‘She Kills Monsters’: VCUarts students debut virtual production from home

“She Kills Monsters: Virtual Realms” debuted on Oct. 28 as the VCUarts theatre department’s first virtual production, with scenes individually recorded on Zoom. Photo courtesy of VCUarts theatre department.

Ebonique Little, Staff Writer

Tillius the Paladin walks through a whimsical forest before being stopped by a menacing fairy, who she strikes with a magic missile. The VCUarts theatre students who act in this scene of “She Kills Monsters: Virtual Realms” interact as though they’re in the same room, despite being miles away from each other. 

“Filming at home was different because it was like we were the guinea pigs of this process,” said Kaili Fox, a junior theatre performance major who played Lilly. “But I had a really good time being on Zoom with the cast.” 

“She Kills Monsters: Virtual Realms” follows protagonist Agnes Evans as she is immersed in her deceased sister Tilly’s notebook of the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons.

Co-directed by theatre professors Sharon Ott, Wes Seals and Dorie Barton, the dramatic comedy explores themes of severed familial relationships, sexuality and gender identity, as Tilly used Dungeons and Dragons to escape everyday struggles before her death.

The play marks the VCUarts theatre department’s first production of the school year, with students also adapting to their first virtual performance.

“It was a nail biter all the way along,” said Ott, chair and artistic director of the theatre department, of the play’s first virtual screening on Oct. 28.

Playwright Qui Nguyen adapted his popular 2011 play for online performances as COVID-19 continued to pose challenges for in-person gatherings. Because the cast couldn’t meet physically, each student had to record their scenes in their own homes, leaving faculty and students unsure of the final product’s quality.

Sophomore theatre student Paige Smeltzer plays Evil Tina, a cheerleader who teases Tilly. Photo courtesy of VCUarts theatre department.

“I warned my parents. Like, if it doesn’t look good, this isn’t an indication I’m a bad actor, I promise,” said sophomore theatre performance major Erik DeMario. “This is something we’ve never done before.”

Though virtual, the play’s release mirrors a traditional format. The theatre department partnered with Concord Theatricals to broadcast the play, which is available on Vimeo until the last performance on Nov. 6. The viewing link is sent after purchasing tickets on the VCUarts theatre website.

The casting was done virtually, and interested students sent a video recording of a monologue that best reflected their talent. Afterward, they were called back for certain roles and auditioned based on those characters.

“We had no clue who was going to get the part,” said DeMario, who was cast as the underworld demon Orcus. “We didn’t even get to see each other do the scenes because we were going in separate meetings.”

Once production began, some of the members allotted time to visit a green screen studio at the W.E. Singleton Center to utilize the play’s imaginative backgrounds. For the scenes that took place on Zoom, senior theatre student and stage decorator Faith Carlson instructed the cast on how to decorate their spaces to best reflect their character.

Costumes, makeup and other props were delivered to the actors and had to be assembled themselves. The actors used Zoom and Open Broadcaster Software to capture and upload video simultaneously.

Over the course of a month, they followed a tight production schedule, shooting about five scenes per day. During this process, Ott said many students encountered technical difficulties and some had to use computers provided by VCUarts to reshoot scenes.

I was facing constant tech issues,” DeMario said, “but we worked through it.”

Ott said the editing process was difficult because it required more digital rendering techniques than normal. Virtual backgrounds, sound and music were applied to the film last.

“We were rehearsed enough with the scenes,” Ott said, “and they did a really good job with the difference between their fantasy — their D&D characters — which was hard.”

Paige Smeltzer, a sophomore theatre performance student, played one of the protagonist’s adversaries, Evil Tina. Smeltzer said she enjoyed embodying the fun character as it “revived her creativity.”

Smeltzer said she had to picture the characters in her head to overcome the challenge of not being near her peers.

“It was fun,” Smeltzer said. “It’s just, I couldn’t really connect with the cast.”

Despite setbacks, Smeltzer was “blown away” with the final outcome.

“I had no idea that a Zoom play could be altered with the green screen and the CGI and the ADR,” Smeltzer said. “It was just phenomenal to see what was filmed on Zoom and on camera to be almost like a feature film.”

The fantasy elements in the play served as a form of escape for the fictional characters as well as their real-life counterparts.

“It’s really something special,” DeMario said, “when we can create collaborative art in the midst of a pandemic.”

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