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For years, the annual 'One Act Play' was neglected.
This was my chance to change that.
Before going into high school, I had zero experience with plays. At the start of freshman year I had 6-7 years of experience with musicals under my belt, and I had always turned a cold shoulder to anything that didn't involve song and dance. That was, until, I discovered the UIL One-Act Play.
What is a 'UIL One-Act Play?' In Texas public schools, there is a one-act play competition that occurs every year. You're given forty minutes to present a play using specific guidelines in terms of content, and you're given certain set pieces that every other school also gets. Some schools took UIL very seriously. However, at my high school, we were known throughout the greater Houston area for our musicals. Our musicals had insane budgets and months upon months of rehearsal put in. UIL was usually thrown together haphazardly by a few students who really wanted to be a part of it for the acting experience, rather than schoolwide acclaim. The budget definitely reflected that. In terms of our season, the UIL One-Act was the redheaded stepchild of the department.
As a freshman I decided I'd audition for everything I could, including plays. Despite having no straight acting experience, I auditioned for the One-Act that year, which was Chemical Imbalance: A Jekyll and Hyde Play. I was cast as a set of identical twins, one an angel, and one made of pure evil. I was hooked. I'd found a place to really hone in on what it meant to be an actor that was free of the pressure for success; this was for us, and it was very low-stakes.
I continued to do UIL for two more years, and then I was given the opportunity to student direct She Kills Monsters my senior year. We'd also been given a limited run in our school's Black Box to do the full show, which we had never done before. This meant that we finally had a budget, and though it wasn't much, it was enough. I knew that after years of UIL being brushed under the rug and not being taken seriously, this was my time to change that.
By the end of the run, I'd assumed multiple creative positions: Marketing Head, since I designed the poster, T-shirts and edited/organized a promotional shoot; Props Head, creating many a D&D monster out of recycled materials; Sound Designer, creating multiple unique tracks (that were free); and light board operator once it came time for the One-Act Play competition. We ended up with a completely sold-out run of the show, and actually made money since we were extremely resourceful in sourcing the show materials.
As for my directorial approach, every choice was driven by the relationship between Agnes and Tilly. This is a play about grief, sisterhood, remembrance and "fitting in." When we eventually had to cut the show down to forty minutes, we made sure to never lose that sisterly bond. Dramaturgically, we also wanted to stay as integral to Dungeons & Dragons as possible, and this was reflected in our design, blocking, characterization, and the manifestations of these characters inside & outside of the D&D world.
If you are at all familiar with this play by Qi Nguyen, you know that Agnes, our painfully "average" protagonist, is essentially on a quest in her dead younger sister's D&D Module which ends with her fighting the Tiamat. If you are at all familiar with D&D, you know that the Tiamat is the Queen of Evil Dragons, aka the big boss. She is a five-headed dragon, each head wielding its own powers of different chromatic dragons: One black, one green, one red, one blue and one white, in that specific order, from left to right.
We wanted to take a very dramaturgical approach to creating such an iconic monster. Many productions make every head the same color and shape, but that is usually done by people who are not actually familiar with D&D (or didn't care to do the research). On top of that, the heads of the Tiamat are to be controlled by five of the actors in the company, and we did not want to haphazardly assign actors to non-specific heads. From very early stages, we wanted our design concept to be very monochromatic for the costumes: each character had their own specific color. Lillith (or Lilly) was black, Kaliope (or Kelly) was forest green, Orcus (or Ronnie) was red, The Great Mage Steve (or Stephen) was royal blue and Tillius (or Tilly) was white/gold. This helps streamline the connection between each character in the real world and in the game world. It only made sense to keep the color-coding for the Tiamat.
So, we had the vision down... how were we going to execute this?? Like we said, we wanted to maintain the integrity of the original monsters, but most of the existing props didn't do so. On top of that, the existing Tiamats were expensive, and if they were high enough quality, who would trust a group of high schoolers? So, we had to get creative.
1. Assemble a team of moms. My mom had experience in building props, but this was gonna take a little more than the two of us.
2. We had to find materials that were cost-effective. We decided on posterboard, papier mache and egg cartons. The egg cartons added extra texture and scalyness, and all of the materials were easy to source.
3. I had to make preliminary designs for each of the dragons. They all had very different builds and structures, so each one was unique. This wasn't as much of a problem as we thought, since it got easier to construct the heads over time.
4. We needed the eyes to glow. The final scene is extremely dramatic and scary, but since it was supposed to be very dark, we needed the dragons to pop alongside the darkness. We ended up using some push LED lights that could be controlled via remote control. Since the dragons were so fragile, we weren't sure if pushing on the eyes would cause damage.
5. Train the actors! We had to mount each head on its own stick, controlled by five actors.
Our end result wasn't perfect by any means, but we accomplished all that we had set out to do. Each dragon had its own personality (and their own names given to them by the cast) and this extra blood, sweat and tears made all of the difference to the climactic ending of the show.
THE OTHER MONSTERS
Along with the Tiamat, Agnes fights other monsters along the way. Many of the monsters—like Farrah The Fairie, the Evil Succubi Cheerleaders, Miles the Barbarian—were brought to life by costumes alone. However, some of the monsters, like the Tiamat, had to be brought to life using large props.
Vera The Beholder.
Beholders are large, terrifying, flying eyeballs with other eyeball stalks protruding from the top of their bodies. It is such an otherworldly creature, brought to life by Agnes's best friend, Vera. The Beholder also appears toward the end of the play, for a brief moment, before being killed by Agnes. We knew that we had to take a very silly, yet very literal approach to this monster.
All we used was:
a giant paper lantern
a plastic bowl
and a bike helmet.
The Gelatinous Cube.
Gelatinous Cubes are exactly what they sound like. The cube had to be easy to assemble & deconstruct with limited backstage space, it had to be able to fit 1 to 3 people inside, and we wanted to make it look exactly like the image you have in your mind right now.
All we used was:
stretchy green fabric
a sewing machine
and PVC pipe.
The original script for the show calls for the use of shadow puppets.
However, this rarely ever gets done.
Since the show is so mystical and magical (and we only had so much money), we wanted to use shadow puppets to elevate the story beyond what we could materialize in the space. Our faculty director actually knew a shadow puppet artist, so he came in and we had a workshop day of creating shadow puppets. We had the best time.
With his guidance, we were able to create most (if not all) of the shadow puppet stage directions in the script.
I was able to create all 5 Tiamat Heads & a tree that transformed into a dragon.
PHOTOSHOOT & PROMOTIONAL VIDEO
For every show, my theatre department typically does a promotional photoshoot.
It was unprecedented to do a promotional video.
If there were two things that were considered 'not cool' at my high school, it was 1) a play that had no singing or dancing, and 2) Dungeons & Dragons.
This play had both. Even though we knew how cool the show was, we had to appeal to our audience. We had to introduce character, plot and badassery.
We had to make them embrace the 'nerd.'
Besides our costumes, all we used for the shoot was a couple of LED Pars & a shit ton of baby powder.
Here's what we got:
POSTER & T-SHIRT DESIGN
In previous years, the UIL shirts had been pretty ugly.
Also in previous years, a UIL show poster had been nonexistent.
Though She Kills Monsters is an extremely popular contemporary play, it lacks a sort of unifying "logo."
To go along with the theme being that the D&D module is "home-brewed" in the late Tilly's composition book, I made the poster look like a piece of notebook paper. I also wanted every character and every actor to see themselves represented on the poster.
Using Canva to put together some silhouettes, our poster not only told you when & where our show was: it told you a story.
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