Sara Sawicki | Performer of the week

Rinska Carrasco-Prestinary, Jessica London-Shields, Morgan Maher, Sara Sawicki and Richard Traub in Buzz22 Chicago's She Kills Monsters.

Rinska Carrasco-Prestinary, Jessica London-Shields, Morgan Maher, Sara Sawicki and Richard Traub in Buzz22 Chicago's She Kills Monsters. Photograph: Michael Brosilow

Qui Nguyen’s She Kills Monsters is the highlight of this year’s Steppenwolf Garage Rep, a hilarious, emotional Dungeons and Dragons fantasy produced by Buzz22 Chicago. Buzz22 co-artistic director Sara Sawicki stars as scantily-clad demon warrior Lilith and sheepish high school student Lily, remarkably switching from comic exaggeration to restrained nuance in her dual role. A native of Cincinatti, Sawicki’s first taste of performance was singing as a child before discovering theater in high school. She studied musical theater at Northwestern University and started Buzz22 with other students in her class looking for an artistic home. That sense of home is captured in their name, which is a reference to the apartment number they would buzz to gain entry to Sawicki’s apartment in their early days. Sawicki talks to us about working with Steppenwolf, diving into the world of D&D, and the unique challenges of Nguyen’s script.

Can you tell us a little bit about the Garage Rep selection process? Why did Buzz22 choose She Kills Monsters?

The way that the Garage Rep works is you apply with a show in mind. And Steppenwolf’s theme this year is the idea of "the reckoning." They don’t say you exclusively have to apply with that theme in mind, but Scott [Weinstein], the director of She Kills Monsters, had come across this script and was super moved by it, and really excited about it, as were the rest of the company. It actually fit really well with the theme of the reckoning, so we were like, let’s pitch it. We know we’re young, but we’re really excited about what this opportunity could be for us and this opportunity to work with Steppenwolf and be mentored by them in that way—let’s see what happens. And so we pitched it with that script in mind and with that show in mind, and then you spend a lot of time talking about the company itself and where it wants to be headed and it just kind of all fell into place. I think we got really lucky.

What was the reaction among the company when Buzz22 picked? And how has it been working with Steppenwolf?

[Laughs] Just total utter excitement. The Garage Rep is this incredible opportunity not only to work with Steppenwolf and these great minds at that company, but also to get to know really well the other two companies that we’re in rep with. And it’s been really wonderful to get to be in meetings where all of these different personalities are at play, and you get to see a lot of different modes of working and operating and I feel like, as a co-artistic director of Buzz, I’ve really been pushed to think about best practices in terms of leading a theater company and have been really excited about the different things that I have learned. I think we’re very lucky because we were by far the least-known company and the youngest company that’s a part of this rep this year. And I think that Steppenwolf and Jacob Padrón, the Steppenwolf staff member who is the producer of the Garage Rep, just really saw something in us and took a chance on us and we’re just so grateful to him for seeing that and allowing us this opportunity, cause it’s been really, really wonderful.

Had you played Dungeons and Dragons before this show?

No, not at all. It’s funny, the cast is made up of some people who are huge D&D fans and know a lot, and some people who knew absolutely nothing. My only in to D&D was that there’s an incredible episode of Community that is a Dungeons and Dragons episode. But we were lucky. Kat Murphy of AlleyCat Comics was our D&D consultant for the show and so she came in and just threw down and gave us all of this background information and she basically went line-by-line through the script, and anytime there was any sort of D&D reference, she was like, “OK, so this is what that means.” She really gave us an incredible understanding and awareness of what this world is, and what this game is.

What was the biggest challenge about getting into the Lily/Lilith role? Beyond the obvious challenge of Lilith’s costume.

It’s funny. I feel like the real-life character, the Lily character, is someone who feels much closer to who I am as a person, but the thing that was tricky about her was she’s much more reserved in terms of what she shares with people and also whether or not she talks back to people. I cannot keep my mouth shut to save myself at all. And so that was something really fun to get to play with because that totally comes out when she’s in her fantasy character of Lilith. This idea that this teenage girl who feels a little lost and like she doesn’t have any control of her real life is totally all-powerful when she gets to play this fantasy game. And we talked a lot about whether or not Lily the person had actually played Dungeons and Dragons, or whether Tilly had just written this character for her as a way of showing Lily the person that she could be. And I think that was something I really got excited about in terms of figuring out those two different characters. And what was at stake, particularly for Lily. Because I think there is a part of her that wishes that she could be brave and courageous and speak her mind, and she just hasn’t figured out how to do that all the time yet. And that was something that was really exciting to play with.

This is a female-centric play but there are definitely some adolescent male gaze elements, particularly in the skimpy female costumes. How did you work to balance those juvenile male aspects with the more grounded story of female characters undergoing serious identity crises?

It’s tricky. When you actually start thinking about the layers of storytelling that are going on, you’re playing a game that was written by a 15-year-old closeted lesbian. Her story is grabbed by this 15-year-old high school boy who is straight, and he is doing his best to stay true to telling the story that she wrote, but it’s still ultimately being given through this guy’s gaze. I think those are some of the best moments in the script, when Qui hangs a lampshade on the fact that Chuck the Dungeon Master is there the whole time and that things are getting interpreted through him. Trying to find the truth, and trying to find the moments where Tilly’s voice really is ringing clear and where that isn’t so clear has been really interesting in terms of all the aspects of the show. And then I think in terms of Lilith and the costume—Rachel Goldberg, the costume designer, is just this incredibly talented person and I think that she struck a really good balance between that idea of the curves and the lines of a feminine ideal, but also letting them be really strong and powerful. Lilith isn’t wearing heels, because why would you want to put that character in heels where you can’t actually see this women walking around strong in posture and gait. There’s things like that that definitely acknowledge the fact that at the end of the day these women might be showing some skin, but they’re strong and they’re powerful and they’re capable in this still-feminine way. And I think that it’s exciting that you can be feminine but you can also still be very strong and powerful. I think that’s great.

One thing I found interesting was when I started thinking about Dungeon and Dragons character creation and the act of creating a character as an actor. Do you see any similarities between the two of them?

The idea of the give and the take—that was something that was really interesting to me when you think about. When Kat was walking us through character creation for Dungeons and Dragons, the idea that you know a character who would be 9s and 10s for certain characteristics would have to be lower in terms of other characteristics, because you can’t just be this immaculate being across the board. And so thinking about that balance of qualities and where everyone lies in that was really exciting. And thinking about what does it mean to be “chaotic evil.” Where do your motivations come from when that’s where you’re sitting in the spectrum of things was really fun and really exciting both as an actor who is creating a role and then also as someone who is engaging with this game and thinking about this game.

The effects in this show are fantastic. Do you get help with Steppenwolf with the budget? How much of the technical stuff is in the script?

The show was totally funded by Buzz. Steppenwolf helps with some preproduction costs and with some space things, but each of the companies are very much responsible for raising their budget and for raising money to produce the show and Buzz just got so lucky to have this incredibly badass design team on board for the show. We have designers who just blow my mind in terms of how creative and imaginative and resourceful they were in terms of making their budget stretch and creating the quality of a design that is within the show. The way that the script works, a lot of times Qui is super tongue-in-cheek with what he wants. So for things like the last battle of the show, his stage direction for that is: “It is the most epic battle ever to be seen on a New York stage.” That is a stage direction in the first script for that play. And so reading this script, you’re like, “How can I not be so freaking excited about getting to figure out this play?” There were certain things that were written in, and certain things that definitely carry strong impulses behind them from Qui, but things like getting to bring on some of the folks from Manual Cinema to do the shadow puppetry, that was all Scott’s idea. He was really excited about figuring out how to tell that first story that way, and then also our scenic designer William Boles was very excited about the idea of this kitchen being this magical place where things get to pop out and help tell the story. He and our technical director worked a lot to figure out how we could make that all work and how that can all fit together. I think in general we just got really lucky to have people and designers who were just super excited to explore and to play with this world and to figure out how to make these things happen.

Where do you see Buzz22 moving in the future?

That’s a question we’ve been talking about a lot. I think that we just want to continue finding exciting scripts that stay true to our mission that are about those moments of change and those moments of growth that occur at all times. I think that we’re excited to continue finding newer plays and shows that have to be told on stage versus any other medium. We’re really excited about finding things that have to be theatricalized. We look for things that are accessible not just for someone with a trained theater eye but someone who just wants to go and have a good night with people and share an experience together. And those are the things that really speak to us as a company.

Buzz22 Chicago’s She Kills Monsters runs through April 20 at the Steppenwolf Garage (1624 N Halsted, 312-335-1650). Read our review of She Kills Monsters.

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Laura Baginski, Editor (@TimeOutChicago)