Lewis Shaw knows swords.
Like the one he's twirling in his hand right now, a rather plain number with a black wire-wrap grip. It looks sturdy but unspectacular -- until Mr. Shaw slashes the air with it a few times, looking for all the world like a 20th-century D'Artagnan, complete with wire-rimmed glasses and curly blond hair.
"This is a playful one," he says with a glint in his eye, placing the sword back on his worktable. "Every sword is different. When they're really good, they're playful. They want to be used."
A native of central Pennsylvania who came to Maryland to study theater at University of Maryland College Park, Mr. Shaw, 35, taught stage combat and ran the scene shop at UMBC for five years. For the past 2 1/2 years, he's been a full-time sword maker, specializing in prop weapons for use on stage and screen, blades that differ from their more lethal counterparts only by the degree to which they are sharpened. Patrons of Center Stage can admire his handiwork in the current production of "Don Juan," in which the title character wields a genuine Shaw.
Its creator, who lives in East Baltimore with his wife, Norah, and son, Buddy, is one of what he guesses are six people in the world who are experts at making prop swords. Each piece takes anywhere from five hours to two weeks to make and costs from $200 to more than $1,000. In well-trained hands, his swords can look pretty deadly to an audience.
And where can actors get that training? Just so happens Mr. Shaw is pretty good at that, too. He recently returned from a weeklong workshop at the rebuilt Globe Theater in London, where he dazzled students and visitors with the sort of showy swordsmanship that has been a staple of the theater from "Macbeth" to "Braveheart."
The trip was a real thrill for Mr. Shaw, who specializes in Shakespearean swordplay and loves pointing out the types of swords and styles of battle required for each play.
"For the first couple days, visitors would come in and keep chattering while we were doing the sword fights. By the end of the week," he notes, "all you could hear were the swords."