Creating the Puppets of Riddle of the Trilobites

When you write a prehistoric musical starring long-extinct creatures like trilobites, opabinia and hallucigenia, how do you resurrect them onstage? CollaborationTown enlisted Amanda Villalobos to create believable yet beautiful puppets to bring these colorful characters back to life in Riddle of the Trilobites.

Today, we sat down with Amanda to get an inside look at the creation of these puppets with panache.

Amanda with a prototype of Aphra
Amanda with a prototype of Aphra

How did you decide to use found materials for the puppets?

We wanted to incorporate the environmental implications from the piece as much as possible by using found objects and materials. The first workshop that was part of New Victory Labworks had puppets that I made from various found objects, a majority from Materials for the Arts, including inner tube tires, recycled fabrics and raffia. The fish Hai, Rhai, Dai and Josh are made from biodegradable plant fiber plates and compostable cutlery to promote zero waste. Calliope the opabinia’s hair is made from corn-based biodegradable plastic bags. Plus, the bodies and structures of the puppets are made from sustainable rattan.

Grandma Galla Trilobite Mask
Before adding Found Materials to Grandma Galla, Photo: Camille Labarre
After adding Found Materials to Grandma Galla, Photo: Camille Labarre

Can you talk about the creation of the puppets?

The first thing I did was to learn as much as I could about the different orders of trilobites and the various shapes and forms that they took. Trilobites have so many crazy visual elements that are fun to experiment with, and they really lend themselves to the playfulness of puppetry. Those anatomical details would inspire the initial designs and inform the visual development of each character.

Then, the question became how do we want the performers to bring these characters to life? In our first workshop, Aphra was actually not conceived as a puppet. We had the actress playing the character wearing a backpack with a trilobite-shaped shell. However, her best friends Judomiah and Calliope were both puppets from the beginning and, as the show developed, it made more sense to depict Aphra in the same way.

How did you show the personalities of the characters in the design?

Each of the characters is based on a real creature, but it was important to me that the puppets would be able to convey personalities too. Judomiah, for example, has a mechanism that allows the puppeteer to extend and contract his body, which helps convey the character’s fear and nervous energy. On the other hand, our fearless heroine Aphra’s design reflects the strength of her character. Her prophecized markings were inspired by patterns created in nature—ferns and plant pieces that were pressed into rock and fossilized.

A Sketch for Aphra
A Sketch for Aphra

A lot of thought about characterization also went into the visual design of the elders. At first, they were large, parade-style backpack puppets with large heads on sticks. But, as the importance of the relationship between Aphra’s grandmother Elder Galla and Aphra came into focus, it became clear that the Elders needed to be able to interact with the held puppets in a more intimate way. So, we brought them back down to earth a little. The final result is the headpieces that are meticulously shaped to resemble particular orders of the trilobites.

Which was your favorite puppet to create?

The guard is a particularly silly puppet that I really enjoyed making. On one of my many trips to the hardware store, I discovered a bright yellow duster that had this fish-like movement when you shook it. I just knew it belonged in the show, but I didn’t know what it would be at the time. Its narrow form dictated that it could only fit one eye and I couldn’t stop laughing at the idea of a guard with one big eye watching people. Thus, the guard was born!

See Amanda’s puppets in action at Riddle of the Trilobites, through February 23 only!