Posted on  by Amber Adams Niven

Abby Felder, executive artistic director at Asheville Creative Arts, conceived of the local youth theater production’s latest show, Shell, in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Like many, Felder was devastated by the turmoil and trauma New Orleans residents faced in the wake of the 2005 storm’s destruction. She responded by drafting a story about a displaced snail, originally titled Slug and Snail.

But it wasn’t until the 2013 launch of ACA, when she teamed up with fellow contributing artist and puppeteer Edwin Salas Acosta, that the story truly took shape. Acosta, says Felder, “brought his own magical interpretation” to the performance.

Now, nearly a decade since the pair first connected, Slug and Snail has been reimagined as Shell. Weaving together puppetry, music, projections and movement, the free, 20-minute, bilingual, interactive production premieres at Story Parlor on Saturday, April 11, at 11 a.m., with a second performance that same day at noon. Additional shows run through Wednesday, April 15.

Encore performances will take place at The Tina McGuire Theater at the Wortham Center for the Performing Arts at 11 a.m. and noon Saturday and Sunday, May 13 and 14.

Bring on the babies

The story — one concerning community and friendship — follows Jauncito the snail, who arrives in a garden in search of a home. But longtime resident Slug is initially unsure of the new visitor. Eventually, as the two get to know each other, a bond is formed.

Unlike any of ACA’s previous productions, Shell is categorized as “baby theater.” Such performances are intended for children 5 years old or younger (accompanied by their caretakers).

Though not a new concept, baby theater isn’t as widely produced in the United States as it is in other parts of the world. For example, Acosta, who is originally from Mexico, says that baby theater is so popular in his home country that Mexico City hosts an annual festival every year.

During the show’s development phase, Felder and Acosta used grant money to hire early-childhood teachers to evaluate the production’s structure and to ensure it aligned with appropriate developmental milestones for kids. The teachers also aided in creating a take-home “fun guide,” which has various activities families can enjoy outside of the theater.

“Our shows are very interactive,” says Felder. “It’s not just an audience sitting there receiving a message.”

And though this is the organization’s first crack at baby theater, Felder says she is hopeful it won’t be the last.

Full range of motion

But along with entertaining the very young, Felder says Shell has plenty to keep adult audiences amused as well. “The parents who come and bring their kids to the space deserve to be entertained, too,” she says.

Acosta agrees. “I love to make performance have different layers,” he says. While the younger audience will enjoy visuals and other sensory stimuli, he notes, caretakers can engage with the show’s deeper themes on migration and empathy.

Regardless of the age, Acosta hopes the production sparks the audience’s imagination. He points out that he created traditional Italian-style wooden marionette puppets for Shell. Unlike hand or rod puppets, the marionettes have a fuller range of available movements for the puppeteer to work with. His aim is to have viewers “forget the strings … through the magic of the theater.”

“So many of the objects that young kids interface with are plastic, and so it’s really nice to have this natural material,” Felder adds. There’s a richness to Acosta’s designs, she continues, in that audiences will get to see how the puppets age with nicks and scuffs over time. “They’re alive and they age,” Felder emphasizes, which adds a more human element to the show.

In addition to the marionettes, Shell features original music by Šara Stranovsky, costumes by Caroline Bower, projections and lighting by Leo Lei and an abstract garden set where the story will unfold by Marie Yokoyama. Alongside Acosta, cast members include OlympeaFederica Collina and Gina Cornejo.

“I think we’ve all had a feeling of being an outsider,” says Felder, in discussing the production’s major theme. One of the many questions Shell seeks to address, she continues, is “how do you make peace with being an outsider.”

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