Rodgers and Hammerstein would roll over in their respective graves if they heard “It Sucks To Be Me,” “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” and “I’m Not Wearing Underwear Today,” songs from the Tony–winning Best Musical of 2003.
The show is Avenue Q, and it’s as far from “So Long, Farewell” and “Bali Hai” as a musical can get.
A transparent send–up of the Children’s Television Workshop and Sesame Street, Avenue Q is nevertheless a place unto itself — a place where grown–up children encounter real–world problems and solve them, or don’t solve them, through song, dance and sharp–edged humor.
Jeffrey DeVincent, the reigning Best Director in the Connect Savannah readers’ poll, is directing a local production of Avenue Q at Bay Street Theatre.
What with all the singing, dancing and primary–color acting, it’s a tough show to pull off.
Did we mention that more than half the cast consists of puppets?
“You’d think just a musical is big enough, difficult enough,” says DeVincent. “Yet you mix puppets in, and puppetry, choreography for puppets and costumes for puppets, and it is a gigantic undertaking.”
Still, he adds, the audition, workshopping and rehearsal processes have been loads of fun. “Before the auditions, we had Aretta Baumgartner come in from the Atlanta Center for Puppetry Arts. She did a workshop. And we had four nights of callbacks for this one, and I built puppet camp into it. Puppet boot camp. It was a full day.”
DeVincent chose his cast during the callbacks, knowing all the while that many, if not all, of his potential recruits had zero previous puppet experience.
“I taught them how to do what I was looking for throughout the process,” he says. “I gave the called–back people these little ‘peeper eyes,’ which are basically just eyes on a ring, and they function as puppets. They help you with focus. They help you transition from yourself into your puppet hand and all that good stuff. They got to take those home every night and practice.
“The middle finger is where you would wear the ring with the eyes on it. That’s how you can kinda tell where the puppet’s center focus would be. The audition process was much longer than usual. I had to teach a lot as we went — and it was wonderful, a really, really good experience.”
These aren’t homemade Avenue Q puppets, by the way. There’s a place in Rochester, N.Y. that rents them for community theater shows.
Bay Street regular Christopher Stanley — last seen as Roger in Rent — found his inner puppeteer. It was a pleasant learning experience, if not particularly easy.
“It’s a new thing to be thinking about, especially with hand/eye coordination,” Stanley reports. “Moving the mouth correctly, and then adding choreography to that, and still trying to get your mouth to be independent of the beat. Actually looking like it’s talking was a challenge early on.”
Onstage the puppeteers, dressed in black, make no attempts to disguise themselves. Unlike Bert, Ernie or Oscar the Grouch, these puppets aren’t partially hidden behind boxes or inside trash cans.
Keeping the puppet active, Stanley says, is paramount. “You want the audience to be looking at the puppet instead of you. If you’re not thinking about the puppet, you’re thinking about how tired your arm is. As long as you’re engaged in the puppet, you really don’t notice it till you get offstage, and then you’re like ‘Wow. That took a lot out of me.’”
Similar to Sesame Street (which was, back in the day, quick to remind the public it did not in any way endorse this occasionally profane, decidedly adult show) Avenue Q is populated by real, live people who interact with the wacky puppets.
Which presented another unique challenge for the Bay Street performers.
“It was a little strange at first,” says actor and singer Thomas Houston. “Because you got directions like ‘Make sure you look at the puppet and not the person.’ Once you got past that, over the course of rehearsal as everyone got better at working with their puppets, the puppets gained more personality and became the characters. They got more fleshed out, so to speak. Then it was a lot easier to treat them as the actual characters instead of the person holding them up.
“And then of course like every other scene someone’s parking on my shoulder, or my head or something. So you can’t ignore the puppet because it’s on your shoulder talking to you.”
Directing Avenue Q has been a back–burner dream for DeVincent, who co-founded the SCAD theater department and is now a professor of communication.
He saw the show during its initial Broadway run. And saw it again. And saw it again.
“I saw Avenue Q five times in one weekend,” the director says with a chuckle. “Even the Golden Theatre was a rather small theater, for my laugh. I just remember being embarrassing in that place. First time I saw it, I was down on the floor, and the second time I was up in the balcony. And I could literally hear my giant laugh careening through the entire space.
“I just find great humor in the darkness of life, or commenting on life and all of its foibles and troubles through the eyes of a child. Because that’s basically what the puppets are.”
There’s the key — as with Sesame Street, the little furry buggers are merely subconscious stand–ins for whoever’s watching.
“It’s about coming of age in your early 20s,” DeVincent says. “And those are the people that I work with every day of the week, people coming into their 20s.
“As far as I know, I was in the very first generation of kids watching Sesame Street when it hit the air. They actually used to show it as part of the school day.”
Where: Bay Street Theatre at Club One, 1 Jefferson St.
When: At 7:30 p.m. Aug. 9, 10, 12, 17–19, 24–26
All shows 21+ except Sundays