SVPA’s ‘She Kills Monsters’ Explores Friendship, Loss and Acceptance

(from left) Aidan Dowell, Trevor Hettrich, Sierra Bivins.

Montclair High’s School of Visual and Performing Arts tackled “She Kills Monsters” last weekend, a drama-comedy play by Qui Nguyen set in Ohio in 1995. “She Kills Monsters” follows a small cast of characters, primarily focusing on Agnes Evans (Anna Gustavsen). The story begins with a tragic car crash, taking the lives of Agnes’ parents and her younger sister, Tilly (Emma McElwee). Agnes and Tilly were never extremely close, but after Tilly’s death, Agnes discovers Tilly’s journal and begins a quest to better understand her lost sister.

(from left) Ella Fine, Emma McElwee, Arden Phillips

In the journal, Agnes finds a guide for the role-playing adventure game, Dungeons and Dragons. Agnes comes to know that Tilly was a well-known Dungeons and Dragons player and recruits a “dungeon master”, Chuck (Bobby Axelrod) to help facilitate Tilly’s campaign.

While Agnes ventures into an unfamiliar world, she meets a supermodel elf, Kaliope (Ella Fine), a dominatrix warrior, Lillith (Arden Phillips) and powerful ogre, Orcus (Micah Abrams) who help her on her quest to defeat the three bosses in the game.

“She Kills Monsters” is comedic and poignant, tackling issues such as sexuality, friendship, loss and acceptance.

To get a look at the production from the perspective of the actors, Baristanet sat down with Arden Phillips (Lillith/Lilly) and Emma McElwee (Tilly) who play love interests in the show.

Arden Phillips:

What was it like portraying Lillith?

“The most challenging part about portraying Lillith was definitely her confidence. She is supposed to be a beautiful demon princess that is grounded slightly sarcastic but has a soft side when it comes to her father being the devil. For me the most challenging part was finding a balance of when to express her confidence and when to pull back and show the layers underneath the strong powerful demon. Being able to take both her strength and her softer side and morph the character I created was probably the most difficult but also the most fun.”

What decisions did you make when you were playing Lilly as opposed to Lillith? Was it hard to switch off between the two contrasting characters?

“When looking at both characters of Lilly and Lillith I started out the rehearsal process thinking of them as different characters. Giving both of them a different background and foundational story to grow off from the script. With Lilly she is a closeted shy girl that sticks to her homework and has a beard of the most jockish football player in the high school she attends attempting to cover up the fact that she is indeed a lesbian. The two characters are so different because Tilly made Lillith into what Lily always strived to be, which was a powerful and strong woman. It was very difficult to switch between two contrasting characters but I think being able to get into my actors neutral was an ability I will have to possess for the rest of my acting career.”

What was the most fun part about the show?
“The most fun part about the show was the intimacy of the cast. MHS productions I’ve been in previously are showcases or musicals. This was my first drama, so it definitely was a different experience to do a straight play and not have to sing. The cast really bonded like no other cast I’ve been in. We all really cared about the outcome of the show and trying to make the audience laugh in the end. We also did not have much time to put on this production so the outcome of the show was incredible and something I am very proud of.”

How did you approach the fighting scenes? How was that process?

“The fighting scenes were very difficult. Thanks to our incredible stage combat head Steven, the ability to feel safe and comfortable with the weaponry and fighting was first priority with him. As my weapon was a beautiful pick-axe, I learned quickly that all the swords and my pick-axe were real weapons – just dulled down blades. We worked on exercises of how to hold the weapon, but mostly the process was very up to us. I wanted to be filing my nails with the pickaxe before a fight and Steven allowed me to choreograph that into one of the fight scenes. The hardest thing about it was coming to Tech Week and the days of the show super early to run what’s called “fight call” which was practicing every fight scene before the show goes on so it’s fresh in our bones.”

What was your favorite line?
“It is so difficult to pick my favorite line of the show. The writing was truly so funny and pinpointing just one line is so difficult. If I had to choose one favorite line it would be ‘did you see a sign in front that said petting zoo? Then don’t you dare try to f*cking touch me!!'”

Emma McElweee:

What was the most challenging part about portraying Tilly?

“The most challenging part about playing Tilly was probably engulfing myself in the world of D&D and figuring out my relationships with each character in the play. Some of them are very clear in the script, but with characters like Farrah, for example, it was harder to draw a connection from the text. This did allow me to have some fun creating those relationships though; I was able to fill in the gaps with context that made it easier to exist in the scenes with each character and informed my performance (and theirs).”

What was the most fun part about the show?
“I have never done stage combat with weaponry before, and I absolutely loved it. It brings a different and elevated energy to the performance, and being able to fight with a real sword allowed me to feel like the warrior princess that I was portraying. I also loved the scenes where I was just able to watch and take in what was going on around me without taking part in the conversation at hand. These were my favorite moments of the show – where I was just able to listen and be affected in the moment. I looked forward to the scene where Agnes gave Lilly the letter every night, where I got to just sit behind them and find out information that changes Tilly’s perspective on everything. It was fun to be newly informed every night and see how that affected the rest of my performance each time!”

How did you approach the fighting scenes?
“I approached them like I would any other scene; I looked at my given circumstances and asked myself why I was fighting, who or what I was fighting for, and what motivated each action. The best example of this is the scene where my character fought Evil Gabbi, one of the evil cheerleaders. When I ran at her, that attack was charged with all of the pain her character put mine through in my life outside of Dungeons and Dragons. It was my character’s last chance to get back at her for all of her negative impacts on my life, so every jab had a meaning.”

How was that process?
“Learning the fight choreography was a blast. It was akin to learning normal dance choreography, but the outcome was awesome in a completely different way. Our incredible fight choreographer Stephen Buntrock came up with sequences that really fit our characters and allowed each fight to take on its own tone based on the context of the scene, which I thought was really cool.”

What was your favorite line?
“My favorite line was probably, “at least you’re getting to learn something about me,” as a response to Agnes’ homophobia and statement that she shouldn’t have to learn about my character’s sexuality through Dungeons and Dragons. It is charged with pent up emotion from years of Tilly being oppressed by her family’s lack of understanding, and being able to yell that was always freeing and kept me in the moment.”

Have you played a role like this before? What were your major successes?
“When I was in sixth grade, I played Peter Pan in Peter Pan at Gas Lamp Players, and I think Peter and Tilly are very similar. They are both very energetic and rockstars in their spheres, and they also both do some sword fighting! They did not give me a real sword in sixth grade though, so the metal weaponry in She Kills Monsters allowed me to really fall into the role of Tilly and exactly how she felt in each moment of the show, wielding virtually the same weapon she would wield in D&D. My biggest success would probably be the fact that Tilly allowed me to use my physicality to my advantage. I have always been good at channeling my characters through physical action, and with Tilly I was really able to use that skill to develop her persona.”

Anything else you’d like to add?
“I didn’t realize Tilly was my dream role until I began this production, but she absolutely is. I loved transforming into her every night. I will definitely miss this production and the awesome cast I got to perform with. Also, the winter drama at SVPA has a special place in my heart as it was the first SVPA show I got into (sophomore year, The House Of Blue Leaves). The drama is the reason why I am studying acting in college rather than musical theater, and I hope people continue to audition for the drama and discover the magic of diving head-first into a script and seeing where it takes them.”

Photos: Chris Joyce