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She Kills Monsters - In Which I Was Straight-Up Gandalf

The only close-up of me from this play. The photographer literally left halfway through, smh.
Photo: Dan Ledbetter

Yep, that’s me, and it gets weirder. Not only was I straight-up dressed in a Gandalf costume, but I was on-stage for 100% of the entire play, usually just staring at the other actors, occasionally eating snacks. It’s by far the weirdest role I’ve played, and I loved every second of it.

I’ve written four previous articles about my time in my high school’s theater department, so if you want to read about my experiences with Wonderful Town, The Cherry Orchard, Julius Caesar, Ragtime, and And Then There Were None, then you can in the links I’ve included.


She Kills Monsters is a play written by Qui Nguyen in 2011, making it the most modern play I performed in by a long shot. The play itself is set in the year 1995 in the small town of Athens, Ohio. (where I’m going to college!) One year after her younger sister Tilly is killed in a car crash, Agnes Evans finds Tilly’s old Dungeons & Dragons notebook, and decides to play through her sister’s campaign in order to understand her better. While the play has a dark set-up with many touching moments throughout, the play is unmistakably a comedy, with tons of wacky D&D antics everywhere, as well as plenty of ‘90s references, specifically about ‘90s nerd culture.

There’s usually pretty strong competition when it comes to any major role, but I was pretty much going for it unopposed. The role was simply named “narrator,” and as I had considered audiobook narration as a possible career for some time, I had a pretty good voice for narration. Then, when I went up for audition, the director said to do my best Ian McKellen voice, and I had to throw all of that out the window. But luckily for me, I could do a pretty good Gandalf impression, making this the only audition where I was confident I would get the part, and I was right!

She Kills Monsters also had one of the most elaborate sets we’d ever put together, with a full mountain/ cave on one side of the stage to symbolize the D&D world and a gaming shop on the other side to symbolize the real world. I started the play with a long monologue explaining the story from the top of the mountain, and would periodically go back to update the story as well as deliver another monologue at the end, detailing what happened to each character after the play.


However, when I wasn’t speaking, I was sitting comfortably in a place where actors were rarely expected to perform. Behind the mountain was a small elevated hallway (I’m sure that’s not the terminology, but it’s the best name I could think of) for the crew to walk between the sound and light room and backstage, and occasionally for musicians to perform, but this time, myself and a few other actors performed there as well! We got a subtle green light to shine on my corner of the stage, and I would watch the entire play take fold every performance.

There would often be weeks where I wouldn’t be called in for rehearsal at all, because everyone in the play except me was working hard on fight choreography. But since I just sat on my lazy butt the whole time, I got to stay home. On the other side, once we were doing rehearsals of the entire performance, I was onstage for all of it, and even though I wasn’t doing much, it’s hard to stay in character for nearly two hours with only one short intermission.

It’s hard to tell in a photo from this far away, but I swear I’m being expressive!
Photo: Dan Ledbetter

I kept any gesture I made subtle so as to not overshadow the active performers, but threw in a few touches to keep my character’s presence relevant throughout the show. Whenever someone did or said something weird, (which, let me tell you, was a lot) I would dramatically raise one eyebrow. During one scene in which a bad smell is described (there wasn’t any actual bad smell, which was fortunate for us and the audience), I looked horrified and bent over to suggest I might throw up into the cauldron at my side. There’s one scene where Tilly suggests that another character sexually harassed her, only to reveal seconds later that she was just joking. Before the revelation that it’s a “joke,” I lower my head and relax my facial expressions, something I do every time there’s a serious moment that I would detract from. However, once she says she was kidding, I jerk my head up in a state of fury and disgust, overblown to get a laugh. This type of largely improvisational “silent acting” was really weird, but it was also a great experience for me to learn how to act in unconventional ways.


In fact, the assistant director and I actually got to workshop a lot of my skits in between scenes, and it was fun actually having input into my character’s actions. We agreed that the narrator was a bit of a goofball, so we thought of scenes to go with that. We played ‘90s music in between each scene, so I grooved along to “I Wish” by Skee-Lo. I also pulled out a Star Wars lunchbox at certain points to munch on snacks. The problem was that with the fake beard I was wearing, the twizzlers I ate would get caught, and I’d end up either having to dig through my mouth to extract the now saliva-covered beard, or just swallow parts of the beard, along with my pride. I did both on multiple occasions. By the end, the beard was looking a bit worse for wear, and when people asked me why, I responded that I likely ate most of it.

But that was only the second most disgusting thing I did during that performance. There was another skit where I would “roast” a marshmallow over a fake fire in the cauldron, and then take a bite out of it. The only problem was that there was nowhere to place the stick with the marshmallow except… on the floor, where people had been walking across. While that’s gross enough, there was one performance when I forgot to switch the marshmallow, and I had to take a bite out of a marshmallow that had a bite in it and had been on the floor for over 24 hours. This was suffering for one’s art in the truest sense.


Even though I had very little to do with this, I have to share this story: At one point in the play, Agnes finds out that Tilly was gay, and slowly finds out how much she was bullied for it. But she also discovers how Tilly was a hero to her friends, and how she had even started a budding romance before her unexpected death. It was a very touching scene that I definitely stayed as still as I could for, but that’s not why I’m sharing this. Someone in the audience was inspired by this, and made the decision to come out as gay to her parents. The fact that some play that we put on could have this effect astounds me, and really shows the importance of positive representation in all media.

This was the first play I performed in for my senior year at high school, and it was also our Cappies show, which is like the Oscars for regional high school theater. The play was nominated for best play as well as around 15 other categories, one of which was best featured actor, which I was nominated for! I didn’t get the actual award, but it was definitely cool to see such a weird and non-traditional role get recognized.

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