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Monster puppets take the stage on UT's campus. Here's how they're made

'Dungeons and Dragons' comes to life on UT's campus in this new play. Fifteen monster puppets were built by hand for the show.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — If you like puppets, monsters or comedy, if you have a sister, play 'Dungeons and Dragons' or just wanna see a great play — we have just the thing for you.

'She Kills Monsters' is now playing in the Carousel Theatre at the Clarence Brown Theatre on UT's campus.

"She introduces us to the world of 'Dungeons and Dragons,' and all of the dragons and monsters that she fights and kills are puppets," said Morgan Matens, puppet designer for this production.

She designed 15 monster puppets, which were then built from scratch for the student actors to use.

That's in part because it's not possible to buy puppets of giant five-headed dragons, beholders, pit fiends or mimics on the internet.

"When you make a costume for an actor, they complain that it makes them look fat, or blah, blah, blah — you can stab them with pins," said Matens. "Puppets do not complain. You can put them in anything. They look great in it, and they're happy to wear it on stage."

These puppets are arguably the stars of this production. While Matens designed them, she didn't work alone.

"There are just all of these magical nerds on the internet who make all of this wonderful fan art," she said.

Matens consulted D&D fans and scoured online fan art to come up with the designs to make the fabled monsters become reality.

Credit: Morgan Matens
Puppet designs brought to life for the Clarence Brown Theatre's production of 'She Kills Monsters.'

"I don't think the process will be done until the show closes," said Christy Fogarty, the prop shop supervisor.

She's the one tasked with bringing Matens' designs to life.

"Each puppet has a certain trick it has to do or a certain movement it has to do when people are wearing them," said Fogarty. "So there's a lot of different things you have to take into account."

From handheld fairies to giant monsters two people tall, the puppets are all very diverse.

Matens and Fogarty worked for over a year to make all these characters. From running to buy fabric to trying new materials when ideas failed, Fogarty said she can't even guess how many working hours have gone into the process.

A favorite monster of the two is called a kobold. They usually live in caves with their draconic lords, creating traps and running away from fights with adventurers.

"They're kind of like a dragon dog lizard," said Matens. "They speak Draconic."

Since that's not a real language, the student actors who play the Kobolds got to come up with the language.

"I speak fluently," said Matens. "We learned it in the rehearsal process."

Students in UT's MFA program helped build the Kobolds during a weeklong workshop, as there are several in the play.

It was a nice change of pace from the prop shop's usual tasks.

"We do a lot of upholstery and furniture, you know, making curtains," said Fogarty. "We don't get a lot of opportunity to kind of just blow it out and use our mad skills to make something, and so it's really cool."

Most puppets are built from scratch, but some are formed from old Halloween decorations — like the lich. These undead, cunning spellcasters are known for pursuing immortality, storing their souls in a jar so that if adventurers beat them in a fight, they can resurrect and fight them again.

For the puppet, picture a skeleton from the ribs up on the end of a long pole. The jaw is operated from a mechanism lower down on the puppet.

"It also has a light that comes on to glow from within to represent the fact that he's eating souls," said Matens.

If you encounter him, he most likely won't eat your soul — but don't take any chances.

All the monsters in 'She Kills Monsters' are from the D&D universe, but you don't have to play the game to enjoy their performances.

"Just because there are puppets in the show does not mean that this is a children's show," said Matens. "This is actually a really fun, mature audience show. So everyone should come but don't bring your kids."

'She Kills Monsters' runs from March 23 through April 10.

You can purchase tickets online here.

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