By George Basler
Brian Gillespie is a New York City-based director with a long list of credits and a website that says, “His work encourages audiences to transcend the realms of realism and actively engage their imaginations to co-create the theatrical event.”
That’s the approach the 53-year-old director has brought to Binghamton University as he directs a production of the play She Kills Monsters, which opens Thursday, May 5, in the Watters Theater.
The play by Qui Nguyen takes place in both the real world and the imaginary game world of Dungeons and Dragons as it tells the story of a young woman, Agnes, who is grieving the deaths of her parents and younger sister in a car crash.
When Agnes discovers her sister’s Dungeons and Dragons notebook, she finds herself catapulted into the imaginary world that was her sister’s refuge. In the process, she learns things about her sister that she never knew, including how the sister struggled with her sexuality and with being bullied in school.
“She comes to terms with the loss of her sister and comes to terms with the sister she didn’t really know,” Gillespie said.
Nguyen is a playwright, TV and film writer, and artistic director of his own theater company, Vampire Cowboys Theatre Company, that is known for its use of multimedia in its productions. Gillespie said he was drawn to She Kills Monsters, because “I tend to gravitate to plays a little beyond realism that lend themselves to heighten theatricality.”
She Kills Monsters fits that bill as it combines lighting, sound, costumes, puppetry and stage combat in a way beyond a conventional show, said Gillespie, who was hired as a visiting director to stage the play.
Since She Kills Monsters was first performed in 2011, it has become one of America’s most popular shows with 797 productions, performed or planned, between 2013 and 2021, according to a 2020 New York Times article. Of these, 144 were done by amateur companies, and a whopping 652 were done by colleges and universities, the Times reported.
Gillespie thinks the play’s popularity stems from the fact that it deals with issues that many young people can identify with: feeling like an outsider, coming to terms with your sexuality, coping with bullying.
“These things resonate with younger theater makers and younger theater goers. Plus, they’re packed into a show with lots of action, humor and irreverence,” he said.
A similar point was made by Mary Chattin, a Binghamton University junior who is playing Agnes. The play deals with challenges many people, especially teenagers and young adults, face “with humor and geekiness” and “has moments that will resonate with everyone,” she said.
Much of the play’s action takes place in the world of Dungeons and Dragons as Agnes embarks on her own adventure to play the game her sister designed. She battles a series of monsters and generally gets to act like “a bad ass,” Gillespie said. The climax involves a choreographed battle scene with five large dragons, manipulated by five actors.
Audience members will have to play along with the action, fill in the blanks and use their own imaginations as the play progresses, Gillespie said.
Chattin has acted in two other productions while at BU. She has played Dungeons & Dragons, and is a fan of the game, but was not aware of She Kills Monsters before auditioning. Now, she calls Agnes “a dream role.”
“She is incredibly relatable and has moments of weakness and strength that really drive home how human she is. She is perfectly imperfect, and her character arc is phenomenal to play as an actor,” Chattin said.
While She Kills Monsters has proven to be popular, it has also attracted some controversy because of its presentation of LGBTQ issues. During the play, Agnes finds out her deceased sister may have harbored romantic feelings for a female friend.
Last year, Hillsboro High School in Ohio drew national attention when it canceled a production of the play a month before it was scheduled to open, because it “was not appropriate for our K-12 audience.”
Gillespie called this opposition “unfortunate,” noting the play deals in a compelling way with issues that are relevant to young people’s lives. “Through my lens I don’t see the controversy,” he said.
Likewise, Chattin said the play’s message revolves around relationships and accepting people for who they are.
Gillespie said another reason he was drawn to She Kills Monsters is because the play contains strong women characters. Eleven of the 18 students in the BU production are women. Gillespie also made a point to hire a female expert as the play’s fight coordinator. Jacqueline Holloway is a certified teacher and instructor with the Society of American Fight Directors and Fight Directors of Canada.
She Kills Monsters is a complicated show to direct because of the stage combat and technical elements, Gillespie said. He credited the actors with being “a great bunch of students who are willing and game to jump in.”
There’s been “some definite blood, sweat and tears” shed during the rehearsal period, Chattin said humorously, but it’s been worth it, she added, declaring, “Getting to fight D&D monsters to some epic music. It’s the pinnacle of fun.”
IF YOU GO: She Kills Monsters will be performed next weekend (May 5-8) with shows at 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday and at 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday in the Watters Theater of Binghamton University’s Fine Arts Building. Tickets are $10 to $20. They are available at 607-777-2787, at the Anderson Center box office or by visiting www.binghamton.edu/theatre/
The Department of Theatre strongly encourages that audience members wear masks at performances.