BWW Interviews: Talking AVENUE Q with Hot Summer Nights | Theatre Raleigh's Director and Cast
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.”
Annie Floor, who plays two puppet roles, Kate and Lucy, added in, “what Avenue Q does, it kind of takes away the power of offensive words and offensive topics by just putting it out on the table and dealing with it. Instead of being afraid of it, I think the theory is, as long as you’re afraid of it, that word still has power.” The cast seemed in consensus that the way the show handles such issues as racism is smartly done.
Roland added, “what the writers have done, they’re so creative, they wanted to make, and I’m quoting one of them, he wanted to mix Sesame Street with Friends. So you’re hitting that 20-, 30-something generation and their grab bag of issues in life: love, loss of love, loneliness, unemployment, [laughter] porn on the internet. They dumped that into the Sesame Street mixer, and what’s come out is this highly irreverent but very funny show. I think the shock humor is absorbed by the fact that it’s being given out by puppets. The f-bomb is dropped within the first five minutes of the show, but it’s said by a sweet little girl puppet.”
However, all seemed in agreement that while the out-there antics of some of the puppets were funny and integral to the show, they don’t define the show – its heart and message do. Roland said, “We’ve been learning lessons from puppets all of our lives. I go back to the Sesame Street reference. Ernie and Bert taught us how to share. The Count taught us how to count. And now, Princeton and Kate are teaching us how to set boundaries and listen to one another and communicate and fall in love. It really is Sesame Street for adults.”
Floor noted that even though people may be discussing the out-there elements of the show at intermission, that’s not what they’ll be talking about after the show. The heart of the show and the universal themes of the show weigh out in the end.
Roland summed it up nicely, “I think the show resonates because it deals with so many adult human themes. It’s incredibly moving to watch the main character, Princeton, want to have some meaning in life. We see that in themes all the time. It’s a Wonderful Life, that same theme, George Bailey, he just wants to have that meaning. Actually, both that movie and Avenue Q have very similar arc, in that we meet the one we love, then we separate from them, and we go through a little dark time and we come up realizing that just being here in the moment is what’s important – because if you think too far ahead, you’re going to lose what you’ve got now. And I think that’s the biggest message for the show. I think, universally for the kind of culture we live in, we can’t stop thinking ten years down the road, we can’t stay here. I think the final song, ‘For Now,’ hits my favorite message of all: just relax, it’s okay to live in the moment.”
Ten years after it got its start on Broadway, is Avenue Q still relevant? Richard Roland answers with a resounding yes. He said, “I think Avenue Q is dateless. Yes, it makes a lot of current references, but there are several shows that after two years are dated. Avenue Q does not feel dated to me at all. It still feels very relevant. Partly because we’re still dealing with the same socio-economic issues that we were ten years ago – high unemployment, social inequality, especially for that generation. It was 22 years ago, but I still remember coming out of college going ‘what the hell am I going to do?’ I think that’s the first thing we see on stage is Princeton singing ‘What Do You Do With A B.A. in English?’ We all have that fear, which is again, we all have to remind ourselves to stay in the present, and I just think it’s incredibly relevant.”
Avenue Q is playing August 15th-19th in the Fletcher Opera Theater at the Progress Energy Center for Performing Arts. You can take advantage of a Buy One Get One Free offer for Saturday’s matinee performance by using code “BUY1GET1” when ordering. For tickets and more information, visit www.hotsummernightsatthekennedy.org.