By Lawrence Belanger
Local Journalism Initiative
Students at Bishop’s University will hit the Centennial Theatre stage this week with an unusual play for the school’s drama department: She Kills Monsters, a play based in part on the table-top roleplaying game Dungeons & Dragons. Isabelle Blanusa, a drama student in her final year at the university, plays the lead character “Agnes”. She describes the play as one about coping with the loss of her character’s sister and parents.
Towards the beginning of the play, Agnes “discover[s] this notebook in her sister’s belongings,” explains Blanusa. Tilly (her sister) and Agnes were never close, due to divergent interests, so she doesn’t know what she’s found. Blanusa’s character “didn’t really talk to her sister” because she found her “geeky”, details Blanusa, whereas Agnes is “your typical girly-girl,” being more concerned about “boys and TV shows and clothes.” Through talking to some of her sister’s friends, Agnes learns that the notebook is actually a Dungeons and Dragons module written by the deceased Tilly.
(In table-top roleplaying, a module refers to a booklet containing pre-written non-player characters, plot hooks, locations, and more that will be used by the Game Master in the running of gameplay sessions at the table.)
As the play unfolds, Agnes plays the game her sister loved, and navigates the grief of losing her, while also discovering how much she never knew about Tilly. “It’s a way for her to cope with the loss of her sister and how she gets to know her sister,” says Blanusa.
Co-director Jackie Hanlin told the Record about how Monsters was among the most popular of a series of “fight-based” anthologies written by American playwright, TV, and film writer Qui Nguyen. Nguyen, a writer at Marvel Studios, is known amongst fans of Disney for having written Raya and the Last Dragon. Co-director Nathania Bernabe first found his work through an acting class she and Hanlin were taking.
During their class, Bernabe describes how “this scene popped up from a show called Soul Samurai,” also written by Nguyen. “I was really impressed because [it had] woman leads, which is hard to find for fight-based shows.”, says Bernabe. For her specifically, Samurai was really exciting was that it was specifically for a Filipino lead.
“Finding roles in the Filipino diaspora is really hard, especially in this genre. It’s not necessarily something that was written,” so they staged Samurai as their first play.
Like Samurai, She Kills Monsters is heavy on fight scenes and stage choreography, reflecting the co-directors’ certifications in combat acting, who typically work on the west coast in the Vancouver area. On stage, actors dressed as fantasy monsters such as bugbears (which look like neither bugs nor bears, and are actually more like overgrown goblins) fight against Agnes and her friends, who are armed with swords and shields.
While blunted, these swords are still heavy, and as such proper training was necessary before any scenes were even rehearsed. January was spent entirely on how to fight, maintain stamina on stage, and learn terminology to better communicate with their fellow actors.
Bernabe and Hanlin were brought to Bishop’s specifically for their background with fight-based plays. Their company, Affair of Honor, has produced plays in the Vancouver area since 2017.
They come to Bishop’s under the BU Drama artist-in-residency program at the university, which is part of the Nancy and John Gallop Creative Arts Fund, which funds initiatives of the drama and music departments at Bishop’s
“Last year in department meetings, we were given this opportunity [to bring in outside talent],” explains Suzie Klemmer, who plays Tilly in the play. While sifting through applications for the residency, Hanlin and Bernabe’s stuck out to the students. “They [were] both people who…created their own company,” says Klemmer, and the closeness of their age compared to a lot of the other applicants increased the interest of the drama students. “Everything was checking the boxes of what we wanted,” she adds.
Hanlin, a Bishop’s drama graduate of 2015, was already familiar with the department. So when a call went out looking for “senior production proposals” in Centennial, “I was like, oh that looks fun,” she recalled.
The Record also spoke behind the scenes with the crew of the play. Chengyan Boon, the play’s lighting and production designer, also from Vancouver, says his experience in this play has been “fun,” since a student production is less concerned with turning a profit for a business, and is thus able to spend more time and work with more people to make a better performance. He uses projectors and lights to add to each fight scene. “Before every fight, there’s a pose,” and then during each fight, the lights “follow the energy of the scene.” “There’s a lot of trying to optimize for impact,” says Boon.
Eric Saucke says it’s the first time in his memory at Bishop’s that projection mapping has been done on this scale. Saucke, a former Bishop’s student as well, works in Centennial as a sound designer and technician. During this production, he’s served as an informal mentor to first-year drama student Malcolm Armstrong, who sourced and designed the play’s sound effects.
“He’s designing sounds and coming up with the ideas,” says Saucke, who then looks them over himself, making a few additional tweaks.
Armstrong came to the Bishop’s drama department wanting to be a technician. Referring to performance, “I don’t see myself wanting to go forward on that path,” says Armstrong. It’s his first time doing sound design for a show, sourcing sound effects and sometimes combining multiple clips to create something new, like a dragon roar sourced from the “sounds of metal scraping layered on top of a scream.”
Calling the show is Sophie Kaplan, a fourth-year student in the drama department. With 16 actors and around 400 cues to keep track of, this is the biggest show that she’s worked on. “I came in thinking I knew pretty much how to stage manage,” says Kaplan. “I have learned how much I did not know,” which she plans to take with her after graduation and she seeks work in the industry.
Not only has the show been one of its kind for the actors and crew, but for the costuming department as well. Candace Warner, head of costuming, says that in addition to the scale and detail of the costumes, learning about D&D’s own particular tradition and history presented a unique challenge. The teaching dynamic shifted, says Warner, who knew little about Dungeons and Dragons when work started.
“A lot of the students have a really deep knowledge of the subject matter,” explains Warner. One student’s large project on costume dramaturgy was for the show. “The things that they brought into the play have been extremely helpful.” She brought in a former student with experience in both costuming and game mastering to help with the size and scope of the different monsters in the play.
The show will run from the 9th to the 12th of March, with all shows starting at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are available anytime online at Lepointdevente.com, as well as Monday through Friday from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. at 819-822-9692, or in person at the Centennial Box Office located on Bishop’s campus. The play has a suggested rating of PG-13 due to language and violence.