This story is part of a series of articles previewing Thespian troupes and the shows they’ve been invited to present on the 2019 International Thespian Festival main stage.

TROUPE 1171 of Missouri’s St. Charles High School will make its main stage debut at the 2019 International Thespian Festival with She Kills Monsters.

STORY

Lydia Holterman in St. Charles High School's production of She Kills Monsters.

Lydia Holterman in St. Charles High School’s production of She Kills Monsters. Photo by K. Thaemert Photography.

Agnes Evans lives a life of extreme averageness, while her younger sister Tilly invents her own world of magic and fantasy. Then one day, Agnes’ ordinary existence is turned upside down when her family is killed in a car crash.

While clearing out her childhood home, Agnes discovers a Dungeons & Dragons notebook containing a homespun module written by her sister. Agnes elects to play the game, a decision that will test her mind, cunning, and courage. As she joins forces with a demon queen and a dark elf to free the lost soul of Athens, Agnes is launched on a thrilling quest that helps her better understand the sister she realizes she barely knew.

BACKGROUND

She Kills Monsters premiered at New York City’s Flea Theater in 2011. Playwright Qui Nguyen is a Vietnamese American screenwriter and fight director who serves as co-artistic director and founder of Vampire Cowboys, an experimental company based in New York known for pioneering “geek theatre,” darkly comedic action-adventure shows with comic book aesthetics. She Kills Monsters exemplifies many of Nguyen’s interests by merging pop culture references, stage combat, and multimedia.

She Kills Monsters received the 2013 American Alliance for Theatre and Education Distinguished Play Award and was a nominee for the 2012 GLAAD Media Award.

The cast of St. Charles High School's production of She Kills Monsters.
The cast of St. Charles High School’s production of She Kills Monsters. Photo by K. Thaemert Photography.

TROUPE 1171’S PRODUCTION

At just three years old, Troupe 1171 never expected to be taking a production to the International Thespian Festival so soon. That’s why director Courtney LaChance-Denton describes the opportunity as “having your cake and eating it too. It is the sprinkles, whipped cream, caramel drizzle, and cherry on top.”

When selecting her season, LaChance-Denton knew she wanted a show that would challenge everyone involved. “I found She Kills Monsters and fell in love with the script,” she said. “I knew it would be challenging to my tech team for its elaborate props and lighting, but it also would offer my actors challenges in its physicality and blend of emotional and comedic scenes.”

Swordplay and stage combat are integral to the show’s Dungeons & Dragons-inspired plot. Cast members were required to be off book by the first week of rehearsal, as it was impossible to learn the fights with scripts in hand. The first four weeks were devoted to basic movement and falls, and LaChance-Denton collaborated closely with professional fight choreographer Michael Pierce to integrate the rest of the blocking with the action sequences. “It was much like learning dance choreography for a musical, breaking down each small element of the combat,” she said. “We would rehearse in slow motion so the actors would know exactly where to place their bodies for safety purposes. We’d slowly increase speed, and if something happened that could cause an injury in real time, we’d hold and reduce the speed again to be sure each movement was specifically placed.”

A team of students created the elaborate costumes and props. “My props team, a group of five female students, designed and built the Tiamat, a five-headed, multicolored dragon,” said LaChance-Denton. “I simply showed the ladies how to build a basic puppet, and they took it and ran with it. The end product features five puppets that breathe smoke, light up, glow under blacklight, have horns — so many elements that went above and beyond my initial concept. As a teacher, I’m always trying to find ways to step back and allow my students to step up, and with the props ladies, I could not be prouder. Throughout this show, every student involved stepped up and produced great work. I was in awe of their professionalism, commitment, dedication, and overall quality.”

The show turns traditional stereotypes on their head with its emphasis on strong female warriors. “She Kills Monsters is such a girl-power show,” said LaChance-Denton. “The character Agnes develops and grows into a strong, independent woman, and she’s a wonderful role model for my female students. The show is led by the relationship between two strong female characters. They not only carry the show but also kick butt and take names throughout.”

This aspect of the script was particularly appealing to Thespian senior Livy Potthoff, who plays Agnes. “It makes you feel very powerful. Being with a group of girls that really support each other is the best,” Potthoff said. “I love sharing a strong feminine message. I also love the depth of the character. Agnes has funny moments, and fierce moments, but she also has vulnerable emotions she has to conquer. It’s a roller coaster. I don’t think Agnes understands herself at the beginning of the show. She’s dealing with the death of her entire family, and she doesn’t know how to cope. At the end, she overcomes her fears and insecurities — that’s what each dragon head represents. She finally understands her own struggles and her sister’s life.”

LaChance-Denton was drawn to the way the show addresses LGBTQ issues. “On a basic level, I knew the ’90s pop culture references and costumes would intrigue my students. On a deeper level, acceptance, coming of age, learning what it means to be ‘me,’ and dealing with bullying are universal themes,” she said. “Everyone can find elements to connect with. I have students who identify as LGBTQ who don’t feel safe in the current climate. I wanted to direct and produce a show to tell LGBTQ teens of the community, ‘You are welcome, you are worthy, you are accepted.’” To that end, LaChance-Denton partnered with the school’s LGBT+ Alliance, which coordinated talkbacks after performances, and the cast and crew fundraised for a local shelter serving gay teens.

Like her director, Potthoff is thrilled to take the production to a larger audience. “I’m so excited to show everyone our heart and soul,” she said. “Our troupe is a true example of how passion and determination can pay off. To think that we didn’t have a troupe three years ago, and now we’re going to ITF is unbelievable. I’m ready to have fun doing what I love with my friends. I couldn’t be prouder to be part of this family.”

POST-SHOW DISCUSSION

  1. Many actors in She Kills Monsters play characters in the real world as well as in Tilly’s Dungeons & Dragons adventure. How do the two worlds intersect? What does Agnes learn about Tilly from the connections she discovers?
  2. Playwright Qui Nguyen says he likes to create stories about superheroes for people who don’t usually see themselves in those roles. How is this reflected in She Kills Monsters?
  3. The scope of She Kills Monsters could be described as cinematic. How does the production make creative use of projections, puppetry, costumes, and special effects to create a fantasy world onstage?
  4. Agnes undergoes the most dramatic journey over the course of the play. How is she challenged? In what ways does she change by the end of the story?
  5. Which of the show’s characters do you relate to most and why?

ACTIVITIES

  1. Dungeons & Dragons frequently shows up in popular culture, from ET to The Big Bang Theory to Stranger Things. Explore references to Dungeons & Dragons in film, television, or literature and compare and contrast those with its depiction in She Kills Monsters.
  2. Create your own Dungeons & Dragons role. Imagine yourself in Tilly’s game module, outlining the traits and goals for your character.
  3. She Kills Monsters is set in the 1990s. Explore how the landscape for people who identify as LGBTQ has changed since that time and your perceptions of the current environment.

RESOURCES

Read
St. Charles High School news story about She Kills Monsters
American Theatre article about geek theatre
Playwright Qui Nguyen’s website
Dungeons & Dragons overview for new players
Salon.com article, “All I needed to know about life I learned from Dungeons & Dragons”

Watch
Excerpts from Flea Theater’s world premiere production of She Kills Monsters
Dungeoncast video: D&D explained in five minutes

Learn more about the 2019 International Thespian Festival online.

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