She Kills Monsters sets high expectations for LMU’s online theater productions

Thursday, September 24, 2020

Illustration: Daisy Daniels

She Kills Monsters sets high expectations for LMU’s online theater productions

By Christina Martinez

From acting to music, to dance, the performing arts landscape has been devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The inability to hold live performances has brought a halt to the theater industry. This includes Broadway, the heart of American theater, which plans to remain closed until early January. With few viable ways to bring theater to people in its traditional form, the future of theater is unclear.

Across the country, theater companies and college programs are examining the best way to continue learning, operating, and producing shows. LMU’s Theater Arts program is one of them, and they recently showcased how LMU’s students, faculty and staff plan to face the pandemic’s challenges with She Kills Monsters.

She Kills Monsters is a dramedy and fantasy adventure play written by playwright Qui Nguyen. The play follows Agnes Evans, a young woman coming to terms with the death of her younger sister Tilly. Agnes discovers Tilly’s Dungeons & Dragons module, and she begins to play in order to get to know the sister she never truly understood.

The LMU production of She Kills Monsters, directed by theater arts professor Kevin Wetmore, was supposed to be performed live in late March and early April. Unfortunately, the sudden shift to online learning as the pandemic heightened in the United States cancelled those plans.

Senior Lindsey Gartner, the stage manager for She Kills Monsters, observed that the cancellation occurred at an unfortunate moment. At the time of the in-person presentation’s cancellation, all sets and costumes were nearly finished, and the cast and crew were about to return from Spring Break to enter the final rehearsals and preparations of tech week.

“It was definitely disheartening to hear that we wouldn’t be able to put on the show,” said Gartner. “Obviously, we wouldn’t be able to perform it in person [due to] factors that were just out of our hands, but it was very difficult for us because we had been working for so long on this production.”

The future of the LMU production was left in limbo. Cast and crew members waited to hear whether they would be able to continue the show in some form. In the meantime, they bonded by playing Dungeons & Dragons during the summer until it was confirmed that they had received permission to continue the production by using Zoom as a stage and streaming via Facebook Live.

Preparations for the transition began immediately. Costumes, puppets, and props were shipped to actors as far away as Hong Kong. The bedrooms and living spaces of actors and puppeteers became their dressing rooms, backstage, and performance spaces. Rehearsals recommenced, the play was restaged and She Kills Monsters was broadcast on the dates of September 9-12.

During the play, every actor stood facing a camera in front of a black backdrop, giving the illusion they were on stage in personal Black Box theaters. Each actor, in full makeup and costume, gave impassioned and believable performances. It was just as you would expect in a staging of any play, with the only difference being that everything took place within the virtual confines of Zoom.

Junior Lucy McNulty, who played the roles of Farrah the Faerie and Tina, believed that both actors and audience members should not let Zoom be a barrier to enjoyment of theater.

“Once you get past that moment of ‘ugh, a show over Zoom?’ it’s like ‘yeah, a show over Zoom!’” said McNulty. “Sure, it’s not going to be the same thing, but it can still be really cool.”

According to Gartner, one of the biggest challenges was transitioning the play’s many physical fight and dance scenes to Zoom, saying it was one of the most physical shows that she had ever been a part of.

Junior Sika Lonner, one of the puppeteers for the many monsters in the show, was relieved that she and her fellow cast members were able to practice stage fighting in-person beforehand, as it gave them the advantage when translating the fights for a digital format.

“When we were live, we got to learn the technical language of stage fighting,” said Lonner. “I think trying to learn that over Zoom would have been really difficult. Having that training was really helpful to make the fights look convincing.”

These physical scenes, choreographed by Rose Raddatz (‘20), used the limitations of Zoom in creative ways. The actors and monster puppeteers interacted with each other by timing their movements so that it appeared they were reacting to them in real-time. To emphasize these reactions, fights were set up so that it seemed like a character was passing a weapon to another character, or so that characters fought monsters using the natural layout of Zoom’s cameras.

The actors in these scenes were almost always in-sync, but Lonner implied that the illusion was difficult to maintain due to the natural connection delays of Zoom.

“With the fights and dancing, you couldn’t reliably go off the video you were seeing,” said Lonner. “You just had to know what the flow was. You had to believe you were doing it at the right time and go for it, rather than looking for visual cues like you would live.”

“One thing [Raddatz] had to say a lot was ‘trust yourself,’” added McNulty. “Trust that you’re doing it right and that the other person is also seeing and doing it. You just had to trust that it was happening.”

The production did jump out of the Zoom format when it was needed, especially for the Tiamat fight scene at the climax. Using special effects and editing, LMU Theater Arts staff member Rob Hillig created a video of previously recorded content that was shared as the main focal point, allowing the audience to imagine the battle as an epic spectacle.

One of the greatest concerns for the show was technical difficulties and internet connection issues. Gartner was the one in charge of dealing with these possibilities, which was a challenge since she was limited in her ability to help. There were multiple back-up plans in place, but She Kills Monsters went through its entire run without any major difficulties, setbacks, or holds that were noticeable to the audience.

McNulty was very satisfied with how smoothly the shows went, especially given the circumstances of the production.

“Of course, not every night everything goes correct, and that always bugs you in the end.” said McNulty. “I’m always worried the last show is going to go terribly wrong, but this didn’t happen. It made me really happy because it’s a nice way to end things with everyone when you don’t get to see them anymore in the same context as this.”

The success of She Kills Monsters comes at a time when the LMU Theater Arts Program and the university’s student-run company Del Rey Players are planning online presentations for the majority of their seasons.

Gartner, McNulty, and Lonner were all grateful to be a part of She Kills Monsters, even though it was not in the way it was originally envisioned. All of them expressed how good it was to have community and unity during the entire process to get the production performed. 

Lonner added that online theater was equally good for her own mental health in the forced isolation of the pandemic, and good for others who may not have been able to access LMU’s productions in the first place.

“It is different to be delivering a show in an online format, but simultaneously we got to reach a wider audience,” said Lonner. “Family members that probably wouldn’t have been able to see the show in the first place were suddenly able to come, which was really cool.”

The online format that presented She Kills Monsters will remain in place until 2021. According to the LMU Theater Arts program’s website, almost all shows of the planned season will be presented through online streaming.

Gartner will be taking up the mantle of artistic director for LMU’s student-run company Del Rey Players, allowing her to continue participating in the production of online theater. She believed that the experiences of She Kills Monsters, as well her time with LMU’s Shakespeare on the Bluff festival this summer, has prepared her for what the year holds for theater.

“The [Del Rey Players] board’s vision for this year is really making sure that we’re still able to bring theater to people, even though it’s not accessible in person,” said Gartner. “I think that working on this production, [as well as] Shakespeare productions, have really given me hope for the power and potential of theater in these times.”

The upcoming line-up for LMU Theatre Arts’ 2020-21 season can be found on the program’s website, and the line-up for the Del Rey Players is forthcoming.

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