“She Kills Monsters” is disemboweling conventions and slaying demons

When the cast and crew of She Kills Monsters met for the first time, they were not themselves. With the help of five dungeon masters, two pounds of multi-sided dice and dozens of character sheets, they became paladins, mages and heroes in the fantastical world of Dungeons and Dragons (D&D).

“It was really important to me that all of the actors had the experience of sitting around the table, collectively imagining something,” said the play’s director Keltie Forsyth.

A long time D&D player, Forsyth believes strongly in the power of the game — whether that’s the power to let people put on a new mask or the ability to take one off.

“I was like ‘oh, this is going to be something super dorky,’” admitted lighting designer Stefan Zubovic. “But then you try it and you get so into it, and it’s actually really, really fun.”

[''] Koby Michaels

Rise of the geeks

She Kills Monsters — written by acclaimed playwright Qui Nguyen — is a marriage of indulgent fantasy, careful comedy and the power of escapism. Agnes, mourning the untimely death of her sister Tilly, seeks relief in the only thing she left behind: a D&D campaign.

D&D is a fantasy tabletop roleplaying game. Since its inception in the mid-1970s, it has been a resonating and evolving cultural icon in both geekdom and the mainstream. Once confined to the corners of comic book stores and fantasy subcultures, D&D has officially entered pop culture thanks in no small part to TV series like Stranger Things. For a moment, players of D&D can toss aside their real, 9-5 lives and enter their fantasy personas, leaving their troubles behind as they embark on a fantasy journey with their friends.

“At the end, Dungeons and Dragons is about sitting around a table and imagining a great adventure,” said Forsyth. “We want the audience to get that sense of being invited in to imagine with us.”

The show unfolds between two worlds. In Athens, Georgia, Agnes is an unhappy school teacher and Tilly is dead. In Tilly’s fantasy world, she and her sister are heroes on a quest to save Tilly’s soul. Aesthetically, the result is a shifting dynamic between a pulp fantasy wonderland and the detached drab of the ’90s.

“We really embrace the cheesiness of the ’90s — the cheesiness of what D&D was back then,” said Puppet Coordinator Nikolette Szabo, a self-admitted fan of the fifth edition of D&D. “Back in the ’90s, it really was directed more so to the nerds and the geeks. ... It’s interesting how it’s developed over the years.”

[''] Koby Michaels

Bringing monsters to life

Before Agnes and her team could kill their monsters, UBC Theatre had to create them. She Kills Monsters uses puppetry, digital projection, elaborate costumes and carefully curated punch-em-up fight scenes to bring its audience into the thick of the magic. In sheer technical complexity and ambition, it’s miles beyond anything UBC Theatre has ever attempted.

“This is our first time having puppets as a design in a show at UBC as far as I know,” said Szabo, whose job is to design and construct each one of the show’s multiple puppets that bring Tilly’s imagined demons from fantasy to reality.

“It was really exciting for me knowing this was an opportunity because it’s something that I never considered at all.”

Puppets are only part of the puzzle. In both physics and theatre, every action has a reaction: each choice of costume has implications for fight choreography, every puppet requires its own lighting and the play’s set changes need their own soundtracks.

One designer’s choice becomes another’s canvas.

“It’s been fun for me since I’m going to watch our first dress run and see everything else that’s going on,” said Szabo. “I have no idea what the lighting and projections are going to be like. A lot of that will tie in with my work so seeing those together is something I’m especially excited to see.”

As lighting designer, Zubovic said that the most intense part of his job was designing the magical battles between Agnes’s party and the monsters of the D&D world.

“Everything from the textures to the spells to the animations were completely made from scratch, which is something I haven’t done before,” said Zubovic. “Normally we manipulate stock footage to do stuff. This show is almost 100 per cent original content.”

[''] Koby Michaels

Dressed to Kill

The costumes, too, were completely built from scratch. Costume Designer Melicia Zaini explained that “the bulk of this show is all ‘built’ stuff.”

“I had to have a very clear idea of what everything needs to look like and where it needs to fall,” she said.

For a show set in two completely different environments — one fantasy, one reality — Zaini was tasked with balancing camp fantasy and the bombastic ’90s.

“This is a period piece,” said Zaini. “It is set in the ’90s and we wanted to reflect that.”

While we remember that fateful decade as a mishmash of Friends, bright neon clothing and a growing fear of Y2K, the decade’s simple charms are back in vogue. In preparation for the show, Zaini re-watched Clueless, Friends and the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air to shape her artistic vision.

Street-style wasn’t the only place that Zaini turned to for inspiration. For the D&D costumes, she also set her sights on high fashion.

“There are some [D&D costumes] inspired by Chanel runway looks from the ’90s,” she said. “I would say they are a lot more heightened than the real world costumes, [with] a lot more shiny fabrics and skin tight stuff in the fantasy world. In the real world, it’s a bit more grungy and the colours are not as vibrant to really play [up] that contrast.”

’90s aesthetics aren’t the only thing that Zaini took into consideration when crafting the play’s wardrobe. The design had to reflect the characters’ storylines, which is why the audience may notice the similarities between Agnes and Tilly.

“When we first see them, Agnes is in her real world clothes and Tilly is in her armour. I wanted for both of them to have a similar colour palette. Some of their pieces are similar, [and] they are both ready to battle in their own respective worlds,” explained Zaini. “Tilly is off fighting Kobolds, whereas Agnes is suited in her armour to navigate her daily life as a teacher dealing with a life without her family. I tried to play that parallel between the two sisters.”

Along with looking good, all of the characters also have to be dressed to kill — literally ready to do battle at any moment. Even with a name like She Kills Monsters, Zaini was surprised by how many design choices were driven by the physical nature of the show.

“I knew it was a physical show — I read the script multiple times. I knew there was going to be a fight director. I knew there was going to be fighting. But until I saw that first run through of a fight, I had no idea. I’m so glad I saw it early because I was like ‘oh ok, this is what we’re dealing with.’”

Most of the actors need to be able to kick, jump, spin and, most importantly, change quickly.

“We won’t only be dealing with fighting and dancing, but also with a lot of quick changes because these characters move back and forth between the worlds a lot,” Zaini said. “Some of the characters are playing other characters as well, so we’ve had to rig the costumes for quick changes.”

This is the case for Aidan Wright, who plays both teenage Ronnie and demon overlord Orcus.

“The need to adapt very quickly has been prominent in the show,” Wright said.

His process of getting into costume includes a morphsuit, a raw leather chest plate, six-foot wings, platform boots and a demonic mask — all to be put on in under two minutes.

“It’s really interesting to find how the costumes department can really inform the actor in how this character is and lives, just by what they wear and how the physicality is, which you wouldn’t get with just your own instrument,” he said.

“It was a challenge, and I’ve had to compromise some of my design choices,” said Zaini. “[The costumes have] to be strong and durable for all of the fighting and also ... accommodate for movement that we aren’t used to in real life.”

[''] Koby Michaels

Dancing, With Swords

She Kills Monsters is true to its name: there’s a whole lot of killing and that means there’s a whole lot of fighting — which requires a painstaking amount of choreography to hold it all together. Lead actors all have at least four fight scenes involving everything from sword-fighting to cartwheels to battle-axes and, of course, dragons.

“We want people to crawl over their seats, pick up a sword and kill a monster,” said Forsyth.

But what audiences may forget when riding the adrenaline high of each fight is how much work goes into preparing for these bursts of choreographed violence.

“We’ve had more fight rehearsals than we’ve had acting and blocking rehearsals,” revealed actress Natalie Backerman, who plays Agnes. “In the time we usually have to rehearse one of these shows, all of that goes towards blocking, acting and scene analysis.

“We cut that right in half. We’ve just been working on fights.”

The time spent on choreography is essential, not only to wow audiences, but also to ensure the actors’ safety.

“If you swing your sword the wrong way, that’s an entire hunk of metal that you are throwing into a space that could be someone’s eyeball,” Backerman said. “One injury somewhere means you can’t do XYZ in another fight.”

To match the pace of the hours of fight choreography, many actors began training outside the theatre. Heidi Damayo, who plays Tilly, took up kickboxing and baton twirling before auditions began because she knew it would be a physical show.

When Damayo first heard about the stage combat, she hadn’t processed that it would be women wielding the weapons.

“It hadn’t dawned on me that I would be able to fight,” she admitted. “It was such a leap to be like ‘I get to hold the sword!’”

That’s what special about She Kills Monsters — it disembowels the conventions of theatre with the quick twist of a weapon expertly wielded by a woman. Actresses like Damayo and Backerman get to kick ass in a way that isn’t done in traditional theatre.

“Girls don’t really fight in Shakespeare — at least not in the shows that are performed,” said Damayo. “Most of the fight scenes are things like a woman getting slapped.”

For Backerman, gender isn’t the only thing that’s kept her from showing off her combat skills on stage.

“The only time I was going to be able to wield a sword was if I ever got a period-piece role that would allow a biracial woman to hold a sword,” she said. “To me, it was never a real thing … I wouldn’t fit in in a period piece with my genetic makeup.”

But in She Kills Monsters, this isn’t the case. Women of diverse races and sexual orientations get to fight, and they do it with strength and style.

“We fight in really fantastic ways. There’s some stuff that happens that isn’t realistic, but we go with it. It’s like fighting in a comic book,” Damayo exclaimed. “Maybe I don’t get to do traditional combat in theatre, but honestly this one is better.”

[''] Koby Michaels

Killing Her Monsters

If the world Agnes and Tilly escape into is fantastic, it’s because the realities of home are so harsh. And while the monsters in the play might be imaginary, they are just as often projections of the character’s very real, if invisible, demons.

“This is Tilly’s fantasy world, and she creates monsters out of some of the people that Agnes loves the most,” said Damayo. “The way that she sees the world and how everything is a threat I think shows a lot of her own feelings of insecurity, of being abandoned. And those are the hardest demons to face.”

She Kills Monsters, D&D and even theatre itself are ultimately about escapism. Agnes is escaping from the grief of losing her sister and Tilly is escaping from her tormentors at school, where she is forced to hide her sexuality.

For Damayo, this part of the story is especially relatable.

“The first time I read the script and I finished, I just started weeping a little bit,” she admitted. “It was the first time I saw a character like Tilly ... In high school, I was so in the closet. I had a girlfriend, but went to a Catholic school so we kept that in the background.

“Tilly would have been a hero for me if I had known the character in that time.”

She Kills Monsters might draw crowds for how it looks, but its real challenge will be how it makes us feel. Nguyen’s play is a mishmash of technical wizardry, emotional openness and camp fun. It’s a story that aims to indulge its audience and cast in who they wish they were — at least until the lights come up.

“Allow yourself to think about what kind of character you’d want to be in this world — because that’s what it’s all about,” said Szabo.

“You can represent yourself in a way you never really imagined you could.”