His senior year at Luther, theatre major Mike Speck ’01 and three fellow students staged an independent production of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged). “There are fake sword fights galore in it,” Speck says. “They’re supposed to look fake, but I wanted a better idea of what I was doing, so I ordered a book, Swashbuckling, by Richard Lane.” Under Speck’s tutelage, the trio used dowel rods for swords and Speck ended up breaking a light somewhere in Farwell. While it sounds like an inauspicious—though hilarious—start, the project launched Speck on a choreographer’s journey.
Since earning his master’s degree from Western Illinois University, which has an acting program with a strong stage-combat component, Speck has staged fights across the country. A certified teacher with the Society of American Fight Directors, he’s worked in Chicago, Atlanta, Virginia Beach, Iowa, North Carolina, Wyoming, and in his hometown of Winona, Minn., where he works full-time at Winona Volunteer Services. In 2008 he founded an annual stage-combat workshop in Des Moines called Carnage in the Corn. In 2014 he cofounded another in Minneapolis called the Brawl of America.
Speck is drawn to the constraints of stage fighting: Who are the actors? What are their capabilities? What can they use for weaponry? What is the space like? What does the script say? Speck works his magic within those parameters.
Of course, there are always obstacles, like finding out after you’ve already staged a scene in your mind that your lead is left-handed or that an actor is struggling with past trauma and can’t handle certain kinds of contact. As he explains, “Sometimes we need to come up with a solution, whether it’s tweaking the stage direction or finding a way to hide things better so that we can tell the story of a choke without actually touching that actor’s neck.”
Speck contends that fight directing is basically project management. “It’s always about people, time, space, and resources,” he says. “In some ways, all the work we do is about asking the right questions and minimizing surprises.”
So how does an actor make a punch look real? “A lot of people start with the misconception that if you’re doing unarmed combat, you want to swing and then stop at the last possible moment,” Speck says. “But what this does from an acting perspective is create a situation where you’re trying not to pursue an objective. Your character wants to do one thing, but what you’re trying to do is a negative, is not this. That makes your life tricky. What we’ve found is that it’s generally better to find a physical action that is safe and play that as hard as you can. So I’m not going to punch an actor in the face; I’m going to punch the invisible parrot on his left shoulder. I can punch that parrot as hard as I want because he’s invisible and he doesn’t have a lawyer.”
Speck recently created fights for Theatre du Mississippi’s Endwaters and Southwest Minnesota State University’s Hamlet. In addition to continuing to run workshops and choreograph, he will teach a class on stage fighting at St. Mary’s University of Minnesota in Winona this spring.