When life hands you lemons… well, you know the rest. Make something better than what you started with. That’s just what the theater department at Malibu High School did with its streamed production of the play “She Kills Monsters: Virtual Realms.”
The use of Zoom in this case actually enhanced the production, allowing for special effects to make the story of a fantasy role playing game come to life.
For nine long months, MHS students have been distance learning on Zoom.
“Zoom fatigue is real,” according to MHS Theater Arts Director Jodi Plaia. “Theater used to be the place you went to after class. There’s something sacred about having an actual theater.” And while the school’s actors and actresses may have preferred to stage the play in a real theater, they flipped it by pulling off a socially distanced play online, all performed remotely in their bedrooms.
The use of the cast’s bedrooms came in handy, too, because the play takes place where a lot of teenagers hang out anyway—in the comfort of their own rooms where inner voices and fantasy often blooms. Scenes quickly switched from bedrooms to virtual reality scenes through the use of green screens employed by each actor.
“She Kills Monsters” is the story is of a high school senior cheerleader whose younger sister and parents die in a car accident. The lead character, Agnes, was never really close to her younger sister, Tilly. Agnes discovers a lot about Tilly when she finds her late sibling’s notebook containing a manual for her favorite game, Dungeons and Dragons. Agnes plays the virtual D&D game that she thought was for nerds. By doing so, she discovers a lot about her sister, herself and her fellow classmates.
The play—popular on the college circuit—was recently updated by playwright Qui Nguyen. The ingenuity of director Jodi Plaia was to make use of virtual platforms using technology to her advantage. Filters and digital effects that couldn’t be replicated with a standard in-person staging were utilized for fantasy sequences that had the look of a video game.
Wizards, elves, heroes and demons came to life through special effects of fire, blood and mist. Especially effective was a snap camera filter that virtually added fantastical makeup to the actors’ faces even though no actual face makeup was applied.
The play’s overarching theme is “acceptance,” according to Plaia.
“She thought her sister was a geek. They didn’t have much in common, but by the end of the show, Agnes realizes how much she deeply loved her sister and how her sister wasn’t a geek at all, but a really wonderful person,” the director said. The show also confronts some mature topics that the MHS theater department has never shied away from, including grief, bullying, gender identity, homophobia and the marginalization of kids with health problems or physical limitations.
“D&D is a game for kids so they can give themselves this alternate persona—sort of what they wish they had,” Plaia said.
After each performance last Friday and Saturday night, the cast participated in a live Q&A with the audience. There weren’t a lot of questions—mostly praise for the cast including kudos: “moving,” “inspirational” and “amazing.”
Cast member Felix De Raspide Ross said he never would have imagined being in a streamed production, but added, “I think we managed a pretty good job out of it.”