Arts and Culture

Staging combat: An intensive course teaches performers how to be safe with stage fighting and intimacy

Practice during a rapier and dagger class
Atis Kleinbergs (right) and Paige Summers (left) practice with knives during a class at the “Brawl of America” conference at Hamline University in St. Paul on Saturday.
Stephen Maturen for MPR News

On stage, moments of violence and intimacy can raise the stakes of a play and aid in storytelling. 

People like Mike Lubke, a Twin Cities fight director, make those moments on stage possible and safe.  

“There’s a big wave of Romeo and Juliets that are coming around,” Lubke said. He points out the fight choreography requirements of Shakespeare’s tragedy: “It’s like, well, you need some rapier and dagger for that.” 

A person poses for a portrait
Mike Lubke poses for a portrait during the "Brawl of America" conference at Hamline University in St. Paul on Saturday.
Stephen Maturen for MPR News

For 10 years, Lubke has organized “Brawl of America,” a weekendlong intensive featuring workshops on different elements of stage combat, including sword fighting and unarmed combat.

This year’s intensive occurred over Memorial Day weekend at Hamline University in St Paul.

Before Brawl started, there hadn’t been a stage combat event like this in the Twin Cities, according to Lubke, “despite a very strong theater market and a growing number of people who were very passionate in specifically this subset of performing arts.”

Practice during a rapier and dagger class
Instructor Andrew Rathgeber (left) demonstrates a technique with knives during a class.
Stephen Maturen for MPR News

With the help of other coordinators, Lubke has grown the event, which now features instructors and participants from across the country. It’s a project of Six Elements Theatre, a Twin Cities-based group that specializes in producing work that highlights stage combat and staged intimacy.  

“You can take classes by yourself and get good at technique, but this is people from all over getting to play with each other,” said Jamie Macpherson, a fight director from Chicago.  

“It is as fun as it looks.” 

Actor Peter Meier also traveled from Chicago to attend “Brawl of America” this year.  

Practice during a rapier and dagger class
Erica Messerli (left) and Lance Krone (right) practice.
Stephen Maturen for MPR News

“The point of this intensive and the stage combat training is telling a story, building a character, building connections with people — and then just getting your body moving,” said Meier.

“Brawl of America” also has a day of programming dedicated to intimacy choreography — the art of staging sex scenes and other intimate moments.  

“I think as a culture, we are becoming more consent-focused,” said H Ashley, a program coordinator with “Brawl of America.”

Ashley added the entertainment industry has had a long history of telling actors they are replaceable, which is hopefully changing. Ashley credits the #MeToo movement.

“I mean, that cracked a lot of stuff open in Hollywood, which then allowed more local and regional theaters to also look at their structures and how things were working and what abuses might be happening.” 

Practice during a rapier and dagger class
Atis Kleinbergs (right) and Paige Summers (left) practice with knives.
Stephen Maturen for MPR News

According to Lubke, “Brawl of America" aims to give actors, designers and directors a chance to gain some experience in stage combat and intimacy coordination. It also works to make the field more accessible. 

“We have a pay-what-you-want option, which is currently available for anybody under the trans umbrella, or part of the global majority,” H Ashley said. “Global majority” refers to people of Indigenous, African, Asian or Latin American descent.

While acknowledging that both “Brawl” and the industry as a whole have work to do in terms of disability, Ashley highlights there’s a place in stage combat for everyone. 

“I have a nerve damage issue and sometimes use a walker. And I’m still able to do this work ... I think people who use mobility aids or have cognitive delays or things like that may not know that this is still a space for them. And we want those bodies telling these stories also.”

This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment's Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.