Prop for “She Kills Monsters: Virtual Realms,” a play by Qui Nguyen. (UCR)
February 17, 2021

‘She Kills Monsters’ will feature ‘old school theatre magic’

COVID-19 has forced the theater team to be more resourceful while producing a virtual show from home

Author: Sandra Baltazar Martínez
February 17, 2021

Fifty dragon and warrior costumes? Check. Mythical creature props? Check. Original soundtrack? Check. 

UC Riverside Department of Theatre, Film, and Digital Production students, staff, and faculty members have been marshaling endless creativity at homes from New York to California in order to prepare for the department’s third full-blown production via Zoom.

Makeshift stages, finger lights, makeup, and green screens, will also be in use during the one-night-only performance of the dramatic comedy “She Kills Monsters: Virtual Realms,” a play by Qui Nguyen, which features homicidal fairies, nasty ogres, and ‘90s pop culture references. The virtual performance will take place Thursday, Feb. 18, at 8 p.m.

“She Kills Monsters: Virtual Realms” prop. (UCR)
“She Kills Monsters: Virtual Realms” prop. (UCR)

For the past four months, 19 UCR student actors and staff have been working from their respective homes to stage the play, which is set in present-day Athens, Ohio. The core of this performance springs from the 1970s tabletop role-playing game, “Dungeons & Dragons.” The play allows audiences to escape from reality into a mythical world, which the creative team described as a perfect outlet for this pandemic.

“This theatre production is an all-inclusive feminist, queer, antiracist, anti-ableist bodied performance,” said Barrie Gelles, the play’s choreographer, director, and a guest lecturer at UCR. “For this play, it’s really about that core value of ‘Dungeons & Dragons;’ we are in the middle of escapism and the exploration of self.”

The pandemic has forced the entire team to gain new skills in order to create what Gelles calls an “analog” theatrical experience, meaning there are no camera tricks. Simply put, everyone has had to become more resourceful. 

Water color costume sketch, designed by Maria Hong, costume shop lead and costume designer for the production. (UCR)
Water color costume sketch, designed by Maria Hong, costume shop lead and costume designer for the production. (UCR)

“It’s old school theater magic,” said Gelles, who is teaching from her New York home. Among other props, her desk has scattered Christmas lights, finger lights, and crystal balls. The luminescent lights diffuse the colors needed to add character, drama, and help move the story forward. 

In addition to perfecting lines, rehearsals have focused on allowing each student to perfect their own mini home stage.

When it comes to creating a cohesive cast, all through a virtual world, Gelles wanted to make sure her team was all-inclusive. That’s why she put out a casting call for a disabled character and worked through UCR’s Student Disability Resource Center. 

The character in the play, Kaliope, has cerebral palsy. 

“We have cast Catherine Garcia, a wonderful student actor, in the role. She also has cerebral palsy,” Gelles said. “Catherine is not the only disabled artist working on the project — this is about inclusivity and building accessible theater, not tokenism.” 

One of the costumes by Maria Hong, costume shop lead and costume designer for the production. (UCR)
One of the costumes by Maria Hong, costume shop lead and costume designer for the production. (UCR)

Makeup designer Jen Kretchmer worked with student on wigs, prosthetics, and specialty makeup. Kretchmer is a television producer, writer, director, and performer. She is the executive producer and co-creator of the YouTube series “Monsters and Fables,” which airs on the official ‘Dungeons & Dragons’ channel. Kretchmer is an ambulatory wheelchair user with Ehlers-Danlos Syndromes and is a passionate advocate for disabled accessibility, inclusion, and representation in media.

Along with promoting theater accessibility, Gelles wanted to offer audiences uniquely designed costumes and music. 

Maria Hong, costume shop lead and costume designer for the production, sketched out the designs and has been diligently sewing every piece. The furry, ’90s rock costumes have been shipped to students’ homes, along with other equipment such as microphones, lights, and green screens.

“She Kills Monsters” is a play uniquely designed for the COVID-19 era in that the playwright adapted the original version to specifically work on the Zoom platform, said Ben Tusher, ’93, UCR’s production manager and lighting designer.

“Barrie’s passion for roleplaying games and storytelling enables her to expertly address the soul of this play: How do you connect with others through digital media while still being separate?” Tusher said. “How can we create whole worlds from our individual contributions? And how do we share this aspirational world that we’ve created with the larger community?” 

Dana Kaufman
Dana Kaufman

The magic is in the details. Dragons, thunder, fight scenes, fairies — is all accompanied by original music composed by Dana Kaufman, assistant professor of composition with UCR’s Department of Music. 

Kaufman said Gelles provided her a list of artists and songs to draw inspiration from, including Blink-182, Led Zeppelin, and the “Wonder Woman” soundtrack. Until four months ago, Kaufman had mostly composed classical music, primarily for operas. For this play, she produced 22 tracks that range from 30 seconds to nearly two minutes; the musical cues will appear 70 times throughout the 1 hour, 40-minute play, Kaufman said.  

“I loved writing rock music and really enjoyed the intellectual stimulation that was very much lacking during COVID,” said Kaufman, who used Logic Pro X software to compose.   

A mix of pop, electric guitar, and organ help build up creative storytelling — and draws the audience into the fight scenes between heroes and mythical creatures, many created by UCR’s Kerry Jones ’84, scenic artist and properties designer.  

“Music is a snapshot of characters and snapshots of time. I fulfilled a longtime dream to be a dragon,” said Kaufman, whose job was also to record dragon-like sounds. “I absolutely gained new skills composing for this play; this was heart-warming and a great example of innovation in the arts and persistence in an era where our traditional conception of art has been disrupted. I value the laughter, comradery, and colleagues’ brilliance.”    

Jayla Jacob, a second-year theatre, film, and digital production major, said playing her character, Tilly, has allowed her to reflect on her own identify.  

Jayla Jacob
Jayla Jacob

“Tilly represents an outcast who loves being an outcast. She loves being herself all the time, and I really love that about this character,” said Jacob, 19, a Richard Risso Award recipient. “Like Tilly, I have always been that outcast … I been there, trying to figure out where I belong. I am not ‘Black enough’ to be embraced by the Black community, and then I can also be the only Black person with a group of white friends. I often wonder where I fit.” 

Jacob, a Moreno Valley resident who attended Riverside area schools before coming to UCR, has been acting since seventh grade. Being home during the pandemic has sharpened her existing skills, while developing new ones. She’s had to learn about green screens, lighting sets, costumes, makeup, and more. 

“Before, my job was just to act,” Jacob said. “Now I gained a greater appreciation for the tech people. I really love them.” 

Gelles, who teaches musical theater history, theatre history, acting, directing, and public speaking at many New York City colleges, said virtual performance does not translate into minimal effort or an inferior production. 

“There’s a magical thing that happens with collective storytelling,” Gelles said. “It creates a safe space, and an inspirational space. It creates challenges so that within that safe space you grow, you become the greatest, boldest version of yourself.”

Meet the creative team and crew:

Barrie Gelles, director and choreographer             
Sydney Lynne Thomas, scenic design                            
Kerry Jones, properties design                        
Maria Hong, costume design                        
Jen Kretchmer, makeup design                        
Ben Tusher, lighting design                        
Dana Kaufman, original music and sound design

Costume by Maria Hong, costume shop lead and costume designer for the production. (UCR)
Costume by Maria Hong, costume shop lead and costume designer for the production. (UCR)


Meet the cast:

Narrator: Ryan Ong 
Tilly: Jayla Jacob 
Agnes : Jade Duong 
Chuck : Killian Andrews 
Vera : Jade de Perio 
Miles : Maksil Lorenzo 
Kaliope/Kelly : Catherine Garcia 
Lilith/Lilly: Hannah Hyatt 
Orcus/Ronnie : Aiden Potter 
The Greatest Mage Steve : Ryan Ansara 
Farrah The Faerie : Isabel Arcinue 
Evil Tina : Miranda Sun 
Evil Gabbi : Rachel Millar

“She Kills Monsters: Virtual Realms”

Date: Thursday, Feb. 18 at 8 p.m.
Tickets: $15; free for UCR students:
NOTE: This play contains mild adult themes and the brief use of strobe lighting. 

“She Kills Monsters: Virtual Realms” cast. (UCR)
Some of the cast members during a “She Kills Monsters: Virtual Realms” rehearsal. (UCR)

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