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BWW Interview: Lee Sunday Evans on RIDDLE OF THE TRILOBITES

BWW Interview: Lee Sunday Evans on RIDDLE OF THE TRILOBITES


Obie Award winner Lee Sunday Evans (In the Green, Dance Nation) is currently directing Riddle of the Trilobites, now playing at the New Victory Theater through February 23! A new musical developed by CollaborationTown, Riddle of the Trilobites is a for-all-ages allegory about climate change, brought to life through eye-catching puppetry.

Riddle of the Trilobites features book and lyrics by Geo Decas O'Donnell and Jordan Seavey, music and lyrics by Nicholas Williams, and puppetry design by Amanda Villalobos.

We spoke to Lee Sunday Evans about the process of bringing this unique new musical to life. See what the innovative director had to say below!


What was it about Riddle of the Trilobites that appealed to you as the next project you wanted to take on?

When we started, it was really just a blank canvas. There was no title or even sense of what the show would become. I've been working with CollaborationTown for almost 10 years - it's my original artistic family. So, the appeal from the start was to make something from scratch with this brilliant group of artists who always challenge and delight and inspire me. When we got approached by New Victory about making a show for young audiences, I was excited about how our sensibility and humor would interact with this prompt. And - New Victory said there was a dearth of really exciting pieces about science - and that made me very excited because I knew that Jordan and Geoffrey, as writers, would come up with all kinds of clever and unexpected ways that science could be theatrical and imaginative.

The show is an allegory about climate change - was this a subject you had personally been looking to take on in your work?

I think climate change is a notoriously hard subject to tackle in a narrative form. It's so big in scale and in drama, in story - in a traditional sense - you need characters, narrative and conflict - with climate change, the narrative is so big and the conflict so multi-faceted. So, I have always wanted to find more ways that theater could effectively tackle this topic. We ultimately made a story that is built around a very classic hero's journey structure, following a clear protagonist who has to grapple with how climate change affects her life and the immediate circumstances she's living in.

How much about puppetry did you know going into this process?

Only the bare bones! And - we had no idea how to make these creatures into puppet form. How should they look visually? How should they work, how should they be puppeteered? These puppets don't have some of the traditional elements of puppets - for instance, arms and legs. All this meant that we really had to experiment with how to create the visual and expressive language of the puppets as we conceived of them.

What was the audition process like? Were the actors you cast performers who worked specifically with puppets, or was that something they all had to learn in rehearsals?

Most of the performers are longtime collaborators but we met a few of the actors through a casting process. Most of them had not worked with puppets before. Richard Saudek has a lot of clown and physical theater training - this was his way into the puppeteering and his work with early incarnations of the Trilobite puppets really shaped our understanding of what was most exciting and effective in terms of the design and the story-telling of the puppets. Sifiso Mabena had some great puppetting experience, and most importantly she brought a fierce love of puppets to the start of the process.

I would love to hear about the process of finding and creating the movement for the puppets.

The movement of the puppets and the staging of how the actors moved is very connected in this piece. It turned out that there was a kind of vaudeville rhythm to some of the sections that really brought the puppets to life and made the story-telling really clear and bold and muscular. A few tiny details that were really fun to discover - Aphra and Judomiah doing little shakes, so you'd see the feathers along the sides of their body move, sometimes read as them being scared and other times as if they are excited. The eye focus for the puppets was always the most fundamental part of the puppeteering. Sometimes the puppets look at each other, sometimes they look out to share their thought with the audience. But the soul of the puppet, the magic thing that sparks your imagination to see the life in the puppets, is all the small, small ways that you see their eyes move - this is how you activate seeing the puppet think in real time, take in information and then have the impulse to respond, to say something back to their scene partner or to the audience.

What was the process of working with the design team?

Well, Deb O is an absolute genius, and we are lucky to call her our long-time friend and collaborator. She started working with us very early on and her big passion was for how we could use the things we hate that are in the ocean, to remind us about how much we love the ocean. So, she made set pieces and costumes out of items that we know are polluting our ocean. Collaborating with someone as passionate and rigorous and imaginative as Deb is a real joy - she challenges us to think about the story in new ways, and she brings in new ideas that surprise us and push the whole project forward. Eric Southern, the lighting designer is also a long time collaborator and a deeply brilliant artist. In the first run of this show at the Flint Rep Theater, Eric and I worked together to find the vocabulary for the show - a combination of how the lights look aesthetically, and how they support the story. Eric is such a smart story-teller, and he's playful in the best way - one day, he sat at the lighting console wearing the Isotelus Rex puppet, being a Trilobite while he was working. Katherine Nelson made the jumpsuits - a simple, bold idea that took a lot of nuanced detail work around color and fit and making something uniform that still has individuality in it.

Each creative process for a show is undoubtedly different, but what were some of the challenges you came across specific to this show that you'd never had to think about while working on previous shows?

The BIG challenge was - how to make such a highly verbal show work with puppets. The humor and heart of the book and the lyrics is rooted so much in verbal wit and playful, smart language. We decided very early on that the puppets would not have 'mouths' that would move every time they speak. So, we created puppets that were more like masks and then worked very hard to craft the dialogue and the lyrics so that the rhythm and cadence of it was written in a way that was effective and exciting for the puppets to express.

What has been the most meaningful part for you of working on Riddle of the Trilobites?

Working with my longtime dear collaborators. Seeing the piece evolve from the very, very tiniest shred of an eccentric idea into a full blown musical. Also, doing the show for theaters full of young people means an enormous amount to all of us. Hearing their responses, their laughter, their questions and responses after they've seen it - it means a lot to me to be in dialogue with the big hearts and minds of young audiences.

What do you hope the audience will take away from Riddle of the Trilobites?

I hope their imaginations are shaken up by the eccentricities of the prehistoric ocean. And I hope they are moved and provoked by watching a creature that is seemingly so very different than us go through an epic journey about how to grapple with a changing environment.


Tickets are available online at NewVictory.org.

The cast of Riddle of the Trilobites includes Tiffany Iris* (When We Went Electronic, Locked Up), Sifiso Mabena* (Red Hills, The Art of Luv Part 6), Joel Oramas* (Pegao), Julia Sirna-Frest* (Lunch Bunch, [Porto]), Richard Saudek* (Beep Boop), and Phillip Taratula* (An Evening with Pam Goldberg, Empire Travel Agency, The Lily's Revenge), with Flea Theater company member Sophia Aranda* as Understudy.

*Member, Actors' Equity Association.

Riddle of the Trilobites features set design & Elder Robe design by Deb O, costume design by Katherine Nelson, lighting design by Eric Southern, sound design by Emma Wilk, and puppet fabrication by Amanda Villalobos with additional puppet fabrication by Puppet Kitchen. Puppet direction is by Pam Arciero. Rachel Kaufman serves as production stage manager.

Riddle of the Trilobites is line produced by Ilana Becker; associate produced by Michael Todd Cohen, Adrian Frandle & TJ Witham; and produced by Lee Sunday Evans, Geo Decas O'Donnell, Jordan Seavey & Nicholas Williams.

Photo Credit: Cameron Blaylock

Buy Tickets at TodayTix

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