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Scripted and tactical: Six Elements Theatre’s Human Combat Chess

Performers Callan Korpi and Darwin Hull rehearse stage combat for Six Elements Theatres production of Human Combat Chess at the Historic Wesley Center on Thursday night.
Image by Chelsea Gortmaker
Performers Callan Korpi and Darwin Hull rehearse stage combat for Six Elements Theatre’s production of “Human Combat Chess” at the Historic Wesley Center on Thursday night.

Skot “The Real Knight” Rieffer wielded a halberd as he exited the storage unit in a meeting room last Thursday at Minneapolis’ Historic Wesley Center.

 “You’re going to want to use both hands to hold this,” the Human Combat Chess performer said, hefting the heavy medieval axe-spear.

Rieffer is a performer in Six Elements Theatre’s high-energy Human Combat Chess event, where nearly three dozen performers, split into two teams, attempt to out-muscle and outwit their opponents in a game of chess. Every time two “chess pieces” clash, they fight an intricately choreographed stage combat sequence to see who remains on the board.

The company scripts every last second of the game, making it far from a mere chess simulation. Six Elements created an entire fictional world to accompany the combat competition, and every performer “piece” has its own character.

The larger-than-life stars of the professional wrestling universe inspired the project’s characters — some riddled with braggadocio, others cunning and subtle. Either way, each has a backstory, a specific skill and a brutal nickname.

 “In any story you have highs and lows — we have to give these characters things to fight for and a singular world to live in,” fight choreographer Steve “The Hurricane” Looten said as sparring partners bludgeoned each other behind him. “We create team styles and a cast of characters on those teams that can work together.”

In Human Combat Chess, a battle between a knight and a pawn doesn’t necessarily end in a knight victory. Instead, the dominant piece gets the advantage in the match by getting to choose the weapon type.

Since the first installment of the competition three years ago, Six Elements introduced new teams and built year-spanning character arcs for longtime participants. Fight choreographer and performer David “Chernobyl” Schneider’s character began as a natural leader with an undefeated record in the league, but he eventually fell from grace after losing several consecutive matches.

Schneider, as well as all of the choreographers involved in the project, works around the Twin Cities as a freelance stage combat aficionado. He referred to working on Human Combat Chess as “a playground for stage combat” and said that the project greatly expanded his knowledge of the art form.

 “Since mostly everyone has training in stage combat, you’re able to make things happen in fights that [choreographers] usually don’t get the opportunity to do in regular theater productions,” Schneider said.

Another fight choreographer on Human Combat Chess, Mike Speck likened the character process to “dropping into your Batman voice.” The intensity can feel cartoonish, though it is no joke to the artists working on the piece.

The project began to take form in 2009 when University of Minnesota theater graduate Mike Lubke worked on a version of Human Combat Chess as his senior project. From there, Lubke expanded the idea by involving his theater and stage combat friends, and eventually Human Combat Chess became a part of Six Elements Theatre’s season in 2011.

Darwin Hull, a first-time performer in the show, hadn’t had an opportunity to work on his combat or acting skills for three years. He said the work he’s done with the piece helped him dust off his talents and put them back to use.

“It’s really easy to find your character when your life is in danger,” Hull said. “There has been a ton of rediscovery for me — the fact that these characters are so elevated has made me more aware of whether or not the audience is with us and whether or not I fully understand what’s going on in my character’s head.”

Aside from learning throughout the process, Human Combat Chess participants hope the high-energy show will create a memorable experience for audience members — it’s hard to ignore the pure fun the participants are having during the competition.

“My mom will be coming in full team colors,” Rieffer said. “She’ll be heckling me.”

Whenever a fight undergoes a successful run through, the entire room gets giddy. But perhaps the most solid proof of the artists’ passion is the fact that that everyone involved is a volunteer — committing about 30 hours of rehearsal time per fight.

“The people and the project make it all worth it for me,” Speck said. “Where else would I get to work on this ridiculous shit?”


What: Human Combat Chess
When: 8 p.m. (and 5 p.m. Saturdays), July 11-19
Where: Historic Wesley Center, 101 E. Grant St., Minneapolis
Cost: $15–18


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