BWW Interviews: AVENUE Q at the University of Montana
Jere Hodgin has a well-known theatrical career throughout the American circuit as the founder of the Norfolk Southern New Play Festival and Artistic Director of the Mill Mountain Theatre; the Idaho Repertory Theatre; the Highlands Playhouse; Montana Rep; Seattle Rep and many others. His seats on numerous Arts Councils, his work for the National Endowment of the Arts, and his demonstrated talent in various shows I have watched him direct all contributed to the excitement of an interview with him to discuss his newest project -- Avenue Q, at the lauded University of Montana.
BWW: Why would the University of Montana -- and you particularly -- want to open the season with Avenue Q?
JERE: Our University collaborates with its students to select shows for the upcoming season by putting together a selection committee comprised of student representatives and staff. Avenue Q has been on the list of many students for a while, and a few faculty members have also been pushing for it. It's obviously a well-loved show among theatre people. We knew we wanted to do a musical with a smaller cast; we knew we wanted something contemporary; and we knew we wanted to work closely with the School of Music on an exciting project. Avenue Q seemed like the perfect choice. It is also a regional premiere for this show -- no one in Montana has yet produced it, which is also very exciting, and a key piece of what the University of Montana tries to accomplish: bring in pieces to the public that have not been produced over and over again in the area.
BWW: Given your wide professional experience and the large base of professional readers who are likely to come across this interview, can you explain some of the differences you have faced from producing this show professionally versus an academic institution?
JERE: Well, of the 190 shows I have directed and around 200 produced, this is the first show I have ever done with puppets, to begin with! Through the licensing company, we were able to rent professional replicas from the Broadway production, which is something we were happy about and insisted on doing if we were to produce the play. In a professional company, we likely would have hired members of the original or touring casts to come and train our performers for work with these specific puppets and characters -- our very own Andy Meyers has been hard at work on that and is doing a splendid job. It's also amazing to see how students have risen to the challenge with the same dedication and talent as a professional company. I'm very proud of the work they have done.
BWW: Avenue Q has an iconic presence in contemporary musical theatre since its opening in 2003. What has it been like trying to stay true to the material everyone is familiar with and still implement an original concept?
JERE: It's much like directing any other play -- you have to find a balance between being a creator and constructing an original concept and also being faithful to the material. You have to ask yourself: "What is the dramatic question?" and then ask yourself if you're being true to it. Also, we're very lucky in that a great deal of Montanans don't know this play very well, so they won't come in expecting what they might have seen in New York or in a Broadway tour. We've taken a couple of liberties -- such as getting the characters a little more involved with the audience and breaking the fourth wall. We've also decided that, with such a large talent pool that the University of Montana student body gives us, that we wouldn't need to double up roles as was done in the original Broadway production, but single-cast many of them and stretched the typical casting from eight or nine to around fourteen. This was a decision we made after auditions, after having such an overwhelming turnout. But we've also utilized huge pieces of the original scripted concept, like video projections which help distance the audience and enhance the comedy.
BBW: What's been your favorite part of the process?
JERE: I've loved watching the actors grow both within and outside of the puppet. It is amazing, seeing an actor, whose normal tools are his face and voice have to work hard to express that through an object instead of displaying it themselves. It's very much like working with masks. I have seen times when they've done it successfully, and the puppet is actually more expressive than its operator. It's a magical thing to watch and the audience will definitely be enthralled with it.