BWW Interview: Jessie Cannizzaro Talks Filming PUFFS, the Play Itself, and Being a Harry Potter Nerd
We all know about the boy who lived, but you probably don't know about his Hufflepuff classmates. In fact, other than a couple of big names like Cedric Diggory or Newt Scamander, most people know little about the hard working, loyal, and patient Hufflepuffs. Well, never fear. Off-Broadway's hit comedy Puffs, OR: SEVEN INCREASINGLY EVENTFUL YEARS AT A CERTAIN SCHOOL OF MAGIC AND MAGIC is here to better acquaint with this group of earnest castoffs who are always just outside of the spotlight. To get the inside scoop on the side-splitting play and its Kickstarter backed filming on February 3 and 4, we chatted with actress Jessie Cannizzaro.
I hear you're possibly one of the biggest fans of the Harry Potter universe. Tell me a little bit about that.
It's true. I'm a giant Potter nerd, and I love the fandom that I grew up being a part of. I fell in love with the books right around the same age as a certain boy wizard, as we say, was off to magic school. I grew up reading about that journey. I went to every midnight book release party, every midnight movie release, would cosplay as my favorite characters, go to wizard rock concerts, and then went to a very nerdy high school and a very nerdy college that never had football teams but had a certain sport played on broomsticks.
When I graduated college, I came back to New York to be an actor, but my very first day job out of school was working as a wizard at the official Potter exhibition. So, I got to wear wizard robes, talk in a British accent, and be an expert on our giant collection of over 200 artifacts from all eight movies. It was kind of a dream-come-true job. Then, of course, being a part of Puffs has been the continuation of a very long love story with the fandom and the fan community. I feel very lucky.
How did you come to be a part of Puffs?
It was started by a group of friends. Back in 2015, most of the Puffs cast met working as Bats, the resident acting company at The Flea Theater down in TriBeCa. We met there, collaborated on a number of different projects, and developed a camaraderie with one another.
When our wonderful playwright, Matt Cox - who was also part of the theater - had this idea for Puffs, I was sitting with him at the bar with a couple other future Puffs cast members. I said something like, "If you need someone to play a broomstick in the background or a house elf, I would love to be a part of that."
Then, we did the first reading of Puffs in June of 2015 at the Peoples Improv Theater. We were supposed run for five performances that winter. Some people found out from hype people, some articles were shared online, and suddenly we were extended for eight months at the Peoples Improv Theater. We transferred to The Elektra Theatre in 2016. Then, we somehow transferred to New World Stages in 2017, which was certainly a dream come true. To have this show that was developed between friends on a shoestring budget to transfer twice and then make it to New World Stages has been a true Puffs underdog story come to life.
I like that you mention that it was originally done on a shoestring budget. When I finally got to see the play at New World Stages, I loved the fact that it looks homemade, but in a good way. It does a great job setting the atmosphere for the hilarity that ensues.
I'm glad that that reads because that is definitely where we feel the heart of the show is. Even though we're now in this really cool, fancy place and we increased the budget, we wanted to maintain that shoestring budget heart of the show. We want it to have that homemade feel. Our wonderful cast member Madeleine Bundy actually designed all the props, sets, and costumes. So, it's a real labor of love amongst all of us.
PUFFS recently did a Kickstarter campaign to film and preserve the play. You'll be filming on February 3rd and 4th. Tell me about that.
It's very, very exciting. It's something that we've wanted to do for a very long time. As the show has grown over the last couple of years and people have heard about it online, we've gotten messages that say, "I'm not able to make it to New York. Is there any way I can still see the show?" People all around the world are wanting to see it, which is really cool and exciting. And, we're finally in the place where we feel like we can film it, preserve it, and have it be the thing we would love it to be for everybody.
The fans of Puffs are some of the most incredible fans in the Off-Broadway community, I think. They have come dressed up as our characters. They have come to see the show multiple times. We really love them with all of our Puff hearts. So, it was really cool to be able to invite the fan community in to help up make the filming be the best it could possibly be for them, and to invite them to sort of share that experience. So, this weekend we're filming it, which has been a long time in the making. And it's going to be a lot of fun to have some of our most diehard fans in the audience with us, sharing in this experience.
Filming a play is somewhat crazy because you often do it in front of a group of live audiences, and then you have to do pick-up shots - usually without a live audience - as well. How is Puffs being filmed?
The plan is that we are filming a live show on Saturday night and a live show on Sunday. Then, we're actually going to have whoever can stick around for those pick-up shots and B-roll filming after the fact. The hope is that we will have a live audience full of fans and friends for the whole filming experience. It's going to be a whirlwind two-days. The whole being done with fans in the audience is great for us because so much of the show has been built to be tongue-in-cheek and a nod to the fandom community. It's definitely important for us to have fans there for the entire filming process. They are as much a part of the show as we are.
That makes sense. And, we all know comedy doesn't read as well when you don't have people laughing along with you.
Exactly! We'll certainly have at least my mom laughing along in the audience the whole time.
I'm no diehard fan of Harry Potter, but I really enjoyed that the show playfully pokes fun at the differences between the books and the films. What was the inspiration for those elements?
Well, again, I'm really glad that that comes across. It's definitely important to Matt [Cox], and certainly the whole company, that the show be something that you can be the most diehard fan, like myself, and catch every tiny little joke and every miniscule reference. Or, you can also be somebody who has the lightest, most zeitgeisty knowledge of the books and movies, and you'll still find something to know and love about the story that Matt has created.
For me, some of the best compliments we receive are from people who say, "I was dragged along by a friend. I've never read any of the books or seen any of the movies, and I still had an amazing time." That's when you know you're doing your job well. At the end of the day, Matt has crafted this underdog tale that speaks across all age groups and all fandoms. It's a really cool thing when something speaks not just to the specific fans you're reaching out to, but also to people who have no knowledge or experience of the thing you're referencing.
In the show, you play a handful of characters from the Sally Perks to Bippy the House Elf. What is like jumping through these different roles?
It's the ultimate, exciting challenge as an actor when you get to do something where you have to change on a dime. I have come up with these crazy different silly voices and mannerisms, and I get to go through this cast of characters all in 90-ish minutes.
The really cool thing about this group of people - my wonderful Puffs friends who have made this show - is that it was a very collaborative experience. In the rehearsal room, the script and the story was very much Matt [Cox]'s, but he was always very open to letting us try certain things. There was one day in rehearsal where he turned to me and said, "I might hate this, and I might cut it, but I'm going to let you try coming up with a theme song for Bippy." I said, "Alright, I'm going to write a theme song, and you're not going to cut it. You're going to like it!" So, the next day in rehearsal, I came back with this very silly, three-line theme song that I wrote for Bippy, and it made it into the show.
The really, really cool thing about Matt as a playwright and Kristin [McCarthy Parker] as a director is their sense of play in the rehearsal room, and their sense of letting us, as actors, try things out - like a crazy voice or signing a portion of text - and knowing that some of the best things come out of that playful rehearsal room vibe.
It obvious that the cast is still having that kind of fun, even now, on the stage, especially as you get to improv and adlib as much as each audience will allow.
Absolutely! It's incredible that, considering we started this show in the summer of 2015, we are ourselves are still finding ways to make each other laugh on stage and behind the scenes. As a script, it's alive!
There are these couple bits in the show that Matt [Cox] has designated that the actor can improvise and have a little bit of fun on stage. In particular, the Zach Smith sports moment. That is always a moment where its fun to watch the other actors trying not to laugh. The show, like you said, is a whirlwind of going from character to character. So, we, as a company, like to keep each other on our toes, and try and find moments where we can make each other laugh.
Nick Carrillo, who plays Zach Smith, and Langston Belton, who plays Oliver, we actually met them at the Peoples Improv Theater. They have this strong improv background, so they are just hilarious. Any time they can kind of have fun with it, we know that's is going to be something genius and hilarious. And, Nick has said a different thing in that Zach Smith moment for every single performance since 2015. I don't think he has ever done the same thing twice. I have to take my hat off to Nick for that. He is always coming up with something crazy, and that keeps us on our toes.
That sounds like a DVD special feature waiting to happen to me.
You need to make sure that all the different takes of that moment are captured and preserved so that whatever takes aren't used can be accessed as a bonus feature.
We just need to do an hour of him [Nick Carrillo] doing different things. That could be the director's cut extended edition.
Of the roles you perform, is there a favorite that you have?
I have to say, hands down, playing the House Elf named Bippy is my favorite character. Bippy is near and dear to my heart, and Bippy is my true spirit animal. Bippy just wants to go around hugging her friends, eating snacks, and singing songs about how much she loves people. And who doesn't, in some way, resonate with that little House Elf? Also, I just love doing silly, weird voices, and it's cool to have a job that lets you do silly, weird voices for a living.
I do also love getting to play the dragon in the first task. As someone who is a small person, just being able to wear a dragon onesie, have some ferocious wings, and play something that is as massive and scary as a dragon is super fun.
For anyone who is thinking of going into theater as a profession, what advice would you offer?
I think my favorite advice to give to people is to find your community. When I graduated from college, I sat down with a friend who is a professional working actor, and I asked that same question. He said, "Focus on finding your community." He recommended becoming one the The Bats at The Flea Theater or having an apprenticeship at Williamstown, so I could find a place where I could develop a community of artists, friends, and collaborators that I would like working with so I could then make work with them. So, audition during the day and have a day job that keeps you sane, but then make work that you love with people that you love making work with in your spare time.
If Puffs is any indication, that work can take you to some really cool places. And, it is often your best work because it is the work you care the most about and that you are the most invested in. That's the lesson that Puffs has taught me: you don't always have to wait for the work to come to you, you can choose to create the work you want to make.
PUFFS is currently running at New World Stages. For tickets and more information, please visit http://www.puffstheplay.com.