While some kids grow up following the antics of such superheroes as the Green Lantern and Wonder Woman, millennials in Denver with theater-savvy parents have grown up following tRUNks. Buntport Theater's live serial comic book began in December 2005, presenting a show every other week focusing on its own universe of superheroes and villains; each new installment has been based on a book suggested by the audience. The serial show has grown into a beloved tradition for families and people of all ages, but it's finally coming to a close after eight seasons with a three-episode trilogy early next year.
We caught up with co-creator/writer/director/performer Jessica Robblee in advance of tRUNks' 100th episode this Saturday to talk about her favorite moments from over the years and post-tRUNks.
Westword: How would you describe tRUNKs to someone who has never heard of it before?
Jessica Robblee: It's a live comic book and a new episode happens every two weeks, and each episode is based very loosely upon a book that is suggested by an audience member. It's really well described by the experience of doing it. So you arrive at the theater, you press a button on a toy and it tells you whether you're gonna pay $5, $6, or $7 for your ticket. You get a dollar off if you're wearing a superhero costume. Then you go inside the lobby and you have the option to write down one of your favorite books and stick it in this trunk. You also have the option to stick a raffle ticket in to win a prize that's superhero-related. And then in the middle of the show one of the actors reaches into the trunk and pulls a book title and that's our suggestion for our next episode. So this last time we collected The Hobbit randomly out of that little trunk of book titles and so the next day we started outlining a show with elements of The Hobbit included. And I think it's pretty great, you know, an epic quest sort of book landing on our 100th episode is pretty fun.
How has tRUNks changed over the hundred episodes?
Well, we've had different core superheroes. We've had three that have stayed the same, we've had different core writers -- two have stayed the same, myself and Mitch Slevc -- and then we've had different core ensemble members help us write, because when you're writing a script that fast it helps to have three writers. So we've had those core characters change over the years. That's a big thing. Every time we write it collaboratively, we build it collaboratively and then we perform it all together. It's really been a bit of adjustment every time we've had a new core member of our ensemble come in. And they've all been lovely people who've either left because they were moving or because they went to grad school or because they signed on for a few episodes. It's a highly demanding, creative job. You're either writing or you're building or you're memorizing or you're performing at any time during the season. So you're in. We write it in a week and then we rehearse it in a week and then we perform it for one day and then we start over again. So that's stayed the same the whole time.
I'd say the characters have really grown so close over the years. They're really best friends. And I think the audience feels very tight with them. Like, some of these kids have really grown up with us. They've been watching it for years. It's pretty exciting. You meet them when they're five and then seven years later they're still coming to your shows. It's pretty wonderful.
What was the first episode like?
Our original episode was about setting up our super powers. Both of the two main characters acquired their super powers in that episode. My character was in the original episode and I went on a high school field trip as a supreme nerd, and my next door neighbor was Claire Clayborn, very popular, the kind of person whose name you remember for the rest of your life after high school. You know, Claire Clayborn. She got attacked by a parrot and it gave her the power to make people say whatever she wants them to say. And my power is to make people sneeze at any moment because I was bitten by a radioactive mosquito. So I started out as a rabid allergic nerd and then I was bitten by a radioactive mosquito and then I gained superpowers. So the character of The Germ, the one who can make people sneeze at inopportune moments, a mighty mighty power, has endured for eight seasons now.
What are some of your favorite moments from over the years?
We definitely have some characters that are favorites of ours. One of my favorites, Captain Superlative, was in charge of the villain rehab center that we ran in one episode, which I really loved. He was trying to rehabilitate three villains, one of which was Grouchy Caveman, one of which was the Mild Thang, who wants to make everything mild and boring, and one of whom was called the Dessert Baron, and he bore a striking resemblance to Daniel Day Lewis in There Will Be Blood. But in general, that one was really fun because villains are really fun to write. We get teased that our villains aren't that vicious, but sometimes they're really nefarious in kind of a subtle way. You know, it's really pretty scary to think of a villain who could make everything boring and beige. And then some villains will just want to take away your independence of thought, which is definitely a horrible thing to do. Like, the mind control helmet in our Wrinkle in Time episode. I loved our Midsummer Night's Dream episode.
We have a really bizarre character--he is my boyfriend in the show--he's Scott Parrot and he's a giant, very colorful parrot. We were made to fall in love by a superhero in the first season and we've stayed together this whole time. He's a giant parrot psychiatrist from Scotland. And something like 47 different people have played this parrot over the years. And right now John Moore is compiling an autobiography of Scott, written by all of those people. So it's pretty fun. It's funny, because he wrote to people asking for a sentence each, but these people have written paragraphs on behalf of Scott Parrot and these are people who've come into our show in numerous capacities, who are guest stars in different ways. They haven't just played the parrot, they've played other things, they've brought their kids so many times. We have kids guest star sometimes, we have kids be our guest narrator sometimes. It's definitely about inclusiveness and having people from the community engaged. And I think it's why the series has really thrived and we hope to keep a lot of those elements at play with our next series as well.
Why is this the final season of tRUNks?
We just decided that we wanted to change format, and we thought, well, this is our 100th episode that we're gonna have and then we're gonna do a grand finale trilogy after that in the new year, and then after that we just wanted to kind of say, okay, new piece of paper. We have drawn on this piece of paper in so many different ways over the years, with so many different people and plot lines and all of that, and while in the midst of tRUNks we've expanded our educational theater for young audiences program. We've built all these shows to travel the schools, and those shows, we've learned so much doing them. We've just been able to put more time in, more repetition, fine tune the visual effects involved in the show or the aesthetics of each show. Not only has the variety been great, but also we get to do a little more craftsmanship because it's not quite so fast. And so we thought, what if we do a monthly show, a new series. And that's what we're going to start up in April. Right now it's called Second Saturdays, we like to approach it as something monthly, something new, something to look forward to. It's still an all ages production, intended to be funny for everybody. And it'll be happening twice on those days.
Are you sad to see tRUNks go?
I am. You know, it's a bittersweet thing. I love it, I love it so. And I think there's no hard and fast rule that we will never bring those characters back in some form or other. You know, Arrested Development got cancelled but there's still the movie out there, you know what I mean? Sometimes we have these lofty dreams of, what if we did a play that we could invest in more technically that has to do with our favorite comic book superhero characters that are beloved to us? It's more just you want to stretch your muscles artistically. I've played this character for this number of years. Definitely, we've all played different characters inside the series but it's just a nice thing to think, okay, what other colors can I paint with? What other format can I try out? So it's exciting. It's a little daunting. It feels like a big change because we've been on this schedule--this is our eighth year doing it. We're excited and all the ideas for the next thing are broiling about.
What else do you want people to know?
I guess I'm really excited about how our show is really unique. I don't know that programming like this is happening elsewhere. I ended up writing my thesis on it for school and my professor said, "You know, people aren't doing this other places in the country. You really need to write about this and publish it, because it's a great format for galvanizing a community that loves your series that is invested in the characters." And I think at the hundredth episode to be able to feel that amongst the audience, to be able to feel that people have been with these characters for that long. There's some history, not just between the characters, but between the audience and the characters and it's a beautiful thing to be around. It just shows that storytelling and live performance and people all being in the same room has something to offer that is unique. There is something qualitatively different than movies, there's a different amount of connection. The actor responds to the audience. The audience knows they're being responded to. The kids know me as my character name. They know me as Trixie; they call me Trixie. We've had so many opportunities to do different things with our show with 100 episodes. You can be very serious, you can have heart in one episode and be ridiculous in the next. You can have inside jokes with your audience, yet you can also jump in at the 100th episode and still have a great time.
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The 100th episode of tRUNks runs at 1 p.m. and again at 3 p.m. Saturday, December 16, with live music by Elin Palmer. Tickets are $5 to $7 at the door, with a $1 discount if you come dressed as a superhero. For reservations, which are recommended, visit www.buntport.com/reservations or call 720-946-1388. The grand finale trilogy will run early next year on January 12, January 26 and February 9.