for OSF in 26 of those seasons, landing some plum roles in nearly three dozen plays. But it’s fight directing that is more likely to get the self-described introvert talking — about the simple pleasure of teaching actors to beat up people safely.
He works for other theater companies as well.
His most recent gig was with Ashland’s Oregon Cabaret Theatre as fight director for “The Play That Goes Wrong,” playing now through April 2.
“It’s been a blast to work on,” Toppo said. “The actors are hilarious and incredibly skilled at comedy. Director Valerie Rachelle is top notch and a gem to work for.”
There is no sword-play, but lots of variety in the mayhem.
“Pretty much almost every scene has some sort of slapstick and silly violence,” Toppo said, “from door hits to head butts.”
He takes up the gauntlet again for OSF in 2023 as fight director for “Romeo and Juliet,” debuting April 18, directed by OSF Artistic Director Nataki Garrett.
“I’m super stoked to work with Nataki on this project,” he said. “I love ‘Romeo and Juliet.’ It’s so heartbreaking and romantic.”
For a show that’s ostensibly about love, it wouldn’t be so powerful without the violent clashes, which are an integral part of the emotional arc of the play.
It will be Toppo’s job to make sure the nail-biting fight scenes between the Montagues and the Capulets are choreographed in provocative, yet safe and effective, ways.
Toppo, born in New York and raised in Stamford, Connecticut, now lives in Ashland.
His father was an actor before he taught theater and the humanities. He used to take his students to see Broadway shows and young Jonathan got to go along.
Toppo said in high school he was definitely not one of the “cool” kids, but he was a member of the drama club, the Northstar Playmakers.
“I had a great group of friends,” he said, “and for me it was pretty much theater all the time.”
He says he knew early on the stage was where he wanted to be.
“I played Kurt, the lame boy, in the ‘Pied Piper of Hamlin’ in the third grade. I think I was hooked then,” he laughed. “By high school, I knew I wanted a life in the theater.”
He attended the University of Connecticut and the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA) and earned a bachelor’s degree in fine arts in acting.
He landed his first professional job years before attending university, however. He was cast as Tom of Warwick in “Camelot” at the age of 15 at a local dinner theater, performing eight shows a week during an 11-week run.
“I would miss one day of school a week for the Wednesday matinees,” he said.
When he was in London at LAMDA, one of his good friends, from California, turned him on to OSF.
“He told me about this amazing Shakespeare festival in Ashland that did 11 plays in rep.”
After returning to the states, his friend asked him to teach stage combat at the OSF education department’s summer seminar for high school seniors.
“Of course, I said ‘yes!’ It was an amazing experience,” he said. “Not only was I teaching stage combat, I also was attending all the plays at OSF. I was totally smitten. I auditioned five times and finally was hired in 1991.”
He has been interested in fight choreography ever since he became interested in the theater.
“At U Conn, there wasn’t a stage combat class, so we choreographed our own fights. Then I went to LAMDA and got certified. When I got back to the U.S., my first professional gig was in ‘Cyrano’ and I was asked to choreograph it.”
From that point, his career embodied two parallel paths of acting and fight directing.
Mastering the martial arts came later in life. He started studying Aikido, a modern Japanese martial art, in 1996, earning the rank of third-degree black belt. A few years ago, he became a level-one certified instructor in Krav Maga, which teaches self-defense techniques.
As a fight director, it’s never about creating a “cool” fight.
“It has to be about serving the actors and the story being told,” he said. “And taking the time to make the actors comfortable and feel like they can live in the choreography.”
He says the most difficult actors to train are those who think they know more than they do.
“I’d rather work with an actor who knows they aren’t skilled but are hungry, humble, and want to be coached,” he said. “I have been very lucky to work with very physically adept actors in well-directed productions.”
His three top tips for safety is to remind actors that:
- Stage combat is 99% technique and 1% “acting.”
- Slow is smooth and smooth is fast.
- Eye contact and proper distance are paramount.
One of his favorite assignments was a Hal/Hotspur fight between OSF actors John Tufts and Kevin Kennerly.
“It was a long fight that had everything — swords, unarmed, jiu jitsu, and some comedy. It was a fight where you feared for the characters, but not the actors,” attesting to their skills.
Another highlight resulted from working on a recent Oregon Cabaret Theater Sherlock Holmes production in which he had to choreograph a five-person fight on top of a train.
“I had done my usual prep before the first rehearsal,” he said. “When I came into rehearsal, actors Tony Carter and Galen Schloming asked if they could show me a move they worked out for the fight. I said sure.”
The two of them went into action, performing a full backflip with a simulated face kick.
“I said we’re definitely putting that in the fight somewhere! Actors are an amazing resource.”
Among his favorite productions as an actor at OSF are “Our Town,” directed by James Edmondson; “Death of a Salesman,” directed by Penny Metropolis; and “Pericles,” directed by Joseph Haj.
“After the ‘Pericles’ run in Ashland, we took the show to the Folger Theatre (in Washington D.C.), then the Guthrie Theater (in Minneapolis).”
He says it was one of the few Shakespeare plays he’s done where members of the audience would invariably cry at the end.
“It was the perfect coalescing of insightful collaborative direction, perfect casting, and an amazing design team. It’s truly the pinnacle of my career.”
Is there a role on his bucket list?
If he ever has the opportunity, Toppo’s fight-directing cred certainly will give him a leg up on landing the role of that bold, romantic swashbuckler.
Curtain Call is a periodic column profiling people involved with the Rogue Valley performing arts community. Reach writer Jim Flint at firstname.lastname@example.org.