University of Minnesota Alumni Association


Man At Arms

Alumnus Mike Lubke turned his theatre degree into a fight choreographer job

Mike Lubke, right, spars with Lance Krohn, who is rehearsing a "reinforced imbroccata from a cross parry."
Photo credit: Caroline Yang

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 a dispiriting early lesson in the duplicity of the profit motive. Instead, it set Lubke (B.A. ’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, any slap, shove, gunshot, or sword play is worked out beforehand to the tiniest detail, he realized—and 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 on campus 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. His senior project was an early version of Human Combat Chess, a scripted fighting 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 former U of M classmates Stephanie “George” Miller (B.A. ’10), Jenna Papke (B.A. ’07), Nathaniel Nesheim-Case, Mark Larson (M.A. ’11), and Willson Borchert (B.A. ’10)—classmate Johanna Gorman-Baer (B.A. ’11) joined shortly after. Combat Chess was also one of the largest stage combat shows in the world, with up to 80 performers acting in dozens of fights. (The  production is currently on hiatus while the team regroups post-Covid and life changes.)

Photo credit: Caroline Yang

Today, Lubke is also a certified instructor with the Society of American Fight Directors, where he was recently elected to be 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; about what angle to throw a punch but not have the audience see that the actor isn’t actually hitting the other actor in the head, and the kind of material needed to make a sword prop that doesn’t sound click-clacky when it hits another sword. (A pet peeve of his from contemporary martial arts films is when an actor performs a “leg sweep” to trip their opponent to the ground, and instead of using that advantage to make the next move, the assailant waits for the opponent to stand up and resume fighting. “The choreography wasn’t built with the idea of what that person’s objective is,” he explains. “It’s just what would look cool on camera.”)

On the other hand, he admires the work of Keanu Reeves in the John Wick film franchise. And he says Charlize Theron’s stairwell fight in Atomic Blonde is a master class in how to make a series of takes look like a continuous sequence.

“[That fight scene] gets more compelling the longer it goes, because people look plausibly fatigued, which is just so much more interesting than characters acting like it’s Mortal Kombat where they can be punched, kicked, and everything’s fine until their health bar gets low enough that they are suddenly unconscious,” he says.

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.”

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