This week, Hot Summer Nights | Theatre Raleigh brings us the Tony Award-winning musical Avenue Q, which tells the story of several puppets and humans on a quest for meaning and purpose while trying to make ends meet in New York City. I had the pleasure of sitting down with the director, Richard Roland, and also the women in the cast. I asked them about the process of putting together the show, handling puppets and humans at the same time, and why Avenue Q resonates with audiences, even a decade after its premiere on Broadway.
Avenue Q is a unique musical that features characters who are human interacting with characters who are puppets. None of the folks I talked to had extensive puppetry experience (at least, not with the kind of puppetry we see in Avenue Q), so I asked them about what it was like learning to act and interact with their furry counterparts. Roland said of the show, “it’s different than Sesame Street puppeteering, in which you only see the puppet. Here, we see puppet and actor/manipulator. For instance, Kate Monster isn’t just made up of a puppet. It’s Annie Floor and the puppet, and they become Kate Monster. Because Kate is very expressive in her mouth and her arms and her body language, but there are certain emotions you’ll never see on a puppet’s face, and that’s where Annie’s face comes in handy as well. So you start blending both Annie and Kate, and they become who Kate Monster is. The challenge was just, technically, keeping the same energy in the hand as in the head of the actor, the puppeteer. These guys excel at that.”
And since not all the characters are puppets, the cast had to practice where to look and where their point of focus was. Roland went on, “the puppets interact with humans. For instance, if you’re holding a puppet, and you’re dealing with another actor who has a puppet, you never look at the actor, you look at the puppet. That’s what the focus is. And it’s very hard to ignore the face that’s right there, but stare at the puppet face. It’s a talent on its own. It’s a skill.” The cast echoed the challenges of working with puppets, noting that it requires your brain to do more things at once.
Since we were talking about the puppets, I asked director Richard Roland and cast members about some of the out-there antics of the puppets. The puppets do everything from discussing racism to engaging in puppet sex right on stage. Heather Maggs, who plays a “Bad Idea Bear,” as well as other characters, says, “from what I’ve seen, people are willing to accept a lot more from comedy. When it’s a drama people feel a little more taken aback, and they take it more seriously. With this show, when you have two puppets on stage having sex, I mean, yes, somebody could be offended by that, but you have to look at them and be like, ‘it’s puppets.’”
Maya Naff, who plays Christmas Eve, one of the human characters in the show, noted that the writers of Avenue Q decided to use puppets to introduce the elements of the show that are a little “out there,” “I think that’s the genius of the creators of the show. They recognized right away that if and when they were going to push those boundaries, it had to be with the puppets. There is a certain level of distance that you can sort of get away with, having a puppet simulate sex, or a puppet talk about porn. The puppets always introduce the really out-there stuff. The people don’t. The people will talk about it, will involve themselves, they’re all living in the same world, but you don’t hear any of the humans really step out of line. You would start to feel uncomfortable if a human introduced that subject.”
The show has a lot of connections to Sesame Street, and Heather Maggs noted one of those connections, “It’s nonthreatening. And you know what – Sesame Street does the exact same thing. Whenever there’s a deeper subject, it’s always introduced by Elmo or Big Bird. Whenever there’s something like families getting divorced or bullying or something like that, it’s always brought up by the puppets, so I think they followed that same cue.”