Jackie Kim is training for a career in acting and stunts. Photo by Shuran Huang for EdSurge.
BALTIMORE — The doppelganger swaggers, taunting the party of friends who must pass him to continue their quest. Agnes, the least skilled fighter, desperately swings both her wooden sword and shield in the monster’s direction, trying not to notice that he has shape-shifted into a brawny caricature of her own boyfriend. Agnes slashes at him, then slashes again. She bashes him with her shield. She swings her sword at his head. Then she slices the weapon down through the air—and misses. The handsome monster jumps out of the way.
Their swords clash. Agnes aims again for the doppelganger’s head. She thrusts her shield toward him. He aims for her head. She cuts at his legs. The doppelganger slices her twice, and she recoils from the blows. When she swings her sword again, he counters with his own, managing to throw her weapon aside.
Now Agnes is afraid. She fends off several blows with her shield, barely managing to push the monster away.
“You can’t hurt me,” the doppelganger crows. “I’m wearing armor.”
Agnes, protected only by a crooked Viking helmet, spies a weak spot. She kicks the monster in the crotch. As he crumples, a quest partner tosses Agnes her sword. Summoning her strength, she slashes the blade across the monster’s throat. He falls.
From the second row of the theater, this battle looks terrifying. But the chaos is actually carefully choreographed. Before tonight’s show, the actors met to rehearse their moves, encounters designed to require little actual contact. Each performer consented to every slash, tumble and thrust.
“Safety and protection is always number one, no matter what,” says Jackie Kim, the actor who plays Agnes.
Jackie studies acting at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. She specializes in fight scenes and stunts, which she performs throughout the university’s production of “She Kills Monsters.” It’s a play about people—alive, dead and imagined—who feel underestimated and misunderstood. They navigate fantastical physical hazards—killer fairies, succubi, bugbears—hard human emotions—grief, fear, guilt—and classic high school drama.
The hero of the play, an ordinary adult named Agnes, sets off on a Dungeons & Dragons quest that her teenage sister wrote before she died. The journey is not smooth. Agnes falls down—a lot. She cowers as her companions charge ahead. She nearly dies, until a fellow quester revives her with a spell, giving her a second chance.
“In the beginning, she sucks,” Jackie says. “Which is great, ’cuz that literally shows a character-development story of my life.”
Jackie rehearsing for “She Kills Monsters” at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
Photo by Shuran Huang for EdSurge.
Like Agnes, Jackie is an adult navigating a world designed for adolescents. The 29-year-old has returned to college after her first attempt didn’t work out. The journey has not been smooth. Having strayed from the prescribed higher education path, she nearly lost her way, until she learned to trust her own abilities and made her own second chance.
Now, Jackie is training for a career in acting and stunts. It’s risky compared to other quests she might have chosen. But she’s equipping herself with martial arts and theater training. She’s gathering a supportive community of creative friends.
And in case all that falls through, she’s forging college credits into chainmail tough enough to withstand blows from life’s many monsters.
“As an actor, I know for sure I’m not gonna get a role every single day,” Jackie says. “I have to sustain myself by protecting myself with a degree.”
On a Friday morning in April, light streams through the windows of a big, bare classroom. Half a dozen students quietly stretch, pressing their limbs to the floor or against the walls.
A professor emerges with a bag stuffed with cushions. The students pair off and gently toss pillows back and forth. Jackie bends her knees deep over her combat boots—a compressed coil of energy—then rises quickly, releasing a pillow with her hands thrust above her head.
It’s a warm-up exercise for an upper-level theater course called “Extreme Scenes.” The seminar teaches students how to portray violence, sex and strong emotion with nuance and control, respecting the dignity and boundaries of audiences and fellow actors.
The class meets in a gleaming performing arts center at the top of a hill. From outside the building, Jackie points toward the long flight of steps that descends to the rest of campus. Down there is where, at 19, she had studied to become a nurse.
That was a time of expensive science textbooks and long lectures in big halls. The vibe, Jackie says, was “sit your ass down.”
To a young woman who hated staying still, it hadn’t felt natural. In high school, Jackie had known she wanted to dance, to travel, to act. She had told this to her mother.
“And she was like, very discouraging—in the best Korean mom way possible,” Jackie recalls. “So basically I had this mindset: OK, so I can’t do anything entertaining or in the entertainment industry. I can’t do things that my parents cannot approve, so to speak.”
The warm-up changes. Students use body language to silently direct each other around the room.
Jackie locks her gaze on her partner’s outstretched hand. When the hand moves left, Jackie slides left. When the hand dips, Jackie sinks. She tosses herself like a rag doll strung with a piece of wire.
Jackie studied nursing because her mother had suggested it as an acceptable career path. Jackie was good at science, and she liked the idea of taking care of people. She enrolled at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County after high school, planning to eventually transfer to the University of Maryland School of Nursing.
In college, Jackie failed some classes and had to retake them. She changed her major again and again, searching for a science track that felt like a good fit. She remembers spending most of those nights in tears.
“As much as I tried, and as much as I pushed through it—kept motivating myself,” Jackie says, “my heart just wasn’t quite right there.”
The students arrange themselves in two rows. The professor speaks eight lines from “The Lover,” a play by Harold Pinter. Students recite the words, tossing them back and forth like pillows.
Do you ever think about me at all … when you’re with her?
Oh, a little. Not much. (Pause.) We talk about you.
You talk about me with her?
Occasionally. It amuses her.
How … do you talk about me?
Students pair off to turn those lines into a scene. Each couple’s conversation should be intense, the professor advises—the space between the characters alive with conflict.
“If you don’t get what you want,” the professor says, “you’re going to break up, bust apart.”
In 2017, Jackie took board exams required to become a nurse. She did well on one. She failed the other. After six years of trying—memorizing medical terms, doing clinical work, taking courses at a community college—Jackie took a break from higher education. She walked away with an associate degree and a bruised spirit.
“When something doesn’t match with your soul, with your intention of living, with your heart—it just doesn’t quite work out. And I felt that for a long, long time,” she says. “I struggled a lot with my mental health, thinking, ‘I have to do this. If I don’t do this, I’m not gonna make money. I won’t fit into society, or they won’t accept me, or they won’t take me seriously.’”