It’s Thursday night on Turner Green, and the glowing blades of lightsabers clash in the dark between towering dormitories on the University of Northern Colorado campus. Spectators hoot as the triumphant opening strains of the “Star Wars” theme burst from a window.
With toy lightsabers bought on a whim, the “Lightsaber Guys of UNC” have become a sensation on the Greeley campus, drawing hundreds of followers to their Instagram page and dozens of spectators and participants to their Thursday night battles. For a cohort of young adults whose adolescence was interrupted by COVID, the goofy game feels like a revival of spontaneity and community that’s been on hold too long.
“It’s light in a time that’s been pretty dark,” said Tony Gallardo, a junior education major who first spotted the lightsaber battles from his dorm window and now films the group’s battles for Instagram.
Gallardo started college in Nebraska before COVID, and transferred to UNC in spring 2020, just in time to see campus go into lockdown.
“Morale on campus tanked,” Gallardo said. “Nobody came outside anymore. The next class of freshmen came in thinking this is just how life is. But the Lightsaber Guys, they’re getting people back out on the plaza. For half an hour a week, nobody’s thinking about COVID or masks or grades. It’s been a great release.”
The fights came about organically, said Michael Nolting, a freshman business major from Texas. He bought a lightsaber online over winter break and encouraged a couple friends to do the same. When they came back to campus, they started messing around with the lightsabers — toy versions of the glowing laser swords in the “Star Wars” movies — in the basement of Turner Hall, then moved outside for more room to maneuver.
Social media platforms started to light up, Nolting said. Posts on YikYak, an anonymous message posting platform for local areas, were abuzz about the “lightsaber guys.” Nolting and his friends began scheduling fights for Thursday nights.
The group consists of five main members, who all perform as personalized characters harking back to the movies: Nolting as Darth Naul, sophomore Rachel Gartrell as Rach Kestis, Jennah Warren as Mace Jendu, Jake Fincham as Obi Wan Jakobi, and Ben Barcewski as Kylo Ben.
For this week’s performance, a carefully choreographed battle between Jedi knights and Sith lords ends with the evil Darth Naul kidnapping Jedi knight Mace Jendu. As spectators applaud, Nolting bellows that it’s time for the open fight, and another half dozen lightsabers alight in the darkness and move in for a melee.
The five Lightsaber Guys study lightsaber choreography and technique, which as it turns out is a robust field, with numerous video tutorials, gyms offering lessons and even tournaments. They precede each Thursday’s fight with a rehearsal in the dorm basement.
Nolting’s background in tennis translates well to lightsaber battles.
“Tennis requires great footwork and endurance and balance, and you use all that in a lightsaber fight,” he said.
The group also writes storylines for their characters to perform during the fights, with a story arc mapped out through the end of the semester.
“None of us are writing or theater majors,” Nolting said. “It’s just funny. We’re not sure why it draws so much attention.”
For each member of the Lightsaber Guys, the COVID years have involved loneliness and disappointment. Nolting missed out on tennis tournaments, Barcewski had to forgo an Eagle Scout expedition at Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico, and Fincham spent his first week at UNC in a COVID isolation room where staff sometimes forgot to leave meals outside his door.
So throwing themselves into a communal enterprise that elicits so much glee has been gratifying.
“It’s reclaiming what college is supposed to be,” Gartrell said. “It’s silly, but it’s also normal. College is supposed to be fun.”
As the weekly melee has grown, sometimes things get too wild. Nolting said a group of fraternity brothers showed up one week, some clad in full-scale Darth Vader outfits, and “swung for the fences” with their lightsabers, nearly injuring some participants. University officials have largely left the events alone, he said, though campus police did ask the Lightsaber Guys to end the events by 10 p.m. to comply with quiet hours.
But for spectators like Mara Watkins, who was on hand to watch a late February fight, the Lightsaber Guys are a refreshing break from a life that drifted into the monotony of the pandemic.
“Life’s been school, home, school, home for so long,” she said. “Finally we’re seeing the community come out and come back together. This isn’t divisive. It’s got people talking to each other.”
As the Lightsaber Guys left the field, spattered with mud and ice, shouts rained down from windows above:
“Encore, encore! Give us more!”