While Paul Dennhardt was driving to his job as a life insurance salesman one day, he looked down and saw calluses on his knuckles. It hit him that he was so unhappy with his life that he’d been chewing on them during the day.

That’s when he decided to follow his heart and go back into theatre, something his high school drama teacher told him he’d never get away from. The former dancer is now a nationally recognized fight director, a master teacher of stage combat.

Fight and dance? It’s all about moving your body through space, he said. And he’s been hooked on combat since he picked up his first sword in graduate school.

“It was like a marriage made in heaven,” he said. “I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I really love this.’”

The professor in Illinois State University’s School of Theatre and Dance is teaching acting majors how to be believable—and safe—while fighting on stage, often in Shakespeare plays involving elaborate duels. Dennhardt is the resident fight director for the Illinois Shakespeare Festival each summer. The 2014 festival season opens July 8, with a new all-ages show Shake, Shake, Shake Your Shakespeare starting this week.

Illinois State actors who graduate with combat skills are more likely to get hired, Dennhardt said. Getting certified in weapons while working with Dennhardt is what attracted M.F.A. acting student Robert Johnson to Illinois State.

“I had no experience in stage combat. That was a major selling point when I was looking at grad schools,” he said. “It’s another tool in my chest that makes me more marketable to directors and theaters around the country.”

Learn more about the Illinois Shakespeare Festival and get tickets at TheFestival.org.

Join us for Alumni and Friends of the Arts Night at the Illinois Shakespeare Festival on July 19. Register online or by calling (309) 438-2586.

Kate Arthur can be reached at kaarthu@IllinoisState.edu.