UVA Arts, University of Virginia

Vol 12 Spring 20 Library
The D&D party of five battle the evil cheerleaders near the top of the Mountain of Steepness in She Kills Monsters. Image by Michael Bailey

She Kills Monsters

Marianne Kubik knew last summer she had a challenge on her hands. As the director of the UVA Drama production of Qui Nguyen's She Kills Monsters, Kubik had to transport audiences from reality to fantasy and back again throughout the course of a play that takes a deep dive into the world of fantasy role-playing games. It is the story of Agnes Evans, who, in the midst of coping with the death of her teenage sister Tilly, stumbles into her sister's Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) design module, unveiling a world of action-packed adventure in an imaginary refuge from her sister's adolescent experience. Agnes soon finds herself on her own hero's quest in a play that serves, as Nguyen succinctly states, "an homage to the geek and warrior within us all" while offering a surprisingly sweet tale of friendship, loss, and acceptance. 

Agnes fights the five-headed dragon inside her lair in She Kills Monsters. 
(Photo: Mona Kasra)

Kubik had three months to come up with a way to delineate these two worlds. She quickly turned to Mona Kasra, a colleague with plenty of experience in creating worlds and expanding imaginations. Kasra, a Digital Media professor, based in the Drama Department, and a cross-disciplinary scholar and creative practitioner, is renowned for her use of video editing, remapping, and special techniques built around the use of multiple projections. The projections were used to create the fantastical D&D world, populated by puppet monsters and a harrowing soundscape – all serving as a stunning contrast to the gray boxes that characterize the mundane "real" world Tilly left behind. Kubik and Kasra worked closely with the Chicago-based scenic design team of Jeffrey D. Kmiec and Milo Bue and M.F.A. lighting design candidate Lauren Duffie to bring the worlds to life. "The projections," Kubik said, "really helped us move from fantasy to reality as seamlessly onstage as we would in our minds, by using state-of-the-art digital technology instead of traditional set changes." 

A boss monster fight about to be over at the foot of the Mountain of Steepness in She Kills Monsters. 
(Photo: Michael Bailey)

The harshest reality the team faced, it seemed, was the ticking clock. "Given the time we had," Kasra said, "it was like magic that we were able to pull it all together." The magic was evident, Kubik said, in the very first tech rehearsal. After weeks of rehearsing in a significantly smaller space, with few physical set items to play off of, the actors somehow found their marks. "The set was ready four days before we went into tech rehearsals. I basically had one night to make sure all the staging worked. I found myself asking, how did they know to go there? It was bizarre to trust that everybody was going to do their job, just like you trust that an actor is going to learn their lines." Kasra said the complexity of the project brought about its share of crossed fingers. "Especially when you are talking about a multiple projector set-up, every night you are hoping it is all going to work out. Technology can be unpredictable and unreliable, but you take precautions and create a routine that you hope mitigates the accidents that might happen." 

One of many D&D worlds to quickly shift in and out using multiple projectors in She Kills Monsters. 
(Photo: Marianne Kubik)

Preparing for, avoiding, and sometimes dealing with those accidents offered a wealth of real-world experience for her students, Kasra said, who ran the projections each night. Once the worlds were created, both Kubik and Kasra had to determine how they would transition the audience between them. For Kubik, it was about finding just the right sound, the one she heard in her head, and conveying that to her sound team. For Kasra, it became about a virtual roll of the dice. "I was frustrated. I didn't want to do a simple dissolve from one world to the other. Then I thought, we have these surfaces, why don't we do a kind of blinking that kind of mimics the dice in the game?" Rolling the dice on this collaboration paid off in every way. Audiences loved the show. Elizabeth Derby of C-Ville Weekly wrote, "Each element of this production, from the sets to costumes to lighting and sound design, is wildly, wonderfully creative." And despite the pressures of the process, Kubik hopes it is the first of many opportunities to work together. "I really love the idea of using video mapping to change scenes so quickly," Kubik said. "It was perfect for this show, but I can also see it being used in so many ways."

The dragon Tiamat's Castle of Evil is projection-mapped on all vertical surfaces in She Kills Monsters. 
(Photo: Marianne Kubik)
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