In Fall Mainstage, Theater Studies Slays Monsters Real and Fantastical

Neon dragon head and warrior

The evils haunting the real world can be a lot harder to see than dragons and orcs. But in this semester’s Theater Studies Mainstage production of Qui Nguyen’s “She Kills Monsters,” racism, sexism and homophobia take the shape of fantastical beasts that can be fought head on.

After premiering in 2011, the play has become a beloved and acclaimed piece of theater. It earned a GLAAD Media Award in 2012 for its “fair, accurate and inclusive representations of LGBTQ people and issues” and has been produced over 900 times in the past decade by everyone from professional theaters to high school drama clubs.

“The play’s got ‘90s pop culture references (and music!) that Gen Z performers are ‘discovering’ in their own way while Gen X or Millennial performers can experience them with a wave of nostalgia,” said Jules Odendahl-James, the production’s dramaturg. “It’s also set in high school with a protagonist who just graduated from college and is looking back on their high school experience while also helping current students navigate their way. So the characters align in age and awareness of high school and college actors while also allowing them to stretch their performance skills with action scenes and some touching emotional work on big themes like loss, love and finding one’s path in life.”

"She Kills Monsters" tells the story of Agnes, an English teacher devoted to being ordinary whose life is upended when her parents and younger sister, Tilly, die in a car crash. Agnes discovers a realm Tilly created for Dungeons & Dragons and, with the help of Tilly’s friends and fellow D&D campaigners, learns about her sister’s world — the fantasy one of brave heroes and monsters, as well as the real one of bullies and outcasts it is based on.

By entering a fictional world, Agnes begins to see all the extraordinary things she missed about Tilly — or that Tilly hid.

“D&D play, historically, has relied upon improvisation and dramaturgical skill from its very structure, asking players to narrate their choices and think collaboratively even as they take on roles in a strict hierarchy,” said Odendahl-James. “These kinds of negotiations happen in different guises in our everyday lives. It doesn’t mean one carries one’s armor or spell-casting skills into the office, but it does mean one can practice navigating self-presentation, interpersonal dynamics and conflict in a context with lower (real-life) stakes.”

Both the fantasy combat and the treatment of complex issues of identity are hallmarks of Nguyen. Born in Arkansas to Vietnamese immigrants who had been airlifted to the United States in 1975, Nguyen struggled as one of the few students at his school who didn’t primarily speak English at home.

Having found solace in D&D himself, Nguyen’s theatrical works — both alone and with Vampire Cowboys, the company he cofounded — often draw from the world of fantasy, as well as comics, horror, hip-hop and martial arts. The style has become known as “Geek Theater.”

“Geek Theater is still coming into its own,” said Odendahl-James. “The popularity of a few of Nguyen’s early plays aside, theater as a discipline and an industry doesn’t always make the easiest collaborator with pop culture. Dramatic theater, however, has always had the same core impulses as Geek Theater: immersive storyworlds and high-stakes scenes of emotional and physical conflict offering audiences a way to experience changing realities from a distance and then make connections between that stage world with their own lives.”

Duke’s “She Kills Monsters” production will be directed by Jeff Storer, professor of the practice of Theater Studies, and rely on analog stagecraft to create the fantastical D&D worlds Agnes and company explore on stage. It boasts puppets designed by Associate Professor of the Practice Torry Bend, as well as shadow theater, cardboard structures and cosplay.

By combining all of those elements, the Mainstage marshals gaming culture into a reflection on the personal qualities ordinary people need to survive, and maybe even thrive, in our everyday world.

“The optimistic reading of such spaces is that creating a world where you play, try things out, try things on, with a kind of freedom can give you insight into new perspectives that you then might be more attuned to engaging and empathizing with when you encounter them outside the world of the game,” said Odendahl-James.

“She Kills Monsters” runs November 10-12 and 17-19 at 8 p.m., with a 2 p.m. matinee on November 13. Tickets are available at the University Box Office.