The COVID-19-inspired move to virtual production hasn’t always been ideal for live theatre, but for VCUarts’ production of She Kills Monsters, which focuses on role-playing games, it has been strangely appropriate.
In the last year, there has been no shortage of digitization in both theatre and education. It’s no surprise then, that VCUarts’ Theater program is currently showing their latest production, She Kills Monsters: Virtual Realms, virtually. Unlike many other virtual productions, VCUarts’ showing of She Kills Monsters was not only influenced by the COVID-19 pandemic, but also by its fantasy setting to include non-traditional techniques while producing and recording the play.
She Kills Monsters is a play written by Qui Nguyen and originally premiered in 2011. The VCUarts adaptation is based on the “Young Adventurers Edition,” which made modifications for high school students by lowering the age of many characters and removing explicit language. The play follows Agnes, a young girl who loses her parents and younger sister in a fatal accident. Agnes finds her sister’s homemade Dungeons and Dragons campaign among her belongings, and decides to play through it with her friends. As she plays the campaign, which stars characters inspired by individuals from the sisters’ lives, Agnes discovers more and more about her little sister.
The unique circumstances provided by COVID-19 barred theatre students from performing live onstage together. For the virtual production of She Kills Monsters, props and costumes were sent to actors, who had to construct their sets, cameras, and lighting themselves in the COVID-free safe zones of their homes. For the first time, VCUarts Theater students had to extensively use camera equipment and editing software to help make their adaptation into a reality.
Members of the play’s cast and crew say that this process led to many elements of the production feeling similar to film. Segments of dialogue scenes, recorded by separate actors in separate locations, were pieced together using software to resemble a single, cohesive scene.
“It’s also different because we’re doing things with more graphic design. I’m doing more stuff in photoshop,” said Art Director Faith Carlson. “I had never used the program before. It was just a totally different ball game.”
These new skills were put to use creating the play’s background settings. Some scenes appear to be almost entirely computer-generated except for the actors. Computer graphics were even used on members of the cast who play some of the less-human roles, like the beholder character.
“Vera the Beholder is like this big, round green monster with a big eyeball and sharp teeth. It’s apparently going to be CGI-ed, and I was facial-tracked for it,” said the actor who portrayed Vera, Kat McMahan. “I haven’t seen any of it yet, but I think it’s gonna be cool.”
McMahan isn’t the only actor to have a unique element to their role. To help prepare for their parts, members of the cast played a game of D&D to increase their familiarity with the setting. Many cast members had never played the game before, and they did not continue their campaign past a single session — a fact that some members of the cast and crew found unfortunate.
“We had so much fun,” said McMahan. “I really wish that was something we kept doing throughout the process.”
While virtual productions are better than nothing, some involved in the production were chagrined to find that the pre-recorded nature of this play takes away from important aspects associated with live theatre — namely the ability to see both one’s fellow actors and the audience.
“Even though it’s not exactly like our live theatre, I think they found new ways to look at acting and I think it’s been a great learning experience,” said VCUarts Marketing Coordinator Sarah Moore. “The whole department has come together on this one.”
The play had its opening showing on October 28th live on the online video platform, Vimeo. Tickets are still available for the three remaining showings, two of which are on November 5 and the finale on November 6th. Ticket info is available on VCUarts’ website.
Top Photo: Actress Olivia Knight in full costume for her character Kaliope, via VCUarts.