This spring, the Steppenwolf Theater Company’s production of “Lost Land” starring John Malkovich and the Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s production of “Romeo & Juliet” will both have a Brookfield connection.
The swords used in each play are being custom made by Brookfield-based Rogue Steel, a company founded by local actor/stage fighting director turned entrepreneur Neil Massey.
Massey has developed quite a reputation for his stage combat weapons, which include rapiers, daggers and broadswords. They have been used in theaters across the country and overseas, others have been sold to university theater departments.
Robin McFarquhar, a fight director at Steppenwolf and Chicago Shakespeare and a theater professor at University of Illinois in Champaign, has become one of Massey’s better customers. He has used Rogue Steel creations for several productions and currently has 18 Massey swords hanging on his office wall in Champaign, for use by his students.
McFarquhar cited craftsmanship, durability and affordability as reasons he repeatedly does business with Rogue Steel. He also said Massey’s background in theater is a real bonus.
“Neil is a fight director himself and knows what it’s like to have a sword in his hand and move around with it, as opposed to somebody who builds swords but never uses them,” he said. “Stage weapons need to be sturdy because they take abuse. His reputation is based on delivering swords on time and he stands behind his work. It’s important for fight directors to have swords they can trust; that are sturdy and not falling to pieces. I’ve never had one of his swords break on me.”
Early in his acting career, Massey, 39, found himself in several roles that required on-stage combat. He discovered he had an aptitude for the art and began teaching others how to make staged fights look real and remain safe. He gained his certification in the Society of American Fight Directors and has been a guest instructor at workshops around the country.
He began making his own weapons using the metal working and welding skills he had picked up during his childhood on a Berlin, Maryland farm.
Soon, others were asking Massey to make them swords and daggers.
“It really took off,” said Massey, who said there are only a handful of other companies around the country doing what he does. “I went to several workshops and word spread. Eventually, it became full-time and I’ve been full-time for six years now.”
Massey runs the business out of his garage and basement, where much of his time is spent designing the swords on computer-aided drafting equipment (he studied mechanical engineering in college). He now outsources much of the cutting and welding to a local machine shop.
Most of the swords are custom made for purchase. But over time, Rogue Steel has built up a rental stock that is made available to theaters with smaller budgets.
Among his recent sales, Massey built the weapons for a Seattle musical production of “Prince and the Pauper.” The job required him to create a half-size broadsword for use by a child.
Though most of the creations are Western-style weapons, Massey recently built a number of Japanese swords for a production at the Royal Theater in York, England. Interestingly, the weapons will be used by life-size puppets.
Massey, who has studied many museum arms and armor collections, said his swords are meant to look authentic even if they are not constructed that way.
“I don’t do replicas,” he said. “I’m not doing museum quality re-creations, though they are all historically based. From the audience’s perspective, 20 feet away they can’t tell that it’s not the historical piece because it has the right shape and the right look.”
Obviously, Rogue’s weapons are more affordable than replicas and, of course, are made with dulled blades. That said, they can still be dangerous.
“A broad sword blade is dull, but it’s a three-foot piece of metal, and hitting somebody with it can be like hitting somebody with a baseball bat,” Massey said.
This is why a good fight director is a necessity for a production.
Massey continues to work in this capacity, and this coming summer he will choreograph battle scenes for an outdoor production in Ohio, where the life of Shawnee War Chief Blue Jacket will be depicted on a three-acre stage.
“We strive to train actors to learn how to use weapons and their bodies effectively,” Massey said. “They have to serve the piece and stay safe.
“If you have a bad fight scene, it not only takes the audience out of the play, but if it’s not planned properly, one of the actors can get injured.”
The keys to staging safe stage combat, according to Massey, are to create a “safety zone” between combatants so neither is within striking distance of the opponent’s blade. Also, the attacker must not move until the victim moves first.
“[The victim] is actually leading the dance,” he said. “But if it’s performed at speed, the audience can’t tell.”
These days, theater-goers require a certain authenticity in their stage combat.
“Audiences are so used to what they see in the movies and used to a certain level of quality of action and fighting,” he said.
Though he’s been behind the scenes for some time, Massey has plans to start auditioning for acting roles again soon. However, it’s been hard to find the time due to the success of his business, which continues to grow.
In the future, he hopes to move Rogue Steel into an independent space and hire some full-time employees. He is also planning to branch out into different types of weapons and accoutrements like shields, pole arms and sword belts.
Regardless of whether he returns to the stage or not, Massey said he considers himself lucky to have a career doing something he is passionate about.
“I’ve always enjoyed working with my hands and doing this, making these weapons satisfied a different side of my creative need,” he said. “As an actor, once you perform, it’s gone, there is nothing to hold onto. But with this, I can make it and there it is. It’s very satisfying in a different way (than acting). The fact that it’s related to theater and what I love, well that’s just icing on the cake.”