Man at arms
When Mike Lubke was in middle school in St. Paul, he dreamed of becoming a professional wrestler like the men he followed on TV. Then he learned that professional wrestling wasn’t purely athletic and that the matches were scripted, with storylines and plots and characters who played roles.
That realization could have been dispiriting. Instead, it set Lubke (BA ’09) on a path to becoming a fight choreographer, performer, and stage-combat instructor.
By the time he entered South St. Paul High Secondary for high school, he was both a wrestler and a theater kid, working to build up his acting chops for his future career in the ring.
Sitting in the office of Art in Arms, the teaching studio he founded in the Railroad Island neighborhood on the east side of St. Paul, Lubke lights up remembering his first role. It was 2002 and he was 13. The school play was Hamlet. Lubke was cast as Laertes. There would be a sword fight.
To prepare, Lubke worked with a Twin Cities-based fight choreographer named Don Preston, who blocked the scenes and taught Lubke how to make the sword fight look real while also staying out of harm’s way.
“He became my gateway into stage combat as a craft in and of itself,” Lubke says. Whether it’s a Hollywood blockbuster, a middle school play, or a video game, there is an art to making pretend violence look and feel like the real thing. He quit the wrestling team to devote himself to theater and stagecraft.
That decision turned into opportunity when Lubke arrived at the U of M in the fall of 2005 to study theater. He decided to try his hand at fight choreography, starting with a production of The Cripple of Inishmaan, a dark—and violent—comedy by Irish playwright Martin McDonagh.
Lubke’s senior project was an early version of Human Combat Chess, a scripted fighting stage show that has its own characters, backstories, and weapons. It became a staple of Six Elements Theatre, the theater company Lubke founded in 2010 with numerous former U of M classmates. Human Combat Chess was also one of the largest stage combat shows in the world, with up to 80 performers acting in dozens of fights.
Today, Lubke is a certified instructor with the Society of American Fight Directors, where he was recently elected its fight director representative. In addition to serving on the nonprofit’s governing body, he’s part of an initiative to expand fight curriculum beyond western European martial arts.
He teaches stage combat at the Minnesota Stage Combat Open Gym and in regularly scheduled classes held at Art in Arms. Classes include anything from two-handed sword techniques to properly dueling with a rapier and dagger—a technique that’s popular at Renaissance Festival acts. His choreography has appeared in numerous productions, including plays at the Guthrie Theater and Children’s Theatre Company.
He loves to geek out on what makes a fight scene realistic and historically accurate. But whether he’s teaching or choreographing, Lubke wants to make sure that the violence serves the story, whether that’s with Errol Flynn–style high-flying swordplay or something that’s more grounded in realism. “We are always [thinking] about how [what we do] is going to say things about violence in our world.”
Read the original story at Minnesota Alumni magazine.
- Arts and Humanities