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How [not] to do Avenue Q

Discussion in 'Puppet Building and Performing' started by davidmartiste, Aug 6, 2012.

  1. davidmartiste

    davidmartiste Well-Known Member

    Long read ahead. Those interested in Avenue Q or producing their own Avenue Q might find this more interesting than others.

    Let me be clear that I debated over posting this for a long time. I don't like it when people are just being negative online. I've always wanted to contribute something positive so, it's difficult when that 'positive' may come in the form of constructive criticism. Just being critical makes one look like an idiot. My hope is that an aspiring community theatre director may care so much for their production of Avenue Q that they bother to do some research first. I also hope that this could be an ongoing dialogue of things that may have worked or things that you should avoid while producing Avenue Q. I know MC's very own puppetmancan [Andrew Agee] was recently in a production as well and I would love for him to add his own observations on producing a successful show.

    I don't think I'm anyone special but I have been performing in and producing community theatre for some 30 years. My first production was Oliver! when I was 12. I was a puppeteer from the time I was 10, watching Sesame Street and The Muppet Show. I have been lucky to be able to take classes with Puppet School's Michael Earl and Christian Anderson of Avenue Q. Still, I don't claim to be the best at what I do. My talents are always evolving but, I do notice good and not-so-good puppeteering when I see it.

    I wanted to also note that a theatre peer of mine mentioned that he thought someone local should do Avenue Q and use me in the cast while also, somehow, having me make the characters for the show. I understand my skills are not strong enough to build all the characters nor do I have any desire to make them. Though the thought may be flattering, I often say that a puppeteer's end-game should not be to just work on Sesame Street or be in Avenue Q. We should be the best expression of the type of artist we want to be. Even if you don't use an original script for your puppet company, MAKE it original, with your touch. As far as performing in Avenue Q, I love Avenue Q and I would be so afraid of being in something lesser than what it could/ should be. The Avenue Q experience is SO pure on Broadway or at the hands of a professional cast - being done with people who care about how the puppetry is presented. As a purist, I found moments of a recent production to lack. I honestly feel Ave Q should only be done by professionals. Even with a strong director, I don't feel any community production could employ strong enough actor/puppeteers to get the results I would be proud of in my fellow performers and that's an often bitter pill one must swallow when doing community theatre.

    If you're still with me, here is the review a friend requested and my additional thoughts for the puppet purists and producers out there. Again, this was a community theatre production. Though no names are used to protect the innocent, enough time has past since the performances that nobody should feel wrongfully indicted.

    If I were a critic, I might start my review: Avenue Q proves it's Tony-worthy material despite serviceable production. Let's start with the puppets themselves since we ARE puppet geeks here. These were the MTI rental puppets. Although they were decent representations of the characters, I was surprised that Kate, Princeton and Rod's eye focus was obviously off and it looked like the fleece puppets were polar fleece, not Antron. The hands were stuffed without any wire armature which caused them to look stiff and too 'puppety' - completely splayed open the entire time. [Better rental puppets are available from both Swazzle and even a different stylized version from Russ Walko.] Since the build already cheapened the look, It felt like there were actors playing with puppets on stage at times and I was removed from the full experience of the puppets being the characters they should be but, I'm getting ahead of myself. The box puppets during Princeton's Purpose song are built by the local theatre company. When they were pre-set for the number, two of the boxes mouths were already gaping open. As the song began, you understand that they were broken at some point and nobody bothered to fix them. No puppet wrangling? Production values? Will the rest of the run be 'treated' to broken puppets? Yikes.

    Again, the cast was serviceable. The winning story line is apparent even in the hands of lesser actors. If you're a fan of the show, you'll recall you hear the opening Avenue Q theme being sung to a video. Without the video, this production began the show with the actors filling the stage in a line to sing the opening song without their puppets. It seemed the actors could have just stayed behind stage to sing it from there. The number lasts a full minute. It's not like you were filling in a large production number. It made it feel like they were saying "hi, we're the actors, and in a minute, we're gonna go put on our puppets" … completely negating the full character experience.

    One of the male leads was their 'master puppeteer'. His puppet skills were strong as his acting skills lacked. He checked out as a performer to concentrate on his master puppeteering apparently. No emotion, no connection to the action around him, blank. The best character and actor was the gentleman playing Trekkie. His exuberance brought him front and center with every line he had. You craved for more of that presence in the others. Kate Monster had a superb voice and great acting. Her puppeteering was tentative. The guy playing Rod was adorable and he had some spot-on bits. The puppeteering, again, was serviceable which was pretty much across the board. The Bad Idea Bears performers brought some excitement and fun to their roles. While the singing boxes were performed with thin vocals, I wondered why they didn't fill it out with a couple extra singers behind stage. There were moments when Lucy or Thistletwat completed their scene and they passed off the puppet before the lighting cue went down or a door was closed behind them so, you see a lifeless puppet as a glaring reminder that you're watching puppets - not characters. There was a lag in between a couple scene changes where I was awaiting the noise of crickets or a mac truck driving by. Pacing seemed slow. The woman playing Christmas Eve had a thin voice which can be a problem with community theatre casting. She learned her Japanese accent for the show which, when added to the thin voice, kept one from understanding her fully at times. It also prevented the hearty notes that a more capable voice could manage.
    I wanted to add that the show sold out several performances during the run and the theatre enjoys a very supportive local community. I understand those of us who may be theatre 'purists' are in the minority. The majority of the audience absolutely enjoyed and was enchanted by what they saw and, at the end of the day, at least they say, that's what counts. Still, I shudder at the idea that everyone and their brother thinks they can direct a show and consistently deliver less than stellar results when just a little more preparedness or expectation from your cast would have made it that much better.
  2. WillyThePig

    WillyThePig Well-Known Member

    I totally agree, I feel bad saying it but some of the regional/ non profit theatres have been half assing the whole show from the music( one piano accompanist or midi backing tracks is not acceptable) to the sets ( this one is a little more understandable because some do not have the space to accommodate a good set but i dont feel they did as good as they could have), to the puppets...oh my god, do not even get me started on the puppets...anyways thanks for trying to get people set on the right track.
  3. Adam Kreutinger

    Adam Kreutinger Well-Known Member

    At the end of the day it depends on the people working on the production. Last year I was approached by a local theater to design and build a set of puppets for their production of Avenue Q, and I was very hesitant for the same reasons you mentioned. It is a difficult show to pull of, but they did!!! I can confidently say that it was better than the national touring production I saw. They managed to locally find all of the necessary talent to perfect that show. You Can see some clips here

    for copyright reasons we are not aloud to post the audio.
  4. WillyThePig

    WillyThePig Well-Known Member


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