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She Kills Monsters Car/Claw: Using Puppets to Convey Deep Emotional Content

Jay Lasnik • Answer BoxOctober 2020 • September 30, 2020

She Kills Monsters at Penn State University’s Playhouse Theatre (Photo: William Wellman)

In June of 2019, I was onstage at Penn State University’s Playhouse Theatre with large pieces of foam core and sections of PVC pipe. I was there with two directors, a dramaturg, a stage manager, a ‘dragonographer’ and about 10 students. We were putting the director’s vision onstage for the first time. The concept of the climax of a little show you may have heard of, She Kills Monsters (SKM) which ran in October 2019. 

It seems like every high school and college was doing SKM. In every production, Agnes, the Ass-Hatted, the surviving sister of a family that was killed in a car accident, fights a five-headed Tiamat dragon. To the creatives on our show, this status quo climax was lacking, and it was cliché. When I asked Co-Director Sebastian Trainer about the origin story behind the car/claw he said, “All the monsters in the play relate to revelations Agnes has about her sister Tilly’s life. For us, then, the dragon—as the final monster—must also be the most difficult personal challenge for Agnes to face in relation to her sister’s life. We recalled in the plays’ prologue, when the family car crashed, it was seized by the dragon who ‘flies away with the broken vehicle’. This told us that the car crash which killed Tilly—and the Tiamat dragon—were the same thing. Facing that dragon, for Agnes, must somehow visually evoke her battling against her own survivor’s guilt. Overcoming this monster was the hero’s means of purging herself, and of releasing her sister’s ghost.”

Bekah Achuff’s design

All the puppets in the show were designed by 2020 BFA graduate Bekah Achuff, who was also the lead artisan. It was up to Achuff to create a multi-piece puppet that entered the stage as a car then broke apart to represent the talons of the Tiamat. The pieces needed to be light but strong and survive a week of tech and a two-week run. They needed to sweep and cut the air, to stomp the floor and push and pull Agnes. When I interviewed Achuff about her own process, she said, “I learned a lot about managing my time and the importance of self-care, especially small acts of self-care like going for a walk, playing with my German Shepard, etc. The main thing I learned is communication skills so that everyone on the show and I were all on the same page; so that the image in my head would be realized properly. Second, I learned that planning is key. I certainly learned more through this experience than any class could have taught me.” 

As the Props & Puppets Supervisor at PSU—and as a theatergoer, too—I know the value to the audience of stage items that are not only a thing, but that are characters unto themselves that convey emotional content. It’s one thing to have a heightened conflict onstage with a prop, it’s another thing altogether to imbue that prop or puppet with a history all its own, and with an intention. What does this character not only want, but the real theater question is always: what does it need? Couple that with what I call the “Law of Props,” Tell the Story. The answers to these questions and mandates from the script informed the design and usage of the car/claw puppet.

She Kills Monsters at Penn State University’s Playhouse Theatre (Photo: William Wellman)

In this story, the car/claw needs to prevail for its survival. It’s the evil in the story; it feeds off the misery of others. It can flourish only if it’s allowed to ‘live in the head’ rent-free of its victim. ‘Unresolved personal business’ I call it. But Agnes has to kill the car forever to put her sister and her sister’s small cohort of fellow Dungeons & Dragons warriors at peace. Until she actually deals with this tragedy head-on, she will not be able to get on with her life. After the car/claw puppet almost completely dominates her she pulls that last hidden bit of true love from within, raises her sword, screams from the bottom of her soul, defeats the car/claw with a mighty plunge into the fog-laden, bright white light-filled moving box that holds her sisters’ ‘geeky’ belongings. The dragon’s claws fall to the ground, dead. Her sister who has been the ‘hero’ throughout the story, now admits that it was Agnes all the time who she looked up to, who was the stronger one. The two sisters, one alive, one the spirit of the dead, hug, forgive, and love. (Cue the Kleenex!). Agnes, once a weak victim is now a strong survivor.

Dragonographer Michele Dunleavy reminded me of a communal ‘light bulb moment’ in tech: “For me the golden moment was when I realized, due to the poles and space inside the car, that the actors were not going to be able to line up the pieces well enough to make a recognizable car shape. Letting go of that idea, I positioned the actors as the car would have looked post-impact. It shifted the emotional landscape and immediately raised the stakes. I remember all of us looking at it from the house and going ‘yeah, that’s it’!”

Dramaturg Jeanmarie Higgins told me, “The dragon is Agnes’ grief. The idea that it is an actual thing that forms, breaks apart, atomizes itself and is then vanquished—says everything about Agnes’, task—the psychological task of integrating her grief into the ‘story of herself’.”

For me, this project was a home run in all ways possible. I think we all crossed a bridge when it comes to telling the story in theater and in the process, we may have slayed a few personal dragons of our own, too. 

Penn State University’s Playhouse Theatre production of She Kills Monsters creative team included Co-Directors Sebastian Trainor & Erik Johnson; Puppets Designer: Bekah Achuff; Dragonographer Michele Dunleavy; Set Designer Ryan Douglass; Lighting Designer: John Kaufman; Co-Costume Designers: Charlene Gross & Ameila Callen.

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