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Puppets take center stage in 'Avenue Q'

  • Avenue Q:
    Avenue Q:  Actors rehearse a scene from "Avenue Q" on the Phi Beta Kappa Hall stage.  Photo by Katianna Tron '16
  • Avenue Q:
    Avenue Q:  Actors rehearse a scene from Avenue Q on the Phi Beta Kappa Hall stage.  Photo by Katianna Tron '16
  • Avenue Q:
    Avenue Q:  Actors rehearse a scene from Avenue Q on the Phi Beta Kappa Hall stage.  Photo by Katianna Tron '16
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Actors file into the theatre, carrying with them a prop not usually found within the walls of Phi Beta Kappa Hall. Some are furry; others clothed and fully outfitted. All are controlled by the talented hands of William & Mary students. These puppets serve as the real stars of the Department of Theatre, Speech and Dance’s latest musical: "Avenue Q."

The witty and whimsical Broadway success will hit the stage for a special two-weekend run starting Thursday, Nov. 12. The musical, which centers around a recent college graduate attempting to find his way in New York City, contains mature content, including adult language and themes.

{{youtube:medium:left|YtIbehsZiZA, In rehearsal: 'Avenue Q'}}

The critically acclaimed "Avenue Q," known for winning the “Triple Crown” of Tony-awards (Best Book, Best Score and Best Musical), has seen performances on- and off-Broadway, in addition to six years of countrywide touring, according to a press release from the theatre department.

Associate Professor of Theatre Laurie Wolf is directing the William & Mary production of the musical and has dedicated the better part of a year preparing for it.

Earlier this semester, William & Mary students had the opportunity to work with the official "Avenue Q" Puppet Camp director, Kevin Noonchester, on all aspects of integrating puppets into a play. The actors must focus on the various nuanced mannerisms that make their puppets more realistic, such as how wide to open their puppets’ mouths when laughing.

Another unexpected but essential aspect of giving the puppets a realistic nature is the maintenance of a normal eye line. Actors must take special care to ensure that the puppets’ eyes are directed at the audience in the same way as a human actor to enhance the idea that the puppets are themselves actors just as much as the humans around them.

When asked about the most challenging aspect of working with puppets, actor Andrew Perry ’16 named a very fundamental struggle.

“The perspiration,” quipped Perry.

Actor Madeleine Murphy ’16 was surprised by the wide variety of unique challenges that the puppets have posed as they are incorporated into the musical.

“I am surprised by how difficult it is to perform with a puppet,” said Murphy. “There are 10 times more factors to consider when you are focused on your puppet's face, arm and voice, as well as your own.”

Featuring a wide variety of songs including “It Sucks to Be Me” and “Everyone is a Little Bit Racist,” the musical strikes a delicate balance between the whimsical and child-like medium of puppets and the satirical, mature nature of the content.

Abby Bowman ’16, stage manager for the musical, thinks the play provides an opportunity to start a discussion of several different societal issues.

“Working on this musical has allowed me to more critically view it,” said Bowman. “I want audiences to leave discussing whether aspects of the show are actually OK to laugh at or to say. It allows for a lot of analysis and discussions about race, sexuality, gender, poverty.”

Balancing the playful medium and mature content of "Avenue Q" has stretched and challenged the musical's cast, just as working with the puppets has.

But, at this point, the puppets themselves have very much become part of the cast, said Bowman.

“These are a talented group of actors being able to manipulate both themselves, and puppets who are like a whole other people to us now,” she said.

So much so, in fact, that the actors have seemed to befriend them.

The most rewarding aspect of working with puppets for Perry?

“Having someone to talk to in my down time,” he said.