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'Human Combat Chess': Less like Ren fest, more like a sport

Shelley Johnson, Rachel Piersdorf, Adam Scarpello

Shelley Johnson, Rachel Piersdorf, Adam Scarpello

In Renaissance fairs across the country human chess games, where actors play the roles of chess pieces and do battle on the board, are common. The idea has roots in a number of literary works, including Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass, Kurt Vonnegut's All the King's Horses, and, of course, J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. The city of Marostica, Italy has even hosted a live human chess game every two years since 1923 in honor of a legendary game played in 1454 by two young gentlemen who were trying to settle a dispute over who should woo a fair lady.

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Mike Lubke from Six Elements Theatre Company has never performed in a human chess match at a Renaissance festival, though he has seen them as an audience member and is intrigued by the idea. He has been developing a concept that takes the popular tradition and tweaks it a bit, making it a little bit less like a staged theatrical event and more like a sporting one. 
Lubke first began working on the idea as his senior project while a theater major at the University of Minnesota. He hopes to find a way to make chess more accessible to audiences who would normally be turned off by those of the festival variety. "Ren fests are very niche," he says. "Modern sports have a lot more diversity and variety."

In Human Combat Chess, which takes place this weekend and next at University Baptist Church in Minneapolis, performers use nine different weapons, including porter staffs, spears, fencing weapons, and "exotic East Asian weapons." There will also be unarmed fights that bear a striking resemblance to martial arts. The costumes the performers wear are free-form, Lubke says, due both to budget constraints and artistic reasons. Performers wear a combination of modern athletic wear and nicer clothes in which they can easily move in.

There are about 35 performers in the show, with a little bit of leeway as some people are performing one weekend and not the other. In addition to the 16 players on each side, there's one martial, one referee/announcer, and two commentators that offer a play-by-play throughout the action. 

While there is some dialogue, most of it is improvised. "I wanted it to be live and active," says Lubke, "not like they are delivering lines." 

Adam Scarpello, Robert Korsmo

Adam Scarpello, Robert Korsmo

The show's concept falls in line with what Six Elements Theatre is trying to accomplish: a fully immersive experiences for the audience. Rather than having people just come into a theater, pay for a ticket, and sit down to watch, the company hopes to create an experience that is more inclusive. For example, in a recent production of The Pillowman, which involves an interrogation, was held in a secluded basement in the Twin Cities. So rather than seeing a play, it was more like the audience was watching the open interrogation of a criminal. The ushers were in character, and people had the full feeling of what the characters were going through. 
Lubke says that he is interested in this kind of immersive theater because he believes it deepens the entertainment value. "It gives more opportunities to set and establish the world of the play, rather than isolate it on stage. It gives it a better sense of the world." He wants to find a way to "keep people engaged and keep people on their toes."

Another aspiration of Human Combat Chess is to "fill a gap in the entertainment market," Lubke says, "in that there are frequently shows that have violence in them, but don't have fight choreographers." Sometimes the result is actors getting hurt or having action that doesn't have emotional weight. In Human Combat Chess, there are four trained choreographers working on the show. "We want to showcase those resources to the community," he says, as well as provide an opportunity for the cast to learn about stage violence and stage combat. According to Lubke, the Twin Cities lacks stage combat in theater curriculums. 

Human Combat Chess performances are scheduled for Friday, July 15 and 22 at 7 p.m. and Saturday, July 16 and 23 at 5 p.m. and 9 p.m. The event takes place at University Baptist Church (1219 University Ave., Minneapolis). Ticket prices range from $12 to $20, and are available at the door. For more info, email [email protected]