The reigning MyTheatre Honorary Award Winner, Nate Bitton took the stage combat skills that won him that award last year and used them to help score a nomination in an acting category this year. In Hart House Theatre’s production of Hamlet, Nate’s show-stealing Laertes stood out for the detailed character work he was able to focus on because the character’s difficult-to-master fight technique was already second nature.
Read on for the Outstanding Supporting Actor nominee’s thoughts on Shakespeare and stage combat, and to see how many times he can fit the word “sword” into one interview.
Can you remember the first theatre production you ever saw?
The first production I really remember seeing was Beauty and the Beast at the Princess of Wales, probably sometime around ’95. We drove to Toronto for the weekend (I’m a small town kid from Listowel, Ontario), and I think we sat up pretty close to the front of the balcony. I remember how big and spectacular everything was, especially when the Beast changes back to the Prince, (sorry – spoiler!) right at center stage, it was just so magical – right in front of your eyes. Besides this I remember throughout my early years my mom was part of rag-tag group of local performers called “Music Alive”. They would do a show every year or two at the high school and she would take me to rehearsals with her. I remember being like 8 years old and watching rehearsals for South Pacific or maybe it was Anything Goes, while jumping and flipping on gym mats. So I guess it makes sense that I would end up doing both theatre and stage combat.
What’s your favourite role you’ve ever played?
I’m not sure I have a “favourite” role that I’ve played. Every role comes with its favourite moments and challenges. Laertes was always a part I really wanted to play. He’s this somewhat mysterious character that shows up at the start and then leaves for like the next two hours and when he comes back it’s just a whirlwind rollercoaster of emotions. Plus he gets to sword fight, which is awesome! Playing Jaime in Bone Cage, also at Hart House, was a very exciting role for me as well. It was my first leading part a couple years out of theatre school and working with Matt White, our director, gave me some very interesting new approaches to text and character work. Plus at that time in my life some of the subject matter hit pretty close to home which was a fascinating and sometimes scary thing to experience. And then of course there was my final show of theatre school, The Taming of the Tamer, it’s a sequel to The Taming of the Shrew and I played Petruchio. There is great moment where I have been barricaded in my own house and there is big explosion and boards flying off the doorway and I came tromping through with a big smoking gun like I had just blown the doors off! Also, it turns out my female costar would become the love of my real life, so if I had to pick a show, that might be it.
Do you have a dream part you’d like to play one day?
Macbeth! I want to play Macbeth with dirt and blood and swords and all the dark gory fun that comes along with it! At the heart of Macbeth I think there lies a very real love story. Then you have this evil and murder juxtaposed with something we so often see portrayed as light and happy, love, but in a dark, powerful way. Who wouldn’t want to play that?! Plus, swords! I think Ken in John Logan’s Red, is a really cool character. It’s such an interesting play that raises some fascinating questions about the commercialization of art. Right now I think those questions are very poignant, especially in Toronto where we have such a booming indie theatre scene. Really there are so many amazing new works coming out of the writers of Toronto right now everyday brings new dream roles to life and I can’t wait to see what comes my way in the future.
How does playing Shakespeare compare to contemporary work? What keeps bringing you back to the bard?
I love the language and stories of Shakespeare. I love the challenge of deciphering each and every word and fully committing to each and every moment. With Shakespeare the thought and emotion live in the words we say, it doesn’t have the same subtext we’re used to in contemporary work, so if you don’t understand what you’re saying and fully commit to each moment the story gets lost. Because the language is different than what most of us are familiar with, the rehearsal process of building a scene and relationship with fellow cast members is so exciting to me. I know all these great stories but I don’t know how each individual actor is going to interpret or portray them and that always leads to great surprises. I also love doing Shakespeare because there is something so magical about spending your day interacting out in modern day Toronto and then at night, stepping into the theatre or bar or whatever and becoming a different person right down to the way you speak. I love that. Plus there’s a lot of sword fights, so that helps!
You won our Honorary Award last year for your fight directing work. How did you get started with stage combat?
I officially started stage combat after my second year of theatre school when I began training at Rapier Wit in Toronto. However, I would say I unofficially started when I was a kid and would run around as Link from The Legend of Zelda. I would use a mesh pie plate as a shield and a knife sharpener as my sword and run around the house smiting my enemies. I have always been way into RPG video games and comics and super heroes and stuff, not to mention the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I saw people doing fights in movies and in plays but never really knew that was a thing people specialized in until I started theatre school. It was really only a matter of time until I was throwing fake punches and finding the best way to (safely) physically destroy someone.
By our count, you’re the most prolific fight director in the Toronto indie scene. What have been some of your favourite fights to choreograph?
Just like building a character, all fights come with their challenges and their thrilling moments. I loved building the fight for Hamlet at Hart House, especially because I knew it would be me performing one half of it! You rarely get to choreograph for a space as big as the Hart House stage and I knew our Hamlet, Dan Mosseau, had some previous fight experience and so I figured there was no point in holding back. I had a great assistant, Brenna Stewart, who really helped push the choreo and loves big, fast fights with lots of weird angles and spins as much as I do so it was a lot of fun to create. Originally we even had Dan doing this crazy back roll on the ground as I slashed at him but we took it out about two weeks before we opened and, after 18 very physical performances, I think Dan was glad we did.
After that fight, I choreographed for another Hamlet with Shakespeare Bash’d [opening Feb 2nd at the Monarch Tavern]. It was a whole different challenge because now I had a space about six feet wide and thirty feet long, with the audience sitting on either side! So that has been a lot of fun and at times terrifying, but James Wallis, Hamlet, and Jen Dzialoszynski, Laertes, are really rocking it. Plus I got to kill Claudius in a way I have always wanted to try!
Do you have a preference when it comes to type of weapons or hand-to-hand? What about stylized vs. realistic fights?
My favourite style to fight with personally is sword and shield. I love the clashing and banging that happens up close and personal when you have such versatile weapons especially when there are many people fighting at once! When it comes to building choreography I don’t really have a favourite weapon but I do love using the environment. If there is a wall or pillar you better believe someone is getting smashed against it! In a lot of Toronto’s indie theatres, the space is so unique. This can create some problems but also some amazing opportunities for unique and weird fight moments, and I can’t get enough unique, weird moments!
As far as stylized vs. realistic, I think I tend to do more realistic as that is generally more in line with the shows I’m working on. I also think realistic violence, though sometimes a challenge, can really add to the stakes of the show. Working on King John with Bash’d, originally James was going to leave all fights as stylized movement pieces, done wonderfully by Joshua Browne. Then James and I discussed how the world within the play is shifting and we help show that by having Philip pull Austria into his world by breaking away from stylized violence into realistic violence. This to me of course meant beat him up some and snap his neck with an extension cord. I have a cool job.
How collaborative is your choreography process? Do you develop fights with the director or get much guidance before you start?
I’m hugely collaborative in my work. It is rare for me to build a fight without having some sort of conversation with the director beforehand. Ultimately my job is to serve the world of the play and the vision of the director while keeping the actors safe. I always have a hundred cool ideas of things we can do but if it doesn’t fit into the overall world of the show then it’s not the right stuff. It is also very important to me that the choreo makes sense to the actors performing it. It has to come from an impulse generated by the story and characters and then be performed every night by those actors. If we can’t find a way to make a move make sense for an actor then it just becomes a moment they dread in their performance. Building choreo and then performing it countless times for Laertes was a very helpful experience for educating me on what we as fight directors are asking actors to undertake.
Walk us through the development of a fight scene from concept to execution.
I will always start by reading the script. A key event in theatrical creation I have discovered. Then I will meet with the director a few weeks before they start rehearsals. In this conversation I look to gain a sense of the world the director is creating: time period, realistic/stylized, how they see the significance of the fight/violence, broader concept questions. Then the more specific things like space, set, weapons and even a sense of the actors playing the parts. After this meeting I begin the actual building process, which can happen many different ways. In the case of Hamlet, it is a two-person duel and there are many things that have to happen as dictated by the text. So with this fight I found it best to choreograph it all and then make tweaks and adjustments once we taught it to the cast. However, many of the fights I do are less traditional one-on-one fights and thus it is hard to fully choreograph without knowing the actors and how the scene has been staged up until this point. This is where I find flexibility to be one of the most important traits a fight director can have. I will come up with a lose concept of the fight and an understanding of the weapons/environment we have at our disposal and from there I will set about teaching the moves to the actors and checking in with the director. Once we have a loose shape I will adjust things and add/remove moves to make sure we are getting the story and effect we need. This is essentially where the bulk of my job is done, other than returning a couple times to make sure everything is on track and safe. I also find that when working on a show my skill set becomes valuable in other areas as well. Actors tend to be physical beings that want to be physical with each other on stage but don’t always know how. With Jesus Christ Superstar for example, I was brought in to do the “lashing” but ended up working very closely with choreographer Amanda Nuttall and director Luke Brown, on many other moments in the show to help with the violent, volatile nature of the world.
How do you feel your fight training came into play in your Outstanding Supporting Actor-nominated performance as Laertes in Hart House’s Hamlet?
To me, Laertes is a very physical person. We hear much about his skill as a swordsman but also his behavior tends towards fast physical response; if he were sailing somewhere I feel he would be on deck helping with the rigging rather than hiding away in the cabin. My fight training (and personality) has led me to become a very physical performer, if you put something on stage that I can climb, there is a 90% chance that I’m going to climb it! This meant that any physical work that had to be choreographed came very quickly and naturally which opened up space to dig further into the emotional connectivity. It also aided me in finding the power in moments of stillness, especially when forced by social/royal influence. Creating a character that is so physical and then in some of the most intense moments being forced to remain physically still was a very useful journey for me.
Your director Paolo Santalucia is nominated this year for playing Hamlet in a different production. How did working with a director who is also an actor, fresh off performing the play, influence the rehearsal process? How did his ideas about Laertes mesh with your own?
Paolo and I have known each other for a long time; we were two years apart in theatre school. Since meeting him there has always been one clear thing about Paolo, and it is that he is theatre, he lives and breathes it. He is an incredibly intelligent, humble and talented person that just wants to create great work with great people. Even though he had a very clear sense of the play and the characters, he never forced anything on me; we very much created the character together. Obviously Paolo knew of my leaning towards the physical (I may have broken a chair in my audition, just a little) and he gave me every opportunity to use that.
Your connection with Ophelia was right at the heart of your performance. Tell us about working with Sheelagh Daly to develop your sibling relationship.
Sheelagh and I have also known each a long time, but hadn’t actually seen each other in years, until this past Fringe festival where we ran into each other at the tent. When she showed up to read for Ophelia at the Laertes callbacks I was so excited because we had never actually worked together. I knew as soon as I left the room that she would be an excellent Ophelia, I think my actual words were “heartbreaking”, and she was. The first rehearsal where we ran through the whole second [half], I watched her descent into madness and it brought tears to my eyes. Laertes and Ophelia only have two scenes together (if you don’t count the one where she’s a corpse) and they are tricky and powerful scenes. We actually didn’t rehearse those scenes very many times, which was kind of nice because it allowed room to explore the events and reactions every night. Also Paolo created these beautiful stage pictures that, once we were in them, I just felt a genuine connection to Sheelagh, especially when she’s covered in dirt throwing flowers at a chair, which is much more devastating than it sounds. By only having a couple scenes and a set number of performances, I think Sheelagh and I always just wanted to make the most of those scenes.
Did you have a favourite moment in the production?
Of course the final sword fight will always be a highlight for me. As for one single moment I would have to say it was something on opening night. Our production had a silent film that the players had made to tell the story of “The Mousetrap”, the play within the play where they portray the king being poisoned by his brother. On opening night we were backstage joking about what would happen if the video, which had been working flawlessly, didn’t work. Sure enough moments into it, the video froze. Without missing and beat, the four players, who were accompanying the video with song, jumped in and acted out the final half of the video right down to a small bottle of “poison” that one of them grabbed seconds before going on stage. That to me was a brilliant moment that showed professionalism and creativity at its finest.
That or Osric’s sassy walk during one transition set to Earth, Wind and Fire. That was great to watch every night!
What are you working on now/next?
I just finished up fight directing Hamlet with Shakespeare Bash’d, which has been a very fun and exciting project.
Currently I am in the very early stages of planning a workshop with Bri Waters, working on an adaptation of the Iliad that he has written. Bri is assembling a number of actors and physical theatre creators and we are going to explore how we can bring this huge story that is full of war and larger-than-life characters to a more intimate staging. I’m very excited to see what we can create and where we can take the fights and physicality.
Do you have anything you’d like to add?
Just that I am so thrilled to be nominated amongst such great actors. I have had the pleasure of working with some of my fellow nominees and know first hand how outstanding they all are. It’s such an exciting time to be part of the Toronto indie theatre scene and I can’t wait to see where it goes from here. We have so many great artist bringing their skills to the creation of such tremendous work I feel so lucky to be a part of such a kick-ass community!