Friday, May 16, 2008

Interview with Trevor Allen and Liebe Wetzel

Award-winning puppet master and Artistic Director of Lunatique Fantastique Liebe Wetzel collaborates with PF alumnus Trevor Allen to create One Stone, a story of Einstein’s life and the mysteries of the universe he explored.  Using puppets made from found objects, One Stone promises to be a dynamic visual experience.  Trevor, Liebe, their puppeteers and actor David Sinaiko, will be at Stanford University for the first reading on Monday May 19th at 7:30pm, and then at the Traveling Jewish Theatre the following night, Tuesday May 20th, at 7:00pm.



In an exclusive interview on the PF Blog, Trevor and Liebe talk about their collaboration:

 PF:   How did you develop your method of creating work - puppetry out of found objects? How long have you been working this way?

LW (Liebe Wetzel):  I started working with found objects about 10 years ago.  The “method” has grown organically out of our development process. I don't “write” with text, but assemble a talented group together and we play with objects. We create image phrases, which I weave into a narrative. 

PF:  How did you approach collaborating with Liebe to create this piece?

TA (Trevor Allen):
  I’ve known and loved Liebe's found-object puppetry ever since I saw my First
Lunatique Fantastique show, almost a decade ago. Her puppetry can make me laugh or cry depending on whether the subject material is a children’s holiday show or dealing with the destruction of Hiroshima.  When I told her that Einstein had an aversion to wearing socks... she “cast” my sandals in the role of the old Einstein's feet. She’s brilliant. But since her puppets don’t speak (although they certainly communicate, very clearly) I asked for a lone actor who would be our voice of Einstein’s mind. We were very fortunate to be able to work with David Sinako who has played a version of Einstein before and gets the concepts. The way we work has been in tandem with our wonderful Director, Jayne Wenger, who has been instrumental in keeping the whole thing together. It has been a wonderful collaboration, I have supplied the text and Liebe has created the images.  Some of the written stage directions came from me, many others came from Liebe’s beautifully handcrafted, image inscribed, note cards and still other moments from watching the puppeteer's offer improvisations while the lines were spoken aloud. Early on, we joked about using “found text with found objects” and although I have used much of Einstein’s own words in the play, a lot of the text is my own, suited to this new piece. It has been a real learning lesson, trying to weave together a story from new bits and old cloth to create a whole garment. I'm not entirely sure what the end product will look like... but as the great man said himself. “Anyone who has never made a mistake... has never tried anything new.” We hope you enjoy this new vision of wonder.

PF:  Before this, almost all you work has had no text. What was it like collaborating with a playwright on this piece?

LW:  Inspiring, trying, exhilarating, difficult- all things you would expect from a collaboration. By it’s very nature, collaboration is not easy, but ultimately it is incredibly rewarding. In some places the text and image phrases merge beautifully creating something better than either form by itself. In others?  Well, it is a staged reading.

The collaboration has inspired me to work with text in the future.

PF:  This project has been in the works for a long time, can you tell me how it came about?

  The idea for the project goes back a long way but this is actually a completely new play. A couple of months ago, I started with a totally blank canvas and everything has come from that. Although for several years now, I have been intrigued by the wonderful ideas, thought experiments and the personal life of Albert Einstein. The iconic genius and brilliant physicist who single-handedly changed humanity's perception of the universe. I have literally collected dozens of books under the auspices of doing research, in the hopes that one day I would be able to write an Einstein play. A few years ago, I even wrote a short play entitled
A Chain Reaction, which included a section with Einstein as a character. It was performed in the Planetarium in Golden Gate Park and won Best of the SF Fringe Festival. Since then, that section has been performed by The Rebecca Salzer Dance Theater and most recently even as a "modern Noh play" by Theatre of Yugen. It has been fascinating to watch that material be adapted to other movement based disciplines. I think its success has been due to the nature of the material, in that it deals with space-time, matter and light. These mercurial elements flow through the different performance mediums and each presentation was wonderfully different from the other, with only the text in common.

This workshop has been the culmination of a long chain of events. I wanted to work with a visual artist. So when I was offered the opportunity by the Playwrights Foundation to work with a collaborator, I immediately thought of puppetry. No, really. But not cute "muppet-like" puppets. I wanted to capture the child-like wonder that is so evident in Einstein’s life’s work but also to see if it was possible to have his thought experiments illustrated for an audience while actually telling the story of his life. I wanted to work with a puppeteer who was capable of bringing those concepts to life by using “found object” puppetry. I knew that the only person capable of creating the kind of wonder out of the quotidian objects to be found in a musty old professor’s office was the genius, in her own right, Liebe Wetzel. We had actually wanted to collaborate on an “Einstein play” for many years. We had even unsuccessfully applied for a grant to do so. We both had other projects looming at the time and so we had to postpone our endeavor for several years. Thanks to the Playwrights Foundation, we are finally able to collaborate on this piece!

With this workshop opportunity, I wanted to create a totally new play that dealt more with Einstein, the human being, rather than the icon. I wanted to look at his “militant pacifism” and his non-involvement in the birth of the atomic bomb, even though, as we all know, he did write that letter to FDR. In my research, I was most intrigued by the fact (not an urban myth) that Einstein’s brain ended up in pieces, floating in a jar.
  This became a metaphor for looking at his life, as a way in. Although this draft has turned out to be more linear than I had anticipated. I began with the concept of spending an evening with Einstein’s mind or at least, the mental picture that he might have of himself. So we went with a more youthful version of the man. Not an old professor. Who thinks of themselves as old, in their mind?

The title was the last piece of the puzzle. I wanted something evocative and “object based.” We had been working under a number of different titles, like “Einstein's Brain.” But then I came up with, “One Stone: Ein-stein” both as a play on the English meaning of his name and as a chilling reminder that his equation, E=mc2, while not actually a prescription for a bomb but rather a description of nature, enabled others to unleash the destructive power contained within a single stone-sized piece of uranium, to horrifying effect.

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