Petaluma designer builds fantasy world for SRJC
During the coronavirus pandemic, live theater companies found themselves forced to present online productions that border on filmmaking.
But the Santa Rosa Junior College chose to rely on classic stagecraft rather than computer-generated imagery for its new virtual production of the Dungeons and Dragons fantasy “She Kills Monster: Virtual Realms.”
“I’m rebelling against the digital world we’re in,” said the show’s director, Leslie McCauley, chairwoman and artistic director of the junior college's theater and fashion department.
What she means is this: She’ll use current technology to share the performances online, but stick to old-fashioned theater skills to create the magic.
“We are a theater program, so it’s important that we provide an equivalent of the live theater experience,” she said.
Because the theater department is a training ground for students, it is vital for them to learn how to help create monsters, fantasy worlds and action scenes with costumes, masks, backdrops and stage direction, McCauley said.
“She Kills Monsters,” created by Vietnamese American playwright Qui Nguyen, made its debut in 2011 in New York City. Since the advent of the pandemic and shelter-in-place orders, Nguyen has rewritten the show for presentation on Zoom and subtitled it “Virtual Realms.”
The story follows young Agnes Evans, whose younger sister Tilly died in a car accident. As Agnes sort through her sister’s room, she discovers a scenario Tilly wrote for the Dungeons and Dragons role-playing game. Hoping to know her lost sister better, Agnes embarks on a quest into that fantasy world.
Featuring both live actors and various kinds of puppets, the show is the department’s fourth performed live online with cast and crew members working individually from their homes.
For SRJC student Kris Hakim, home means Singapore, where she grew up and where she has been participating by computer in the theater program during the pandemic.
The shadow puppets she created to represent some of the fantasy characters in “She Kills Monsters” stem straight from traditional Indonesian culture. The puppets are paper cutout figures placed between a light and a screen. Moving them creates the illusion of live action.
“This allows us to keep some handmade elements in the show,” Hakim said. “I’m Indonesian and grew up in Indonesia, so that is something I was familiar with as a kid.”
To provide backdrops for the show, Hakim also created a “crankie box.”
“A crankie box is a moving panorama inside a shadow box,” she explained. “The scenery is on a roll of hand-cut paper, and it’s lit from behind. As you crank the handle, the figures in front of the scenery seem to move.”
It’s no accident that the production employs old-fashioned techniques instead of relying on modern technology for its special effects. The role-playing game that inspired the show is also traditionally low-tech.
“The audience might be interested in the fact that we are doing this play in a different way than a lot of Zoom shows,” Hakim said. “We’re giving the audience a chance to experience within the play the game of Dungeons and Dragons itself. In D&D, you have pieces on a game board. This is bringing the game to life.”
While the crew and cast have learned to use Zoom to make the action seem more seamless, the production itself is all about acting and stagecraft.
“The makeup crew meets the cast over Zoom to coach the actors on how to apply their makeup. The actors are their own quick change artists,” director McCauley said.
“The monsters are represented either by costumes, headpieces or masks. The monsters are done live, because they are characters played by actors,” she added. “And some are hand puppets.”
Ariel Allen of Petaluma, a Santa Rosa Junior College alumna and guest artist for this show, designed the costumes, makeup, masks and hand puppets. For her, the concept of the play is very similar to cosplay, the popular pastime of dressing up as a character from a movie, book or video game.
“This show is almost a love letter to the local cosplay community of people who make their own costumes and role-play,” Allen said.
For a five-headed dragon character, Allen designed five different masks, each worn by a different actor. When they come together on Zoom, they all seem to be part of the same creature.
“The actors got their masks early, so they could rehearse their movements,” Allen said. “It’s all very collaborative.”
Guest artist Carla Pantoja of Santa Clara, who choreographed the fight scenes, only met with some of the actors once, and they were still socially distanced.
“For the most part, I met with everyone online. The actors set up places in their homes or garages, so they could fully move and act with the confines of Zoom screen boxes,” she said.
Pantoja coached the actors to react to movements taking place on other screens.
“In theater, you have to look at the stage and broader audience. With Zoom, you look the camera. I help the actors act out the fight for the camera. It’s almost like making a movie,” she said. “Sometimes the actor you’re fighting with is miles away, pretending to attack.”
Even the approach to sound design, which might seem immune to some of the physical challenges posed by a remote online production, had to be adapted for this show, said Justin Smith of the Santa Rosa Junior College theater faculty.
“The actors don’t hear what the audience hears,” Smith said. “I did some sound magic, imagining the sound dragons might make when they’re in pain. The actors don’t hear the sound distortion.”
So the cast was coached to react to sounds they didn’t hear.
“It’s a different way of collaborating,” Smith said.
It’s up to the production’s technical crew to fit all the pieces together during the live online presentations.
“The actors do not see what’s happening in the final production,” director McCauley said. “They just see what’s happening in the Zoom boxes. Sometimes we get a comic effect, but that’s OK.”
Director McCauley made sure everyone understood that the goal was something as close as possible to a live performance -- occasional mistakes and all.
“Leslie opened up the playbook,” Smith said. “It doesn’t have to be technically perfect.”