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Tracking COVID-19 at UCLA

‘She Kills Monsters’ brings fantasy, drama to life in theater production

The UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television’s first Mainstage production of the year, “She Kills Monsters,” will open Thursday, featuring 10-foot puppets and monster costumes. (Emily Kohen/Daily Bruin)

"She Kills Monsters"

Nov. 18-23

Little Theater

$25

By Alexis Jones

Nov. 17, 2021 10:42 p.m.

This post was updated Nov. 17 at 11:47 p.m.

“She Kills Monsters” is bringing the world of fantasy adventure to life.

Presented by the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, the comedy-drama play marks the first in-person Mainstage production of the season since the start of the pandemic with its opening performance Thursday. Set in the mid-’90s, “She Kills Monsters” tells the story of a young woman grieving the death of her younger sister as she embarks on the journey of playing Dungeons & Dragons, hoping to learn more about the sibling she lost through her sister’s favorite game. As an original cast member of the show, director Bruce Lemon Jr. said “She Kills Monsters” is characterized by 10-foot puppets and fully realized monster costumes, so he chose to recreate them for this production.

“The show lends itself to this natural spirit of play that we used to wield so freely as children, so I consider the puppets … (to) be big toys and the cast are all playmates,” Lemon said. “We’re all children in a big sandbox, playing with toys and (playing) make-believe.”

Given his love of puppets, Lemon said he wanted to incorporate them into the show to seize the opportunity of producing scenes such as a fight with a five-headed dragon. He said the detailed work on the hands of the Kobold creatures and the fur covering the larger monsters elevate the spectacle and overall experience of the production as they transform the puppeteers into the monsters of Dungeons & Dragons in a way that makes them more tangible for the audience.

[Related: Regents’ Lecturer aims to inspire artists in discussion on visibility in Hollywood]

Prop department supervisor Kevin Williams said he and his students created full-scale versions of the puppets, such as the Kobold creatures for rehearsals using newspaper and craft paper as well as duct tape and masking tape. That way, Williams said the actors could familiarize themselves with how to operate the puppets beforehand in order to ease the transition from working with the paper versions to the real ones, which consist of heavier materials such as sculpted foam, wood and fabric.

“Being able to create these puppets – these huge elements – (is) a fun way to help punctuate the story,” Williams said. “(It) tells a little bit more of the visual narrative with the things that we’re creating with the students.”

Serving as the show’s puppetry instructor, faculty member Perry Daniel said her job entailed teaching the fundamentals of puppeteering to the actors so they could manipulate different styles of puppets and apply them to the storyline by performing as the puppeted monsters. In addition to providing feedback on the puppet designs, Daniel said she offered commentary on how to sharpen and heighten the puppet combat for fight scenes with monsters such as the Bugbears.

Furthermore, Williams said the process of creating other props for the show ranged from fabricating custom fake weapons out of foam to buying snacks such as Cheez Wiz for a hungry demon overlord. Regarding the more fantastical elements of the show, he said he and his team heavily collaborated with the costume department on leatherwork and sculpted armor pieces, specifically pauldrons.

[Related: UCLA theater returns to in-person performance with eclectic mix of one-act plays]

With the play’s heavy hand in the magical world of Dungeons & Dragons, Lemon said the realistic themes of grief, bullying and friendship are not separate from its imaginative setting and plot. As outsiders in the hierarchy of high school popularity, he said the main ensemble of characters are able to create idealized versions of themselves in the nonbinary, queer universe of New Landia. Daniel said the puppets also work to embellish and heighten the fantasy of the monsters to contribute to the underlying story.

“Through the fantasy of that game and the high stakes of combating these monsters, (the older sister) comes to terms with her own love and grief over the passing of her sister,” Daniel said. “In a way, the fantasy world of Dungeons & Dragons, more specifically the puppets and monsters, is a portal for the older sister to come face-to-face with her own loss.”

(Emily Kohen/Daily Bruin)
The story follows a young woman grieving the loss of her sister by playing Dungeons & Dragons, her sister’s favorite game. It combines human experiences of love and loss with the fantastical setting. (Emily Kohen/Daily Bruin)

Influencing his directorial choices, Lemon said the department’s version of “She Kills Monsters” is peppered with tributes to the elemental ideas of the original show that only people who saw its 2011 premiere at The Flea Theater would know. In addition, he said he pays tribute to the people he made the show with, which is where the homage starts and stops as the upcoming production is now owned by the ideas of the students and their connection to the play.

“That’s what really ties the Dungeons & Dragons and theatrical world together. … It’s about a bunch of people sitting around, playing make-believe and feeling really good about escaping to this new world,” Lemon said. “Hopefully, we all continue to do this … because everybody here has made a choice … to join together in the communal practice of making art and telling stories together.”

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