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.
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.
“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.”
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?”
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.
“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
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: ucrfineartsticketoffice.universitytickets.com
NOTE: This play contains mild adult themes and the brief use of strobe lighting.