Finding Family through Fantasy

“In a time before Facebook, World of Warcraft, and massively multiplayer online role-playing games, there once existed simply a game—forged by the hands of nerds, crafted in the minds of geeks, and so advanced in its advanced-ness it would take a whole second edition to contain all its mighty geekery.”

So begins Qui Nguyen’s She Kills Monsters, Colorado Academy’s 2022 Upper School play, presented in the Leach Center for the Performing Arts December 8-10. 

The game in question, of course, is Dungeons and Dragons, or D&D, whose magical, mythical imaginary realms populated by wizards, dragons, fairies, and ogres provide the vivid backdrop for Nguyen’s play, set among teenagers living in 1995 Ohio, during the second decade of D&D’s worldwide heyday.

Alex Green as the Narrator

She Kills Monsters tells the story of Agnes, a high schooler whose deceased younger sister, Tilly, was “one of the rarest types of geeks”—a female D&D Dungeon Master. The Dungeon Master is the organizer in charge of creating the details and challenges of a given adventure in D&D, in essence controlling the entire narrative of the game. After Tilly’s death, Agnes discovers a diary containing a highly personal game campaign that Tilly designed herself, and the campaign, which blends the world of D&D with characters and conflicts from Tilly’s own life, draws Agnes into an emotional journey as she learns more about her sister than she ever knew when she was alive.

From Left, Claire Arney as Tilly and Clare Henry as Agnes

Entering Tilly’s world of New Landia, Agnes is guided by helpful Dungeon Master Chuck as she fights alongside the demon queen Lilith, dark elf Kalliope, demon overlord Orcus, and Tilly herself on their dangerous quest to defeat a series of evil “bosses” on their way to saving Tilly’s soul, held captive by the five-headed dragon, Tiamat. The action, set to a soundtrack of hit songs from the 1990s, shifts back and forth between D&D role-playing and Agnes’ everyday life, showcasing epic sword-fighting heroism alongside sensitive explorations of Tilly’s questioning her sexuality, Agnes’ conflicted feelings about her boyfriend, and the deepening, if imagined, bond between the sisters—all inspired by their adventures together in a game.

Henry and Arney gear up for battle.

“This show is an amazing combination of serious family drama with great comedy and total fantasy,” says Senior Clare Henry, who portrays Agnes as she discovers the world of D&D for the first time and learns not only how to wield a sword, but also how to understand her sister and herself.

“There are definitely darker things about this play,” Henry continues. “Agnes can’t go back and repair her relationship with Tilly, so how does she deal with that guilt? At the same time, it talks about heavy themes without being too heavy. There are incredible scenes of combat, hilarious characters, and so many great moments. Rather than being sad, it makes you think, and maybe even reevaluate, the relationships in your own life.”

Ideas that resonate

According to the play’s director, Middle and Upper School theater teacher Maclain Looper, the choice to stage a work that so directly addresses themes relevant to high schoolers was deliberate.

“I’m always excited about dramas that are written about teenagers,” says Looper. “There aren’t many of them—high school actors are mostly stuck portraying much older adults, which can seem nearly impossible. But, because it is set entirely in a world of teenagers, She Kills Monsters touches on so many things that are important to young people, especially now.”

The idea of identity not always being fixed or certain is particularly appealing, Looper says. “While Tilly’s sexuality is a major element of the story, it’s never actually resolved. There’s no pressure in the play for the finality of a binary, yes-or-no answer. I love the idea that you can try to get to know someone, like Agnes does, but that it might be imperfect and full of flaws. Yet, it’s all we have.”

The demon queen Lilith (Sasha Yuffa) is injured in battle.

The way that virtual communities, like those that exist around D&D and its modern-day video game descendants, can unite people who don’t fit neatly into mainstream society is another theme that resonates today. “For anyone who feels like they’re on the outside, games like D&D can welcome them like family,” explains Looper. Although now, he adds, with the more than 40-year-old game finding a new audience through appearances in pop-culture phenomena such as the Netflix hit Stranger Things, what once was seen as alternative is cool again.

A unique challenge

But staging a play built around such an iconic fantasy world, says Looper, comes with challenges.

“When I read this play years ago,” he says, “I actually decided there was no way I was ever going to do it. It’s set inside a game. It’s costumes and weapons. There are dragons and a gigantic eyeball villain. Every fourth page, there’s a description of yet another epic battle scene.”

The players confront the Beholder.

An experienced stage combat choreographer, Looper knew that tackling all of these elements would tax any group of actors. “Staging one fight takes a long time. But putting together six or seven big battles, plus all the acting and the other stuff that goes into this play—I thought it was too much.”

A battle scene

The extensive stage combat, and the training it required the cast to go through to make it both safe and convincing, turned out to be a boon for all concerned.

“Here at CA,” Looper explains, “many of our students are very physical: they’re athletes competing in multiple sports, they’re dancers, you name it. I realized the physicality in this play was actually perfect for us.”

Upper School actors jumped on board without reservations.

“I love being a warrior,” says Senior Claire Arney, who plays the sword-wielding Tilly. “Normally I’m more of an academics and athletics person, so coming to the theater and getting to play around with fighting and be super creative is incredible.”

Tilly battles the evil fairy, played by Madeleine Worrall.

“The strength that I get to show with this character is really cool,” Arney continues. “But Tilly isn’t one-sided at all. Because it’s about high schoolers, when I walk on stage I can be myself and draw from my own experiences. Tilly’s a fighter, but she’s more than that, too.”

Junior Grant Kenney, who as Dungeon Master Chuck guides Agnes on her journey of discovery through Tilly’s story, has years of real-world experience with martial arts and played a key role in bringing combat to the Leach Center stage.

Grant Kenney as Dungeon Master Chuck

“Obviously Mr. Looper choreographed the fights, but I helped clean them up, got to offer my little bit of expertise,” says Kenney. “It’s been a deliberate process, because stage combat is super new for most people. I’ve helped make sure everyone knows what they’re doing, how to wield the various weapons, and how to make it look good.”

The show behind the show

Beyond the physical demands faced by the cast, She Kills Monsters requires a big technical lift from the crew. As Looper explains, this is partly by design.

“Our technical theater program is unique in that it is on par with our acting program—something that not a lot of schools can offer. So whenever we choose a show to perform, we always look for the ways a given production will challenge our technical theater students as well as our actors. This play does both.”

Throughout the fall, students who were enrolled in CA technical theater classes, led by Middle and Upper School theater tech teachers James Meehan and Ian Marzonie, constructed all of the sets for the show, including three towering, granite-like monoliths as well as tiered, faux marble platforms and sliding walls to enable quick switches between fantasy and reality.

Theater tech students built monoliths, platforms, and a deadly gelatinous cube.

During the run of the show, the technical theater students work to ensure the complex sound, lighting, staging, and backstage coordination flawlessly support the on-stage story. With numerous large fight scenes calling for an arsenal of prop weapons, dramatic lighting effects, quick costume changes, a cinematic music and special-effects score, and wireless microphones amplifying a cast of more than a dozen, the task is not easy.

Ninth Grade stage manager Natalie Gottlieb was a little surprised to find herself assigned the role of orchestrating all these moving parts. “It’s been crazy,” she says. “Usually stage managers are older.”

Stage manager Natalie Gottlieb confers with director Maclain Looper.

But with plenty of experience managing productions as a Middle Schooler at CA, Gottlieb has become the rock on which She Kills Monsters is anchored. “I’ve been at every rehearsal from the very beginning, and it’s been really fun getting to know everyone and all the details of this show. Even though it’s not a musical, and there’s no singing or dancing, there’s still a lot of choreography going on, a lot of logistics with moving panels and props and dragons and everything else. I think it makes it a really fun and interesting show to watch.”

Lighting effects heighten the moment when Tilly revives Agnes after a battle.

In charge of the lighting board, fellow Ninth Grader Kellen Martin agrees, “It’s definitely a difficult show—there are a lot of cues and timing that have to be right. But what we’ve been able to do just with lights and sound is really unique.”

Bringing a community together

Unique is one way to describe the deadly, harp-playing fairy that Agnes, Tilly, and their party of adventurers must face along their journey. Portrayed by Senior first-time actor Madeleine Worrall—who is, in fact, a skilled harp player—the character represents Looper’s original twist on Nguyen’s script.

It’s a twist with purpose.

Worrall playing the harp

“Madeleine, who is one of my advisees, came to me and said, ‘I want to try this,’ and I thought it was incredibly cool,” Looper relates. “As a first-timer, she’s doing an amazing job playing someone so counter to who she is—except for the harp, of course, which I added to the character specifically for her.”

For her part, Worrall says, “I wanted to try something new, and I really wanted to do the sword fighting. I’ve learned a lot of new things, and I’ve also found a community that is incredibly supportive.”

Looper says that welcoming newcomers like Worrall to the CA theater program alongside veteran Upper School participants is his favorite part of his job.

“I work with this huge, varied group of students in Grades 9–12, and they’re all unique; they all bring something special to the theater. I tell them all the time: you may forget the details of one particular production, but you will never forget the random stuff that happens when you’re hanging out at a late rehearsal, laughing together, and forging those bonds that can be hard to find in other settings.”

Cast members get pumped up before the show.

According to Senior Sasha Yuffa, who plays the demon queen Lilith, “The environment and community around this play have just been so supportive and warm. With the cast and crew and our teachers and directors, it’s almost like a second home for me.”

Henry adds, “This is probably one of the most fun shows I’ve ever been in, and the fact that I’m doing it with a bunch of my closest friends makes it that much better.”

“To me,” Looper says, “creating a community around theater is the most important thing.”

As the narrator explains at the end of She Kills Monsters, after Agnes finally completes the quest to save her sister’s soul, “Eventually the world embraced geeks not as outsiders, but as awesome.”