BWW Interview: Matthew Smith of AVENUE Q at The Hilberry Theatre says It's Hilarious Because Where Else Can You See Puppets Swear on Stage?
The Hilberry Theatre is kicking off their 56th anniversary with the hilarious musical, Avenue Q, opening this Friday, September 21st in Detroit. The musical with book and lyrics by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx is a three-time Tony Award winning show, including Best Musical, has been shocking and amusing audiences since it debuted in 2003. What makes Avenue Q different than any other show? It's a hilarious adult-only spoof done with puppets that will keep the audience laughing from the very first musical number until the last note is finishes. BroadwayWorld Detroit had a chance to speak with Matthew Smith, a member of the Hilberry Company, who plays Nicky in Avenue Q about the show, the puppetry, and why everyone should come out for fulfilling night of laughter.
BroadwayWorld Detroit: Can you give our readers a brief background of yourself and then your theatre career as an introduction?
Matthew Smith: I am as second year Master of Fine Arts graduate student at Wayne State University. I'm from Shakopee, Minnesota, which is about a half hour south of the twin cities. I started acting around the age of 8 or 10 in small productions. We used to have a small company that would come through my town for kids and I have basically been doing it ever since. I did my undergrad as a Bachelor in Arts at the University of Minnesota Duluth. I spent about six years doing professional work in Duluth, Minnesota as well community theater and the surrounding area. That's where I got my certifications in fight choreography, which is sort of my main avenue of study. I'm a certified acting combatant with the Society for American Fight Directors, as well an apprentice teacher with Dueling Arts International. Then I started doing graduate school two years and it's been an absolutely amazing experience. I also had an opportunity this summer to Macbeth in a production of Macbeth at Richmond Shakespeare in Richmond, Indiana, and that has sort of been a big highlight moment for me.
BWW Detroit: Avenue Q is a well-known show, but how would you describe it in your own words?
Matthew Smith: Avenue Q is surprisingly relevant. It's been around since the early 2000s and we are doing it in 2018. It's still the same issues that people deal with on a daily basis and put to puppets. It's a great way to express really difficult situations, but also being able to laugh at the hilarity that everyone has this problem, it's not just you.
BWW Detroit: How would you describe your character, Nicky?
Matthew Smith: Nicky is the quintessential procrastinator. He is sort of lazy. He is very messy. But he loves unconditionally. He's a very generous also regular everyday slacker type.
BWW Detroit: Have you worked with puppets before?
Matthew Smith: Aside from the puppets my mom bought me when I seven that would I sit behind the couch and play with, no.
BWW Detroit: I take it the special preparation that you did for the role was learning puppetry?
Matthew Smith: Yeah, that was a biggest thing. It's a lot of self-work because it really is a lot more muscular than you think it is. Nicky is a two-handed puppet, which means one hand in his mouth hand and another hand is physically in hand, which is usually his left, because my right hand is generally his mouth. And then I have a second who is one of the ensemble members who comes in and plays my right hand. Holding the puppet first of all is all shoulder muscles and in order to keep it from making the puppet from looking like its talking to the ceiling, the best way to describe is to make your hand look like goose and open your thumb downward. You get a lot of work on that big thumb pad muscle as well as right in the middle of forearm. For someone like Quint Mediate who plays both Princeton and Rod, he's basically on stage the whole time. I've been able to see his forearm grown over the course of this process because he's constantly working it. People like the puppetry on Sesame Street or anything that you see makes it looks so effortless, but when you actually do it, it's hard work.
BWW Detroit: Do you think that this as opened your eyes to the people who do puppetry on a regular basis like in the Broadway show of Disney's The Lion King or Sesame Street, after going into this completely blind without puppetry skills?
Matthew Smith: Yeah, it really has opened my eyes. The idea is you walk into puppetry and you are like "yeah puppets, I can figure out how to do puppets" and then you learn the basics and you learn the muscular function. We are sort of getting to the point of the process where have to start adding detail and we have to start adding very specific moments. It becomes interesting because when you are an actor, you do all sorts of things with your face that you have learned in everyday life, but a puppet only has such a limited range of emotion and you have to express the full breath of human emotion with that limited range. And it is definitely possible. You see it every day when really talented puppeteers work on their puppets and they can show everything - happiness to sadness to anger to regret - all of these emotions just by the simple turn of the head, just by the slight shade of the eye or anything like that. And when you try to do it, the devil's in the details. It's just a half centimeter one way or another and you've changed the feeling that your puppet is giving.
BWW Detroit: Do you have any special pre-show rituals that you do as an actor that you do with or without your puppet?
Matthew Smith: I definitely warm up physically. It's super important to me to be fully functioning and my body ready to move. If I don't warm up I can feel it, I'm much stiffer. Particularly as I said, my fore-arm doesn't want to move the way I want it to, so my puppet sort of loses the fluidity of motion. I definitely warm up physically and vocally. I'm also big into pacing. And I don't know when I picked that up. But it's just a thing I do where I just walk across the stage a couple of times to get my body moving, run over my lines, and really try to put myself in a head space to be ready to put on that character. And then particularly for this show I start talking in his voice because he has such a different one, Nicky does, then to what I traditionally use in speaking. Starting to talk in that voice lets me get into placement so that when I go out and start talking and singing, I'm not trying to find it during a scene, I'm ready with it immediately. I can just deliver on my first line.
BWW Detroit: Do you have a favorite moment or song in the show?
Matthew Smith: There's a great moment in the song "Schadenfreude" where Gary Coleman played by Jasmine Walker, who's extremely talented, and Nicky, my character, are singing. While we are singing "Scadenfreude" and there's a moment where one of the lines is "being on an elevator and hearing someone yell hold the door!" and the response is "f --- you lady, that's what stairs are for." I don't know why that is so funny, but I laugh at it every time on the inside and I can't help it. It's just one of my favorite moments and Jasmine Walker delivers the line beautifully. It is absolutely hilarious. For me, that is a moment I look forward to the entire show.
BWW Detroit: Why do you think Avenue Q is still relevant today?
Matthew Smith: I think really great art sort of still transcends it time period. Not that I want to compare Avenue Q to Moby Dick or Pride and Prejudice or anything like that, but there is something to be said about really well written, really visceral art that has a way of saying it doesn't really matter when this was written, it's talking about things that humans have always dealt with. A big moment for Avenue Q is the conversation is the what do you when you get out of college. I don't know a single person who has walked out of college that has gone I know exactly what I'm going to do with the rest of my life and I'm going to be happy from this point at that age of 22 till I die at the age of 80. I don't know anyone who has been able to say that. They may exist, I just don't know them. For me, the conversation of, one of the first lines, in the opening and sings, "what do you do with a BA in English? What is my life going to be?" I can't tell you how many times, personally as a person with a BA in theatre and I went alright now what? Everybody told me to go to college. Nobody told what to do afterwards. That searching for your purpose. That looking for what is going to define you as a person. The finding solidarity in not knowing and being okay with that. It kind of crosses all boundaries. It speaks to everybody that has kind of had that struggle of not kind of having that direct line in life and trying to find where you belong in the world.
BWW Detroit: What makes the Hilberry Theatre's production of Avenue Q special?
Matthew Smith: I think what makes the Hilberry Theatre's production of Avenue Q special is our ability to really relate directly to the moments of the show being that we are all almost exact age of all the characters in the show. Quint Mediate, who is playing Princeton and Rod, recently graduated from undergrad, and now he is in his graduate degree and came directly from Norte Dame University. He's playing the character who is searching for his purpose. In the time of my life, that is when I was looking for what am I going to do with my life, what is motivating me. He has that direction connection there. There's a great song, "I Wish I Could Go Back to College," which is sung between Kate Monster (Lani Williams), Princeton (Quint Mediate), and myself as Nicky; and the thought is I wish I could go back to college because you know who you are and secretly that is why I came back to grad school because I was to trying to help myself find who I was and help define my personage as I continued work professionally in theatre. So that wish to go back and have a direct purpose, we all have that that connection. As a university production, we have the ability to connect directly to depth, and confusion, and the power to accept that you can't control everything and still be constantly searching for what makes you unique and where do you fit.
BWW Detroit: Why should people come see the Hilberry Theatre's production of Avenue Q?
Matthew Smith: It's hilarious. I don't know of any other Broadway shows where you can see puppets swear on stage so that's wonderful. It is such an incredibly unique show. Like I said before it's got visceral public commentary but at the same time, it's touching, it's heartfelt, and it's genuine. I personally think everyone in cast is doing an absolutely amazing job fully connecting with their characters, finding their purpose, and really driving home the messages that Avenue Q sort of intents. The messages of community, of connection, that sometimes you just aren't going to know where you going and that's okay. Regardless of whether you are 22 just coming out of college, your 12 and trying to get through middle school, or your 75 living your life as you want, we can all connect to the ideas of community; we can all connect to ideas of connection; we can all connect to the ideas of love; and connect to the ideas really finding where you fit in and finding a place where you belong.
Please note: Avenue Q is not appropriate for children.
Avenue Q opens this Friday, September 21st at Hilberry Theatre on Wayne State University's Campus in Detroit. From more information and tickets, visit theatreanddanceatwayne.com.