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Doing battle with Six Elements Theatre’s Human Combat Chess

In human combat chess, performers assume the chess piece positions on as life-sized board.

The fantastic trick in human combat chess is that sometimes the defending piece wins.
Courtesy of Stubble

Stubble: What is the history of human combat chess?
Mike: This is a tricky one to answer. There are two histories: the actual history of human chess as a performance, and the in-world history we have created. Human Combat Chess as six elements presents it dates back to my senior project at the university of Minnesota for my BA Theatre Arts degree in 2009. I borrowed the idea from renaissance festival human chess matches. There, the story usually revolves around feuding lords playing the game as means of settling a dispute. The fights are choreographed, and the events are presented as fictional entertainment.

My take on it was: what if I presented it as an unscripted modern sport? As part of that presentation, I created a long history as to when different rules were developed, etc. The 1250 date is part of that fictional history. The battle of Al Mansura actually happened, though, and the French king was in fact captured. So you see, we blur the lines between fiction and reality pretty readily.

Stubble: How did you first decide to perform human combat chess in Minneapolis, and what has kept Six Elements coming back to it?
Mike: As I mentioned before, it was my senior project back in 2009. It was very well received. In 2011, when Six elements was looking for a summer show to perform, I proposed a revamping and continuation of my human chess idea. The high-action sports provided a “popcorn summer action” niche that movies have, but theatre tends to lack. It was a rousing success. We decided we should do it every year.

Stubble: What’s the difference between chess and human combat chess? Is it basically just a chess game played with human players like that scene from Harry Potter?
Mike: In human combat chess, performers assume the chess piece positions on as life-sized board. The pieces move in the same manner as in tabletop chess, with the king of each team serving as the “player.” The main difference is that when a square is contested, the board is cleared save for the attacking and defending pieces, and those two pieces fight a choreographed duel. The fantastic trick in human combat chess, however, is that sometimes the defending piece wins. So…similar to wizards chess, only so much better

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Stubble: Six Elements as a theater company seems to take weapons on stage very seriously. Why the emphasis on technical ability with a sword, what does it bring to a production?
Mike: Well, as a company with a resident fight director, it gives me something to do. On many more serious notes, stage combat is a high -value acting skill that is misrepresented and underutilized in the twin cities theatre scene. Studying combat work (with sword or otherwise) gets actors more in tune with their bodies to provide more charged performances. It helps us understand the psychology of conflict. At the heart of all drama is conflict, and what is more visceral than physical conflict? This allows us to more honestly portray that which us do core to who we are as people.

Stubble: What other games do you think would be made better with weapons?
Mike: We’ve often thought about this, actually. Mostly as a joke. There’s already been reference in – world to combat shogi, where each player would change teams multiple times throughout the game. Really, anything would be made better with weapons, it’s just a matter of how viable it’d be to watch. Human combat clue? Eh. Human combat monopoly? That’d ring true for a lot of people.

Stubble: Maybe an easy question, but what’s the best reason to support your kickstarter and go see a production Human Combat Chess later this year?
Mike: Well, with donations to the kickstarter, we can ramp up presentation elements to the point where we can provide truly unique live entertainment here in Minneapolis. We can put on showcases of skill made possible by equipment and training opportunities achieved through those donations. And you should come see this show because it is genuinely exciting, heart-pounding entertainment you can’t get anywhere else. Where else can you scream at the top of your lungs cheering for a swordfighter while listening to live play-by-play commentary?

Mike Lubke is the creator of Human Combat Chess.

This post was written by Tom Johnson and originally published on Stubble. Follow Stubble on Twitter: @stubblemag.

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