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Chatting with Anika Larsen, AVENUE Q's Final Kate Monster

Ever since her breakout role as Roberta in the 2002-03 off-Broadway cult hit Zanna, Don’t!, Anika Larsen has been a musical star to keep an eye on. Fortunately for theatergoers across the country, that’s been easier during the past year, as Larsen headlined the national tour of Avenue Q from July ’08 until the tour wrapped this May and is now starring in the Broadway production, which closes out its six-year run on September 13.

Blond, fresh-faced and perpetually endearing on stage, Larsen would seem a cinch for all those endearing, fresh-faced roles in the musical theater canon. Yet she’s made her mark in musicals that are more contemporary, smaller-scale or offbeat—like Avenue Q. And Zanna, Don’t!, which took place in a high school (and world) where heterosexuals are the discriminated-against minority. Larsen has also appeared off-Broadway in Kirsten Childs’ anthropomorphically infused musical Miracle Brothers, set in 17th-century Brazil, and in the Fringe Festival transplant How to Save the World and Find True Love in 90 Minutes, which involved mind-reading, terrorists and Celine Dion. She made her Broadway debut in 1999 in the ensemble of Rent, following two years on that show’s tour, and was later in the original Broadway casts of Xanadu and All Shook Up

This year, when Larsen came back to New York after the Avenue Q tour ended, she starred in her autobiographical musical Shafrika, The White Girl. Presented for two weeks in June at the Vineyard Theatre (where Miracle Brothers ran in 2005), Shafrika was the third production by Jaradoa, a theater company Larsen cofounded with director April Nickell. Jaradoa, which gets its name from the acronym for Just A Roomful of Artists Doing Outreach And Theater, produced its first show, Serenade, in December 2007, and Larsen performed in that as well. In Shafrika, she told the story of the Larsen family: ten siblings, born within fifteen years; four biological, six adopted; white, black, Asian, Latino, Native American; all with Norwegian first names (for “a sense of family unity”).

The rest of this summer, it’s been all Q. Larsen joined the Broadway company on July 6, reprising her roles of Kate Monster and Lucy T. Slut from the tour. The Yale alumna, who was nominated for a Lucille Lortel Award as best featured actress in Zanna, Don’t!, recently spoke with BroadwayWorld about Avenue Q and other highlights of her career.

How did you end up in Avenue Q with no prior puppet experience?
I first saw Avenue Q up at the Eugene O’Neill Center when they were workshopping it there—I was doing a different show, workshopping up there—and I remember being devastated because I loved the show so much and I thought, I’ll never get to be in this because I don’t do puppetry. It wasn’t until the show became a big hit on Broadway and they realized they were going to have to replace the original company that they started to consider finding actors they could teach puppetry to, ’cause there was just a small community of people that know puppetry. In order to even get to final callbacks for the show, you have to go to “puppet camp.” It’s two days of intensive classes—a crash course in puppetry. So I had a lot of fun at puppet camp and hoped that I would get to be in it someday. As happens in this business, that was years ago; over the years, they approached me for different companies and I wasn’t free, and finally it all came together last year when they asked me to join the tour.

How difficult was it to learn the puppetry?
[There are so] many layers of things you have to keep in your brain all at once. You have to know your lines and your blocking and your music. Usually, that’s enough. On top of that, to be aware of the position of the puppet, so that it’s upright, that its head is facing forward, that its head’s not cocked, that it’s looking where you’re looking. It’s very hard to keep remembering if you continue to shift your focus.
The lip-synching in and of itself is so complicated. First of all, the puppet has to breathe before it speaks. That’s the difference when you look at someone who doesn’t know puppetry—you’ll watch and you’ll go: Its mouth is moving at the right time, but I don’t understand why it doesn’t look alive. That’s because it’s not breathing before it’s speaking. On top of that, you have to be aware of what consonants you’re saying: To end a word on n or m is to end with the mouth closed; if you end on a plosive, like t or p or v, you would end with the mouth open. It would look strange to end the word “love” with her mouth closed. So that is a whole other level of things to keep in mind.
Because I have a rodded puppet, she has one arm free. [You have] to make sure that you’re doing something with the arm that looks good on a puppet. Not everything translates from a human body to a puppet body. Then also making sure that when you’re walking, she’s walking, which is to say that she’s moving up and down in a way that looks like an even pace and gives her weight and reality in space. Also, to layer on top of all of that, she has to emote—all of the ways that you make a puppet look sad or happy or shy.

What about the scenes where you play Kate and Lucy at the same time?
The hardest part about that is making sure that the puppet that I’m holding is alive and reacting when I’m voicing the puppet being held by somebody else. That’s where you lose your mind a bit. That’s the stuff it took me months and months to get good at. It’s like playing the piano and your right hand is playing counterpoint to your left hand...added degrees of difficulty there.

Is this puppeteering/acting combination the hardest thing you’ve ever done professionally?
I think yes, it is. I was just talking about this with another cast member: It’s amazing to me the number of family and friends that have come see the show who haven’t mentioned afterward, “Wow, Anika, you have a new skill. Look at you—you’re doing puppetry!” And he said it’s that we make it look easy. I guess that must be because I’m busting my butt—really, really working hard, coming in to rehearsals on my own time, when I wasn’t even called to be in, just to make sure that I’m doing it right, because I have such a respect for puppetry that I don’t want to be a faker. I want to make it look authentic, to do it justice. But I am kind of surprised that people don’t realize how hard it is, ’cause it really is.
I think the second-hardest is learning to dance on roller skates in Xanadu. I’m not going to lie to you: There were tears. Which is funny because all of my friends who are actors who had learned puppetry for Avenue Q called me during the rehearsal process and said, “Have you cried yet?”—cried over learning the puppetry, because it’s so hard and so scary when you know your first performance is rapidly approaching. And I didn’t cry over Avenue Q, but I did cry over the roller skating.

Because you got hurt or you were having so much trouble getting the hang of it?
I cried over just trying to learn it. Everybody fell at some point—most of the time we didn’t hurt ourselves. It was so frustrating to try and figure out how to dance on four wheels on each of your feet. The day I figured it out was the day I realized that it’s much more like ice skating than like rollerblading. When I made that switch in my head, it was much easier to do. And now I just love it. I still have my skates from Xanadu—I took them on the Avenue Q tour with me, so I’ve skated on those roller skates in many states in this country.

Were you given much leeway to do anything new in Avenue Q?
The creative team at Avenue Q know theater and they know that if you try fit people into cookie-cutter performances that you wouldn’t get the best out of them. We’re all very different, the women who have played Kate Monster and Lucy the Slut, and to try and have us all do it all exactly the same wouldn’t be good. So they’re really lovely about letting us find our own performances, of course within parameters. I wasn’t told to do anything just because a person had done it before me.
[I had to] discover ways to give Kate three-dimensionality, really to flesh her out. I decided her nervous tic is that she fixes her hair. It’s something that looks good on her, with her little paw and her cute little hair, so whenever she’s sort of unsure or nervous, she fixes her hair behind her ear, as often we do as girls. It wasn’t anything anybody ever told me to do. And that’s the fun thing: over time, becoming able to make your own choices. I really love as an actor to be on stage and be in the moment and react differently every night. With a puppet, it’s more complicated, because I can’t just do something drastically different with her and know that it’s going to read. It just may not look right; I’d have to check in the mirror that it’s a gesture that even translates. So everybody’s performance morphs slowly over time. Rick Lyon used to say, “There are no accidents in puppetry.” Everything has to be planned out.

Do you consider yourself a traditional musical leading lady?
I don’t really know what that means, but I don’t think so. I get uncomfortable with that idea of the categories that we’re put in in this business. I feel we all want to defy categorizing. I know I’ve been really happy with the shows that I’ve worked on, with my career path, so I’m not all that concerned about it. I do tend to do more new musicals, which I prefer. I really love creating characters and being there during the creative process. It’s so much fun, and so fulfilling to know that you had a hand in making something good and making it work.

Now, Lucy is not the type of character you usually play...
I very rarely get to play the mean girl, the bad girl. She’s not mean; she’s just no-nonsense. So that has been tremendously fun. To play both the bad girl and the good girl in the same show is the best ever—how often do you get to do that? And not just in the same show, but in the same scene…to literally have a fight with yourself on stage is just delicious.

You got into the Rent tour after only about a year in New York. Have you been working steadily ever since?
That’s an interesting question, because that’s what spawned Shafrika. Rent was my first Equity gig and then I went and did the Broadway company and I thought, “All right, I’ve done it. I’ve been on Broadway, I’m here! I’m a professional actor now.” Then I didn’t work again for two years. I couldn’t even get an agent. It was during that time that I was like: I can’t get a job. What am I going to do? And I thought, They say if you can’t find work, create your own. But what does that mean? I’m not a playwright. Well, they say if you’re a new writer, write what you know. What do I know? The story of my family. That’s something that’s unique, or particular, to me. I’d gotten very good over the years at telling these [family] stories, so at the very least I knew people wouldn’t be bored, because the stories of my brothers and sisters are compelling. So I gave it a shot. I started writing down the stories, and then April came alongside and helped me make them theater. And a mere 10 years later…

Are you planning another production of Shafrika?
felt in many ways to me like giving birth, and I’m still recovering from the birth. So I can’t think about a second baby yet. It far exceeded my expectations on so many levels. I can’t believe the amount of talent that came to work on the show.

What ever became of the plans to move Zanna, Don’t! to Broadway?
I know there were efforts, and I don’t honestly know what happened with that. I would have loved it, not simply for my career but because I feel like it’s an important musical for people to see. The message of acceptance and love was so nicely done, and it was such a fun, fun musical. It was interesting to be in a show where by the end, you had people cheering and hoping and wishing that the world didn’t turn straight—’cause it was set in a world where everyone’s gay. That’s a really clever way of opening eyes. I think that if it had gone to Broadway, it would have done a lot of good.

Tell us about your theater company, Jaradoa.
It’s really the best thing I ever did. It provides fulfillment for me that just performing in theater never could. I feel so blessed when my life is balanced with being able to perform at night and do the work that is meaningful to me during the day. It feels like an embarrassment of riches at those times.
April Nickell had been talking for years about a theater company that only half of what it did was productions, and the other half was theater-based outreach. Basically, it was a way of getting theater people to serve the community using their biggest assets—which are their theater talents. I think the reason that we’ve snowballed so quickly is there’s such a thirst out there to serve. It’s hard for theater professionals to find ways to serve that accommodate their crazy, erratic lives and difficult schedules.
Our mission is to promote mercy, beauty and truth through performance and service. The good news about that is that any good theater, on some level, is drenched in mercy, beauty and truth. One of the things we like to say is we do theater that asks better questions. We like to do theater that resonates and inspires but is never preachy or agenda-driven. The productions we do are always informing the outreach we do, and vice versa, so when we do theater, we always have student matinees for the kids that we serve and we try to give away seats to people who wouldn’t ordinarily see theater or be able to afford it. It’s very also important to us that our cast reflect the diversity of New York City and our world. It’s important for kids to see people on stage who look like them.

What kind of outreach does Jaradoa do?
The cornerstone of our outreach is Play On!, a playwriting and acting course that we bring to public schools and afterschool programs. We took it to an alternative-to-incarceration program for teenage felons, and we’re eventually going to be bringing it into prisons and into work with veterans and military families. The beauty of it is it has many functions. With children, it helps with literacy—literacy and theater is one of our big focuses—but also with self-expression and self-esteem and communication skills. It’s therapeutic. I think anyone in theater knows the healing properties that learning to express yourself through art has.
We also do other theater and literacy work with schools. April has a friend who is a literacy expert—she teaches kids who have a fractured relationship with reading. She says that the kids have problems with envisioning, like making a movie in their mind, of what they’re reading. Or they have trouble figuring out who the protagonist is, how they get what they want, how they’re different at the end. They have trouble feeling empathy for the characters. April’s jaw dropped; she said, “That’s exactly what directors and actors do when they approach a script. They ask all those very same questions and do those very same tasks. There’s gotta be a way that we can work together to use theater to help kids with their reading and writing skills.” So we’ve developed a number of different programs to do that in schools.
Another one of our outreach programs is for the elderly. This is simpler, and much easier to get volunteers plugged into: We do radio plays at old folks’ homes. It just involves people showing up and reading a part or singing a standard, and then we sit around and chat with the old folks afterward. There really is a generational divide these days; we don’t spend much time with our elders. I can’t even tell you the incredible stories that I’ve heard and the lovely words of wisdom that I’ve gotten from some of the elderly—that I never would have met if I hadn’t visited them doing Jaradoa radio theater.

When were you bitten by the theater bug?
I was always a performer because I found that singing loud was a way to get attention when I had nine brothers and sisters. Until college I didn’t think I could act, so I would always just sing louder and hope that no one noticed. It wasn’t until I got to college and started taking acting classes where they actually taught me tools so I knew what I was doing that I finally realized: Oh, I can do this, too. But I’ve always been tremendously pragmatic about it, so even when I was little and dreaming about it, I knew how hard a business it was. I knew I wanted to get a degree at a good school, so I’d have that as a backup plan. I don’t know when I realized that a career in this was even a feasible idea. I think I was already doing it for a few years before I believed it might be true.

Are any of your siblings performers?
My oldest brother, Tage, plays the trumpet for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. We’re not genetically related—he’s adopted—so it’s not like that ran in our family. He’s the first black person to ever play for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, which is something we’re very proud of.

How has your upbringing influenced you as a performer?
My parents wanted to make sure that we grew up in a diverse city [Cambridge, Mass.] and went to public schools that were diverse. It was really there that shaped my taste in music, which is to say I started really liking music with soul. And that was the way I always wanted to sing. That’s sort of informed the kind of shows I’ve been in—more often, I end up in the pop/rock musicals than in the classic “legit” musicals. So that’s how my family has shaped my career.
In terms of how it’s made me me, it’s made me very aware of being a good team player, working well in groups. I was so happy in Zanna, Don’t! because it seemed so perfect for me, because I crave, crave attention—I want my moment in the spotlight—but then I get very uncomfortable if I get too much attention and I want to defer back to the group. It was such a lovely ensemble piece, where I got to step forward and be featured and then step back and be one of the ensemble. That felt so right to me. I also find that I end up often in shows that look like my family—the diversity of my family.

So, what’s on your schedule after Avenue Q closes?
I am planning a fall of travels. I’m going to places all over the world where I know people I can stay with for free [laughs]: Norway, Denmark, Holland, Italy, London…and, more locally, Martha’s Vineyard. My whole fall of travels may be ruined by one call from my agent, you never know. But I’m hoping that it will pan out.

Photos of Anika, from top: with Avenue Q’s Kate Monster; with Q costar Robert McClure and their respective puppets the morning after for Princeton and Kate; as a roller-skating Greek goddess in Xanadu; playing Lucy the Slut on the Avenue Q tour; center, with the cast of Shafrika, The White Girl; with Joshua Henry in 2007’s Serenade; center, circa 1977, with six of her nine siblings. [Avenue Q photos by Carol Rosegg]

This is the first in a series of “exit interviews” with members of the last Broadway cast of Avenue Q. Check back with BWW soon for our chats with original (and final) cast members Jennifer Barnhart and Ann Harada.

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