Sometimes make-believe is the best way to make a real-life difference.
That’s what a troupe of young actors are hoping to accomplish with their production of She Kills Monsters, a fantastical play featuring queer characters, nerd culture and meaningful conversations about sexuality. The show — which is being presented by the Young Company at Manitoba Theatre for Young People in the new year — follows the story of Agnes as she gets to know her late sister Tilly by playing through a Dungeons and Dragons game she designed.
"It really does talk about a lot of important issues," says 16-year-old company member Andrew Riley. "Whether it’s Tilly’s struggles or even how Agnes deals with the grief of her sister’s passing — it has a lot of things that are happening in teens’ lives that are not always talked about."
The character of Tilly is gay and she finds a sense of belonging in the world of D & D that’s often lacking elsewhere. For Riley and fellow performer Al Gilbert — both of whom are members of the LGBTTQ+ community — those kinds of experiences hit home.
"Tilly gets called slurs at school by, like, the mean girls and it may not be the most dramatic hate crime, but it’s realistic," Gilbert, 16, says. "Things that happen to her in the play have happened to me. I’m glad that my story is being told through her."
Riley agrees. "It’s set in a small town and that’s kind of where I grew up," he says. "You have to find your own little community to feel accepted sometimes."
For both actors, MTYP provides that kind of safe space. Young Company director Erin McGrath is glad to be back in the rehearsal studio with the group of 13- to 17-year-olds. Amid the pandemic, they managed to present last year’s show, The Laramie Project, online.
"(It’s) a collection of interviews, so being able to adapt it to Zoom didn’t feel like a disappointment," McGrath says of the production, which chronicles the 1998 murder of gay university student Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyo. "It also made me realize how articulate and smart and honest these young people are and just how politically minded they are."
The show’s success inspired her to seek out other plays with queer content, a genre that’s lacking in theatre generally and even moreso in theatre for young audiences.
"It’s definitely not the norm for this demographic," McGrath says. "I wanted to make sure they had the opportunity to share with their friends and family and for an audience of their peers. And also for them to work and perform a show that really reflects… what it’s like for them at high school — and that means a lot of good things and a lot of really bad things."
Just as the company was starting rehearsals for She Kills Monsters, which opens next March, the themes addressed in the fictional story were brought to life in a disappointing way. Earlier this fall, two Ohio high schools cancelled the production, one of which deeming it "inappropriate for our K-12 audiences."
When McGrath shared the news with the cast, "they had a huge emotional reaction."
The young actors decided to start a letter writing campaign to support the students who were set to perform and condemn the administrators’ actions.
"It really pains me, honestly," Riley says. "Because I know there’s probably a queer kid out there that’s like, ‘if the show is getting cancelled on the mere chance of a character being gay, then what’s wrong with me? What’s going to happen to me?"
"I haven’t heard any backlash from us doing it," Gilbert adds. "It was really eye-opening to see that so many people hate this show for no actual valid reason."
Gilbert is playing the role of Chuck, the show’s narrator and a dungeon master who helps Agnes play her sister’s game. Riley has been cast in the role of Orcus, a demon who steals the main character’s soul and provides a dose of comic relief. The young actors hope Winnipeg audiences enjoy the sword fights and adventure, while also picking up on the heavier themes of bullying and prejudice described in the play.
"What happened to Tilly in the show happens every day in Winnipeg," Gilbert says. "I want them to enjoy it, but keep that in mind."
"Kids suck," Riley adds, "But when you’re in that situation it does feel sometimes like the end of the world."
While Young Company shows are often attended by friends and family, McGrath hopes She Kills Monsters draws a bigger crowd.
"It feels bigger than just entertainment," she says. "It feels like an opportunity for a larger community to come out and say, ‘You did it and we’ve got your back.’"
Eva Wasney is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.