She Kills Monsters
By Qui Nguyen
Jan. 30, 31, Feb. 1
Montclair High’s School of Visual and Performing Arts
The Little Theater, George Innes Annex.
Tickets are available at seatyourself.biz/montclairschoolarts or at the box office,
141 Park St. one hour before showtime.
By GWEN OREL
The door to the lighting booth is green.
Many people do not know it exists.
“Often times people will ask me, ‘What is this tech thing you do?’ and I’ll bring them up here. I joke that it is like the Room of Requirement, the room in ‘Harry Potter’ that just kind of appears,” said Maddie Blackburn, a junior, who is co-head of sound for Montclair High’s School of Visual and Performing Arts’ production of “She Kills Monsters,” by Qui Nguyen.
The play opens tonight and runs this weekend.
“Until you come up here, no one notices [the door] exists,” said Molly Sailer, a senior and co-head of lights. “It’s incredibly strange. People walk right by it. Sometimes I’ll go in here during the school day to check on something, and people just look at me. ‘What is this? What’s happening? What’s going on?’”
When a show is running smoothly, oftentimes the audience barely registers the fact that a booth high above and to the back of the stage exists, where sound and lighting technicians are making the actors visible and heard.
Usually a SVPA non-musical play has limited technical requirements: the plays are often set in the naturalistic world of a school or an apartment.
Not “She Kills Monsters.”
It is set partly in a fantasy realm of Dungeons & Dragons. Readers may know it, if they did not play it, as the game that sets everything in motion in television’s “Stranger Things.” It’s a role-playing fantasy game. The show weaves back and forth between the “real world,” and the fantasy world, a kind of play-within-a-play.
In Nguyen’s play, Agnes (played by MHS senior Anna Gustavsen, who also runs the Youth Open Mic at Trend), enters her sister Tilly’s game world, using her journal as a way to connect with her after Tilly and their parents were killed in a car crash.
Twenty people are in the cast (though some play non-speaking monsters), and 19 people are listed as technical staff and crew heads.
“I was looking for a heavily-female-driven piece,” said Brenda Pepper, SVPA artistic director. “She Kills Monsters” has two female leads, and other strong parts for girls. The spring musical, “Fame,” does not offer much creativity for the tech crew. “She Kills Monsters” does, and also gave the cast and crew a chance to learn stage combat.
Rick Sordelet, a Montclairite and Broadway fight director, lent the production real stage weapons, for that satisfying “clink.”
As Agnes, the older sister, enters her dead sister’s gameworld, she uncovers new aspects of her own personality too, Pepper said. Who the kids are in their real lives is often opposite to how they are, when empowered with weapons and powers, in the world of Dungeons & Dragons, Pepper said.
The themes involve bullying, and love. “The lead character is gay and she hasn’t really quite come out yet, but has this mad crush on the girl who works in guidance. And in this story, of course, they’re full blown lovers in the D & D game,” said Pepper. “In reality, they never really quite got the relationship off the ground.
“I picked it because at the heart of it is family relationships, and really seizing that opportunity to try to get to know a sibling.”
WHERE I NEED TO BE
“I’m on stage when I need to be. I’m backstage when I need to be,” said co-head of tech Ellie Carhart, a senior. She oversees other tech crews, and also plays mom, and a “bug bear,” which is neither a bug, nor a bear, but a foe for Agnes and Tilly to defeat. “This is the main thing I do. Theater is my thing. That’s what I’m going to college for.”
“Set design is really my passion.” She joined her first-run crew as a freshman.
Carhart also loves D&D, and made game PDFs for people who don’t play, so they would
know what was going on.
Up in that room behind the green door, decorated with fluorescent stars and Christmas tinsel, Blackburn, Sailer and Mirit Skeen, a senior, rehearse the hundreds of cues that go with the production.
The sound design has been a group project, said Blackburn. “I know microphones better than sound cues. But there are a lot of pre-made sound cues out there. If you look up ‘dragon noises,’ there are pages of them,” she said.
Doing sound is learning a trade, with its hands-on knowledge and practice, she said: “It’s not like anything else she’s doing.”
With less than a week until the opening, cues are still being programmed and levels set.
Sailer has designed lights for the showcase, which has 200 to 300 separate cues, but it’s very unusual to have so many for a straight play. Last year’s “Ordinary People ” had 60 to 80, and many were “lights up, lights down,” she said. Sam Gordon, a professional, is the main designer for the show.
Through learning how to hang lights, run a dimmer check, program cues, and design,
Sailer has decided that lighting is what she wants to do.
And she especially loves the D&D aspect of “She Kills Monsters.”
“My crew pretty much all play D&D,” she said. “They’re the holders of the knowledge. A lot of them are onstage as monsters.” In D&D you can enter a different world, and be a different person, she explained.
“I just started a new game, actually,” said Skeen with a laugh. For Skeen, lights is like art when it’s up. She wants to direct, and has directed at the Trunk Show at Studio Players (a children’s production), which Molly designed.
“She Kills Monsters” includes unusual effects, including a strobe light and several follow spots. The costumes are colorful, and many are black, which has been a challenge for the lights, as the colors absorb them. Follow spots will help make sure the costumes are seen.
On the stage, people with laptops, working on cues, have moved to the wings. An evil fairy is ready to go.
Pepper shouts up to the booth, and rehearsal begins again.