Florida Studio Theatre's Paul Nicholas and the Art of the Slap

Arts & Culture

BY ANDREW FABIAN SRQ DAILY FRIDAY WEEKEND EDITION FRIDAY MAR 12, 2021

At Florida Studio Theatre, the machine of theatre hums back to life a year after an existential crisis named 2020.

In-person productions continue to trickle onto the calendar, a youth Spring Break program begins next week and the theatre also welcomed the addition of a new associate artist with a unique skillset, Paul Nicholas. Nicholas’ resume includes appearances on both television and stage, with notable cameos on Law & Order and roles in everything from Othello to the FST premiere of Honor Killing in 2018. He earned an MFA from the Academy for Classical Acting, part of George Washington University’s Shakespeare Theatre Company, and studied under Brad Waller, who taught Nicholas various tricks of the fight choreography trade that’s a part of his long list of skills.

Nicholas is a member of The Society of American Fight Directors, working closely with productions to stage the flow and energy of a scripted fight. That experience helps Nicholas imbue a fight scene with precision that ensures the actors remain safe without breaking the viewers’ suspension of disbelief. “Fight choreography is like a microcosm of theatre,” says Nicholas, “it’s about trying to make something look completely authentic even though we all know it’s completely fake.”

But of all the on-stage tussles Nicholas has choreographed over the years, the art of the slap has provided some of the most interesting and challenging experiences. Beyond the need to find an angle that disguises the distance between the hand of the striker and the face of the victim, Nicholas also has to help coordinate the timing of the off-stage clap that corresponds with the strike. “Slaps are very difficult to stage without giving it away,” says Nicholas. They also seem to be the bit of stagecraft that actors can be too eager to cut corners on.

“I’ve had actors say, ‘go ahead and hit me for real, I don’t mind,’” says Nicholas, who learned very quickly that the scenario never ends well. Friendships have been ruined, injuries incurred and audiences taken a little too far beyond the desired “gasp.” “My approach is always how can we make this fit the story, how do we make sure it’s done safely, then how do we make this look real,” he says.

As for Nicholas’s upcoming work with FST, he looks forward to settling into his new Sarasota home, staging a slap or two and helping FST continue building momentum into the post-COVID future. “I was already impressed with FST as a guest,” he says, “but now that I’m here seeing it from the inside, if there’s a better run theatre out there I haven’t seen it.”

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