Meet the people in the plant in ‘Little Shop of Horrors’ at Ford’s Theatre

Puppeteers Jay Frisby and Ryan Sellers on performing inside the people eater.

By Jillian Parks

When audiences see Little Shop of Horrors at Ford’s Theatre, they probably are not thinking about the people inside the plant: not the people who are the plant’s victims, and not the stellar Tobias A. Young who voices it, but the people literally inside the plant throughout the show’s two-hour runtime.

In fact, when the two come out to take their bow, it’s possible audiences are still piecing together their key but mysterious roles.

Plant puppeteers Jay Frisby and Ryan Sellers (with author Jillian Parks, center) on the set of ‘Little Shop of Horrors’ at Ford’s Theatre. Photo by Daniella Ignacio.

Jay Frisby and Ryan Sellers, two DC-based performers, spend the run as puppeteers of the play’s voracious Venus flytrap, which Seymour the lead named Audrey II, alternating between operating the plant’s two largest iterations.

Enclosed in small but, I’m assured, breathable space, the two take on the show’s most physically challenging role, navigating everything from inverted infrared screens to tiny knots to the musical nuances of one of Broadway’s campiest musicals

“It matters to the cast what we do,” Sellers said. “Of course, I want to serve the audience and tell the story, but for the rest of the cast I feel like, Oh, this is my role. I feel recognized by the other performers, and by Jay. I feel that way within the community that we have backstage.”

The show features four Audrey II plants. Two are hand puppets, one operated from underneath an onstage counter by Frisby and one operated by Derrick D. Truby Jr., who plays Seymour. The other two are large enough to engage Frisby’s and Sellers’ full bodies. When operating the smaller of the two human-sized plants, the puppeteers wear leggings that look like vines, which add an even more anthropomorphous feel to the giant talking plant.

CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT, the four Audrey II plant puppets: Derrick D. Truby Jr. (Seymour); Derrick D. Truby Jr. (Seymour) with Nia Savoy-Dock (Chiffon), Kaiyla Gross (Ronnette) and Kanysha Williams (Crystal); Kaiyla Gross (Ronnette), Nia Savoy-Dock (Chiffon) and Kanysha Williams (Crystal); Chani Wereley (Audrey) and Derrick D. Truby Jr. (Seymour) in the 2024 Ford’s Theatre production of ‘Little Shop of Horrors.’ Photos by Scott Suchman.

“I think a big difference for this role is the collaborative nature of it,” Frisby said. “Some roles you can do a lot of prep beforehand, learn your specific songs, learn your lines, etc. And we can do that to a degree, but because we are ultimately lip-synching to Tobias’ voice, so much of it is how we work together, especially with the big puppet, learning each other’s motions and habits.”

The puppets were fabricated by Monkey Boys Productions, a company that has created puppets, props, creatures, costumes, and practical effects for everything from The Music Man on Broadway to Saturday Night Live. The company’s co-founder and puppetry supervisor, Marc Petrosino, worked directly with Frisby and Sellers.

“Each puppet has its own set of challenges,” Frisby said. “When Marc was teaching us originally, he described the middle one as like a sprint, like it’s just a lot in that first song [“Feed Me (Git It)”]. And then for the biggest one [“Suppertime”], Act 2 is like a marathon; it just goes on forever.”

“There’s definitely been a learning curve, especially because, even having puppeteered in the past, each puppet is very different, just in terms of how it operates,” Frisby said. “We were first introduced to it, and we worked with this wonderful Marc, who was actually a puppeteer when Ford’s did the show previously [2010].

The cast rehearsed with the puppets from the beginning, giving the puppeteers time to sync up with Young’s breathing and vocal cues, learn the rest of the cast’s line inflections and verbal cues, and learn how (and how not to) move the puppet itself.

“It’s like when you’re driving and you have to do something, so you take a wheel with your knee for a second,” Sellers said. “There are things like that in the puppet where you’re like, I can hold the bar with my head while I fix the seat belt and take the bar back again, knowing how much space you have to move without rocking the puppet.”

With Sellers’ background in movement theater and fight choreography, he had to trust that his skills were transferable.

“You have to trust the skill set that you built up to get in the room at all, and be like, I know how to adapt to unorthodox movement,” Sellers said. “I have to trust that when I get into a position, I’ll be able to adapt to those circumstances.”

The two have had to play some pretty delicate games in maneuvering the plant’s unique size, repetitive movements, and sensitivity to sudden or big movements. Strategically planning when to untie the knot that keeps the plant’s mouth closed for a portion of Act 1, for instance, was, apparently, an arduous but successful venture

“I just could not have foreseen how difficult this was gonna be, to untie this little knot,” Sellers said.

There have, however, been a few mishaps.

“We added a count of music in there where we’re not supposed to lip-sync anything, but my muscle memory was like, Now you start again,” Sellers said. “So there was nothing happening on stage, and the plant went [Sellers mimes opening his mouth wide, no sound emerging].”

The plant is also equipped with an inverted infrared screen with a view from the audience’s perspective that allows the puppeteers to see the other actors on stage outside of the plant.

“The first time we had it with infrared, we went to a blackout where we’re supposed to go down and get out of everything,” Frisby said. “I’m sitting there the entire time, Like when’s the blackout happening, when’s the blackout happening? And then eventually I realized, Oh, because it’s infrared, there is no blackout.”

To appreciate Frisby’s and Sellers’ many feats of stamina, patience, and sensitivity, alongside an onstage cameo by Sellers as the Customer, catch Little Shop of Horrors at Ford’s Theatre through May 18. Ford’s will also host a live-streamed broadcast on April 2 at 1 p.m., when Marc Petrosino and other guests will discuss the intersection between the natural world, artistic exploration, and imagination.

“It is really cool, you know, going down an elevator and hearing kids say, Oh, that was so funny to see a puppet singing,” Frisby said. “I think I take for granted having grown up with Little Shop of Horrors that like, Oh, everyone’s seen the show. But for a lot of audience members, this might be their first time seeing a huge plant on stage doing things they didn’t know a puppet could do.

Running Time: Two hours, including one 15-minute intermission.

Little Shop of Horrors plays through May 18, 2024, at Ford’s Theatre, 514 10th Street NW, Washington, DC. Tickets are on sale online and range from $33 to $95. Discounts are available for groups, senior citizens, military personnel, and those younger than 40. For more information, call (202) 347-4833 or (888) 616-0270 (toll-free).

The cast, creative team, and band credits are here, and a digital program is downloadable here.

Recommended for ages 8 and older.

Ford’s accessibility offerings (audio-described, ASL-interpreted, sensory-friendly) include closed captioning via the GalaPro App.

COVID Safety: Face masks are optional.


Jillian Parks is a junior Rhetoric and Media major at Hillsdale College; however, she devotes the bulk of her time to her Journalism minor. She grew up doing and teaching community theater, which has bled directly into the kinds of writing she is passionate about. This past semester she served as Culture editor of the campus newspaper, The Collegian, highlighting everything from student projects to New York City debuts. She also works as the Digital Director for the college’s radio station and co-hosts a weekly podcast on factual disparities in social media narratives.

SEE ALSO: ‘Little Shop of Horrors’ grows big and strong at Ford’s Theatre (review by Jakob Cansler, March 21, 2024)


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