Roll Die and Strike: The Fight Choreography of 'She Kills Monsters'

Thor Mandanis (center, with bow) surrounded by the cast of She Kills Monsters. Credit: Sean Devare

Thor Mandanis (center, with bow) surrounded by the cast of She Kills Monsters. Credit: Sean Devare

[Contains discussions of physically violent content.]

Two sisters, two worlds: a quest fraught with glory, discovery, newfound kinship, and an incongruous amount of queer female empowerment for its setting. You are in Athens, Ohio. It’s the mid-’90s, and the nerdy nostalgia doesn’t let you forget it. If this sounds like every teenage lesbian’s imagination-fueled fantasy draft of a Dungeons and Dragons tabletop scenario, that’s because it is.

In Qui Nguyen’s sweeping, high-energy caper She Kills Monsters, Agnes and Tilly Evans could not be more different. Straight-laced Agnes (Tessa Dougherty ‘20), “the girl who never left home,” teaches high school English and lives an excitement-free life. Tilly (Parker Sela ‘21)’s life, however, bursts with the supernatural and spectacular. Her role-playing games are her window into adventures that reach as far as her wildest dreams, replete with faeries, she-demons and beasts galore. Worlds that Agnes never cared to learn about.

That is, until the real-life Tilly dies unexpectedly, leaving Agnes with her old DnD module and only one choice: to spend all her time wondering what once filled her sister’s mind, or to play the game and find out.

Without spoiling too much of SLC Mainstage’s second winter show, rest assured that the titular “she” does, indeed, kill monsters. Lots of them.

To choreograph the many dynamic battles that Tilly, Agnes, and the rest of their motley crew (Scout Pertofsky ‘20, Julliette Stripling ‘21, Zhe Pan ‘18) engage in, directing team Sean Devare MFA ‘18 and Glenn Potter MFA ‘19 recruited Thor Mandanis ‘18, who has spent over seven years of her life honing the techniques of what she considers an “art of visual storytelling.”

“Physical violence on stage is the...visual manifestation of conflict at its most intense,” she said.

Mandanis belongs to the Society of American Fight Directors as an advanced actor combatant. She has studied many forms of martial art, working on adapting them for stage performance. Between all this, she writes plays: you may have heard of last season’s Rat Park, which focused on queer Millennials in the Hudson Valley.

Much of what she’s learned from combat makes it into her own work.

“I think when we talk about conflict between two characters, there’s a certain point in a conflict where words stop being enough,” Mandanis said. “In a musical that’s usually the point at which the characters burst into song. In the kind of theater that I tend to do, that’s usually the point at which two characters fight.”

“You can learn so much about a character by the way they fight, and...about two characters between the way that they interact physically,” she adds.

When fights happen on stage, we’re talking about massive stakes, according to Mandanis, which makes stories more compelling. But what about heavily stylized fights created in an entirely imaginary world, which—as in movies—often de-emphasizes their impact?

“Stakes can absolutely be inlaid into a script...but I also think that stakes are something that actors and directors can find within their individual projects,” Mandanis said. “I think what’s interesting about the way that that works in She Kills Monsters is that Qui [Nguyen]’s script does a really good job of showcasing the way [that] the fights we have in the game are inherently tied to the conflict that we’re having in real life.”

For instance, in one fight, Tilly is targeted by demonic representations of her high-school tormentors (Kileen McLeary ‘20 and Lily Welsh ‘21).

“Agnes is seeing this manifestation of her sister being victimized,” Thor said. “And [she’s saying], ‘Okay, I couldn’t save my sister when she was alive. Can I save her here?... Can I stop the people that were hurting her?’”

Whether choreographing gritty hand-to-hand combat or a martial art-based battle with swords and magic staffs, Mandanis approaches her job with a balance of realism and thrill. She also tries to avoid that “goofy thing that they do in Hollywood where they really like to have every character get hit like fifty times and just keep getting back on up.”

Obviously, fights can’t happen at real-life speed—they’d be impossible to see. Timing is also key.

“You can’t show the audience everything,” Mandanis said. “You’ve got to give them enough that they get excited and then...stop before they get bored.”

She adds, “I’d rather a character get punched once and have the whole audience gasp than do it ten times and have them feel nothing. So that’s kind of my approach to length.”

Nguyen’s rich script ensures that Mandanis and the actors of She Kills Monsters get to work with pretty much every fantasy weapon imaginable: knives, spears, battle-axes, staffs, and swords in the realm of broadsword and katana. The fighting style, developed by Mandanis herself, incorporates several martial art forms and moves inspired by era-specific TV shows like Samurai Jack.

The production also incorporates puppets (a process headed by co-director Glenn Potter), which Mandanis has not yet encountered in relation to stage combat but has embraced with vigor.

“I’ve been really excited about...doing what I suppose is functionally multimedia stage combat,” she said. “If the character slashes the sword, you can have the monster split in half onstage...the possibilities become so dynamic.”

She Kills Monsters goes up February 15-16 at 7pm and February 17 at 2pm in Open Space. Look out for SLC’s next Mainstage productions, “Shoot, Don’t Talk” and “Rebecca,” February 22-24 in the Cannon.

Peck Tracshel '20