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Emotional expression shifted by the second as actors on the Natrona County High School stage rehearsed their award-winning play earlier this month.

Jessica Cowen’s character Agnes called a stop moments into her first Dungeons & Dragons game and demanded to know what was going on in a story that was supposedly created by Agnes’ dead sister.

“My party is a leather-clad dominatrix and an elvin supermodel?” she asked in impatient disbelief.

Cameron Allender, as comic shop owner Chuck, had offered to run the game for her.

“Dude, don’t look at me,” he said. “This is what your sister wrote.”

“This?” she yelled, as she motioned to the elf. “My sister wrote this?”

But she agreed to continue as she sighed and rolled her eyes.

Thanks to their victory in proscenium play at December’s Wyoming State High School Drama Competition, the NC students will represent Wyoming among the top one-act plays from every state at the 90th annual International Thespian Festival, which takes place June 24-29 in Lincoln, Nebraska. The anniversary means Natrona County High School Thespian Troupe No. 1, as the first chapter to join the International Thespian Society, is 90 years old too, NC drama teacher Zach Schneider said. But it’s the troupe’s first time presenting a one-act play at the festival.

The NC students will perform the show for chapters across the U.S. and a few other countries. The cast credits their state win to their connection with one another and stage chemistry paired with countless hours of work on the one-act cutting of “She Kills Monsters” by Qui Nguyen.

“I’m excited; it’s an opportunity to show the rest of the world what great talent we have here in Casper,” Schneider said.

Working with chemistry

The NC cast of “She Kills Monsters” started rehearsing in October for the state drama competition. They presented it for their hometown last month, and to keep the show fresh they continued to rehearse well after the usual six to eight weeks of a typical play run. They even planned a rehearsal for between the end of the school year and the festival.

Their performance at the International Thespian Festival isn’t part of a competition, but it’s a big deal.

“We are representing Wyoming single-handedly in the International Thespian Festival,” junior Cole Collins said. “What could be a bigger accolade for the state of Wyoming in terms of the theater realm?”

Then Schneider told them during a rehearsal this month that representatives of the Samuel French play publishing company plan to watch their show.

“So what that means is you’ve got to bring it,” Schneider said.

The longer time frame for the show has been challenging and rewarding, junior Jillian Wallace said.

“You come in every day or you come in every week, you get this attitude almost that, ‘Oh, I’ve got this, I’ve got this.’ And Schneider’s always taught us you can’t go into autopilot with this show because that’s when you lose it,” she said. “Our show is now ours; it’s not necessarily anyone else’s. And it’s our responsibility to make it as best as we can.”

The additional time has brought the cast closer, which in turn strengthens their relationships on stage, Wallace said. The cast working together well is one reason it did so well at in the state competition, Allender said.

“We’re able to bounce each other’s energy off one another,” he said. “And when we notice in our performance that an energy is different than it normally is, we are all able to recognize it and tune ourselves accordingly, so everything just goes smoother.”

The show is one-act version of the full-length “She Kills Monsters” about Agnes, who comes across her sister Tilly’s Dungeons & Dragons game notebook after Tilly’s death in a car accident. It was like a diary in role-playing game form, Schneider said.

Through the game, Agnes learns her sister was gay and bullied for it at school. Tilly comes alive on stage for Agnes as she plays the game, said Alyssa Hampton, who portrays Tilly. The cast received feedback at the state drama competition from judges, she said.

“It all kind of circles around to the heartwarming message and the lighthearted way in which it’s portrayed,” Hampton said, “and how there can just be such effective tone shifts in the small amount of time it’s presented in and, I don’t know, it’s got kind of an emotional core.”

The cast staged the show in front of an audience for the first time at state, Collins said.

“And I feel like we finally understood what we were trying to portray and what message we were trying to get out to everybody,” he said. “And most of all, and what I think really helped, is we had fun. That was a fun performance.”

Festival celebrities

The play is set in the mid-’90s, the time when Schneider was in high school.

“I think the message is important. (It’s) a time where a lot of the stuff that I was made fun of for liking is now cool, and theater is also a place where the outsiders congregate,” Schneider said, “and so I wanted to do a play that spoke to my students in their voice, and this one does that.”

The show is an acceptance story, said Hampton, whose character, Tilly, delves into the game as way to express and cope with her struggles. Allender and Collins play D&D, and Hampton said the play got her into the game in real life.

“Honestly I just like that it shows a more realistic aspect of nerd culture that is brought on by Dungeons & Dragons,” Allender said.

Wallace attended the International Thespian Festival last year, which deepened her passion for theater, she said. The festival features workshops and performances, including a full-length production of “She Kills Monsters” that cast members look forward to. Some students are competing in individual events.

“It’s just so nice to go and meet a bunch of people who all like the same thing as you even though it seems kind of unconventional to be in theater,” Wallace said. “And it was just nice to be not the minority. You’re around 5,000 kids who all love the same thing you do and you feel not so small.”

Even coming from the least populated state, the Thespian Troupe No. 1 T-shirts make them celebrities, she said. People want to take photos with them and find out where they’re from.

With as much fun as the state competition was, Collins hopes for a packed house in Lincoln.

“I’m excited to go out and see a bunch of faces.” he said. “... It’s going to be a good time.”

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Star-Tribune reporter Elysia Conner covers arts, culture and the Casper community.

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