I was ten years old when I first picked up a lightsaber. It wasn't much of a blade—just a long stick fallen from a tree, the surface covered by rough wood and spots of sticky sap. From a certain point of view, though—one about four feet high, to be precise—it was a weapon as elegant as any that ever appeared on my endlessly replayed VHS copy of Return of the Jedi. To get the full experience, all you really had to do was hum and swing.
It's a hot-ass June day in Round Rock, Texas, and as I'm now discovering, the childhood joy of holding a lightsaber still resonates. These days, they even engineer the hum for you. I'm at a lightsaber fighting demonstration with Marc Tucker, the co-founder of Lone Star Saber Academy. His lightsaber sits heavy in my hand. The hilt shines dully in the Texas sun, formed in a perfect replica of Anakin Skywalker's own weapon, the blade a white tube of reinforced, industrial grade aluminum. I thumb the button beneath the guard and the lightsaber snap-hisses to life. Red light flares inside the aluminum. The hum fluctuates into a growl as I move the saber, and when I bring it down against my opponent's blade the sound snaps like lightning. Tucker nods. "It's the sound card," he says, taking the lightsaber and tapping the bottom of the hilt. "It measures the way the blade moves. Only the really expensive models have that."
He hands me back the cheaper model I'd been using earlier, which glows but remains silent. "Let's run through it," he says. And he brings Anakin Skywalker's blade up, around, and down toward my face. The lightsabers crack together.
Tucker and the Lone Star Saber Academy are about as dedicated as Star Wars fans get. They've taken the childhood dream of wielding a lightsaber and made a practice of it, creating a small organization that choreographs battles, teaches children, and promotes charity for the community. They're also a small part of a wider community dedicated to bringing the way of the Jedi to the masses. And if they're not explicitly imparting a belief in balance and discipline to people, at least they're teaching delivering the latter through their swordfighting.
Robert Paske is an American living in Tokyo, and is the head of a local chapter of the Saber Guild, a non-profit group who practices lightsaber choreography for charity and community events. According to Paske, the Star Wars cosplay community is huge and growing. "There are the major groups like the 501st, Rebel Legion, and Saber Guild," he told VICE via email, "not to mention the number of people who aren't part of any costuming organization—I saw quite a few people out and about for May the 4th this year who weren't part of any group. And with the excitement building for the new movies, I think you're going to see even more people at cons and such with new costumes."
Most of the people who fight with lightsabers buy them, Paske says—he himself owns several Ultrasaber blades, which are tough enough to withstand constant blows from other sabers. Other lightsabers, he says, include LED displays along the blade that allow for "an extending effect," a trait that's great for choreography but not for fighting—a solid knock to one of the LEDs can leave you with a blotchy lightsaber. There's a staggering variety of hilt styles and blade styles offered by various manufacturers, in addition to the people who simply opt to build their own.
Paske has a martial arts background, which he regularly employs in his saber fighting. "Lightsaber is a bit of a conglomeration of other sword styles, mixed in with fancy moves and altered a bit for choreography," he said. "I go to a Japanese sword class on the weekend, I've done a bit of fencing, and in my martial arts training I've worked with the bo staff and a little bit with Escrima... it all sort of mixes into what I do with the lightsaber choreography. Sometimes we take some of the moves and make them bigger, flashier, or do some things that would be considered mistakes in an actual sword in the course of making things more dynamic or visually interesting for an audience, but there's still quite a bit of crossover from real styles, and having a background in a sword or martial art is a great advantage even just in terms of movement and footwork if nothing else." Martial arts experience isn't really necessary, he points out—his branch of the Saber Guild has several members who get by without it. "I like to say, 'Everyone starts from zero, but we all have a different zero.'"
Paske as Darth Maul, destroying the shit out of some bamboo.
Tucker's background is a bit different. A stocky man in his early 40s, he's a former youth group counselor and current independent filmmaker with a day job working for Sears customer service. He's been enthralled by Star Wars since his father took him to see the original film in 1997. Marc was four at the time. "I always had an interest in medieval knights," he told VICE. "I saw the lightsabers on the screen and was mesmerized." Over the course of the next few decades, he moved from Idaho to Florida to Texas, either creating or participating in Star Wars fan clubs. While in Florida, he caught his first glimpse of two of the best organized fan costuming groups: the 501st and the New York Jedi.
The 501st, a group whose volunteers dress as Stormtroopers and other Imperial officers to raise money for charity, has been around long enough to get itself enshrined in the old Star Wars Expanded Universe (a welter of licensed books, games, and television shows whose concepts were discarded when Disney bought the rights to the franchise). After the group's official formation in 1997, heavyweight Star Wars EU author Timothy Zahn included them as the Vader's personal Stormtrooper legion in his 2004 novel Survivor's Quest, and they've popped up here and there in other official Star Wars media ever since.
The New York Jedi, according to their website, are a stage combat group that began in 2005, and place an emphasis on more theatrical performances. They don't adhere to any specific Star Wars canon, instead allowing practitioners the fun of crafting their own characters while meshing together traditional martial arts swordplay and stage fighting techniques. They made national news a couple of years ago when Flynn Michael, founder of New York Jedi, had his lightsaber snatched in a bar in Brooklyn by a guy who claimed to be an emissary of the Sith.
Tucker had an early dalliance with the 501st, which fell apart when he tried to make a Sith character, only to be informed that this was against the rules for a Stormtrooper group. (The 501st now allows Sith characters.) The New York Jedi proved more to his taste, with its mixture of costumes and choreography. When he arrived in Austin in 2006, he said, he realized that the saber community was starting to grow across the country. He decided to start his own group, one that married the screen-accurate costumes and charity of the 501st with the lightsaber brawling fun of the New York Jedi.
With that in mind, Tucker and his friend Mike Jackson co-founded the Lone Star Saber Academy in 2010. The group's goal was to offer a chance for interested fans—young and old alike—to practice and perform with lightsabers. Much of their activities, by necessity, are aimed at families, who either bring their kids to be taught or hire the saber fighters for birthday parties, which tend to involve a mixture of fencing performances and some stage combat tutorial for the kids. The practice lightsabers they use run the gamut from foam-wrapped PVC pipes to $80 Ultrasaber replicas and the significantly more expensive personal blades of people like Marc, which can run upwards of $500.
Both Paske and Tucker's groups focus quite a bit on charity. "We have an event coming up for the Special Olympics here in Japan," Paske said. "We've appeared at the Red Cross donation drives, and the US Saber Guild has done a lot for Make-A-Wish. There's also the social aspect. We have about 15 'regular' members coming to our local practice sessions, and it's always fun to get together with people with common interests."
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Lone Star Saber Academy is a small group—at present only three people regularly attend the weekly practices—but in the past they've had as many as ten committed members, a decent number for a group that mainly operates in the Austin suburb of Round Rock. The fees the group picks up either go toward buying or constructing practice sabers and costumes, or toward charity. "We've given over $1,200 to Austin Disaster Relief Network," Tucker said, "and we've helped with the John Speasmaker Scholarship for Round Rock Drums and Rhythm workshops." Other events include theatrical brawls during local festivals.
Tucker doesn't have a background in stage combat or martial arts, and as a result, the Lone Star Saber Academy's training for beginners draws heavily from the fencing rules of the Society for Creative Anachronisms, an organization dedicated to helping people accurately recreate the Renaissance and Middle Ages. There are eight acceptable points of contact for duelers to hit, he says, including head, shoulders, limbs, and feet. "Other groups break out into the other forms that the previous Star Wars canon recognized," he told VICE. "Our group doesn't formally recognize them, so I probably can't list them off. There's Shii-Cho, which is the basic one, and then there's the aggression form, and others. It's something that's been made up by people who have sword experience, saying, 'This is what I saw in Anakin's sword style. We'll call this Arturo. This is what we saw in Mace Windu's style, we'll call that something else.'"
Despite his lack of formal training, Tucker is fast and polished with his lightsaber. After showing me the first eight forms—basic strikes and blocks—we began drilling, moving back and forth over the hot concrete, the lightsabers cracking together. When I accidentally bashed his hand with my saber he hardly blinked. "It happens," he said. "You can't show it on stage while you're performing." As regulated as the Lone Star Saber Academy's forms are, running them at full speed with footwork still felt incredibly fluid. It was easy to imagine that the lit aluminum tube in my hand was real.
It eventually gets too hot to keep fighting, so we walked back over to where Tucker left his box of sabers and costume kit on a picnic table. As he shows me his costume—a long black cloak he'd rescued from a clothing bin at his church in Boise—we start talking about the culture of fandom surrounding the films. Tucker, it turns out, is that rarest of Star Wars fan: a person who's unruffled by the much-maligned trilogy of the prequels.
"Everyone always compares the original trilogy to the prequels," he told me. "My filmmaker self looks at it like this: the prequels were George Lucas's original vision. Like he did the special edition of the Original Trilogy, and people complained, but the technology wasn't there to have his actual vision. So from an artist/filmmaker perspective, I'm like, yeah, go George." And what about the prequels themselves? "I loved seeing the prime of the Jedi," Tucker says, shrugging. "Could have done without Jar Jar. Could have seen Anakin directed better, so he didn't come off as whiny." But he points out, if you ask a kid what they think of the prequels after seeing them, they accept them at face value, sans fanboy nitpicking. "It's Star Wars to them, just as much as the original trilogy is." It's a take that reflects the themes of balance important to the Jedi way—as Tucker wryly notes, "many things depend greatly on your point of view."
With Star Wars: The Force Awakens inching closer and closer to its December 18 release date, our culture has seen a renewed interest in the greater Star Wars universe. "All these people will want to be Jedi again," Tucker says. "We'll be able to say, 'OK, we're Jedi, come join us. We'll teach you how to stage fight. Will it look like it does on the screen? Well, that's up to you. But we'll get you started.'"