Q&A: The Residents of 'Avenue Q'
Not since I was 6 years old have I been so excited to see puppets dance and sing. When I was little, I liked to hear them sing about being nice. Now, it's all about the Internet, racism and economizing with cases of beer. Yep. "Avenue Q" is in town and it's outrageous in a very good way. It's the kind of show that I would love to screen for Sister Thomas Mary and the other straight-laced ruler-wielding instructors from my elementary school.
I got the chance to pose a few questions to cast members Kelli Sawyer, Rob McClure and David Benoit who perform as five different characters. They talk about sweat, their favorite show moments and how it felt to participate in a spoof of that other puppeted street, you know, the place "where the air is sweet."
How have you bonded with your puppet? Kelli Sawyer (Kate Monster, Lucy The Slut): That's a great question. I have a very personal relationship with the Kate Monster puppet. I've only been really faced with the reality of that relationship on two occasions: when the Vegas company closed and I had to walk away from the puppet and when I left the Broadway company. There's something so personal about these puppets because they are, at the very least, an extension of your artistic abilities. They are tools of expression, much like a musician's instrument. You almost can't help but feel that they could belong to no one but you. But that couldn't be farther from the truth. Kate Monster is the character that I try to honor every night on stage and, for that, I can't help but hold her in some bizarrely high esteem.
Rob McClure (Princeton/Rod): My puppets and I certainly bond as the tour goes on. Princeton shows me all the hot spots and Rod shows me all of the piano bars.
David Benoit (Nicky, Trekkie Monster, Bad Idea Bear): Literally my puppets and I are bonded... by sweat...sometimes its impossible to peel them off and/or put them on. No, but more seriously I have an affinity for my Nicky puppet. We have similar eyes and eyebrows. Big and bushy, and big and brown. He is a very sweet, warm puppet. He gives you the warm fuzzies.
What do you do to prepare for each night's show?
KS: At this point, I have my makeup routine down to fifteen minutes and that's a huge accomplishment for me. I think my hair is the biggest pain--I have to fix it like I would to go out on a date every single night. That gets so old. I consider the first 30 minutes of the show my warmup, so I do a quick vocal run to make sure I have all of my notes and then I'm good to go.
RM: Before each show, I do an extensive vocal warmup. The character voices needed for this show require an incredible amount of vocal stamina. I usually stretch my right arm as well. It has a rough night ahead.
DB: It sounds cliche, but I literally take a 20-minute shower and quietly vocalize. The steam is great and my voice has to be warm or else I'll be in trouble. The role is vocally demanding with all the character voices, so I try my best to keep the voice in shape. I also warm up my hands, wrists and fingers. And then peek through a hole in the fence on the set to check out the audience...sometimes high school rituals can't be broken.
You must've watched some "Sesame Street" when you were growing up. What did you think when you first saw the show or read the script?
KS: I first saw the show after my agent told me I had an audition for the part. Frankly, I was horrified. I said, "You have to be kidding, I could never do that." I thought every one of the puppeteers in the show was incredible. It unveiled the mystery of puppets for me! It's so easy to take puppeteering for granted. I grew up being entertained by Jim Henson's fabulous puppets, but I never really thought about the puppeteers behind those characters that I loved so much. I now see puppetry in a whole new way and have an incredible amount of respect for the people that are responsible for making those puppets come alive. Their talents are truly remarkable.
RM: I grew up on "Sesame Street" and "The Muppet Show." I worship Jim Henson and the empire he created.
And this script was not just a parody of that world, but a tribute to it. It shaped a lot of the lives that enjoy "Avenue Q" each night.
DB: I was a huge fan of children's television. In first grade I got a Bert puppet for Christmas. I would take him to show and tell and entertain the kiddie troops. I adored him. When I saw the show, I was really moved. There's a great humanity to it and much of it is told through humor. The show never seemed bitter, yet maintained a satirical edge and a huge heart. That's how I live, so I instantly identified with the show. Plus those puppets are so damn cute!
What is your favorite scene in the show?
KS: My favorite scene consists of very few lines and a quick little quip given by Kate Monster. It's right after Kate and her boyfriend break up and he's about to hook up with another girl. Kate gives him a one-liner that gets the audience every time and it's my favorite moment in the show. The writing is so clever and I absolutely love hearing the audience's reaction to ["Avenue Q" playwright] Jeff Whitty's brilliant choice. It's a little gem of a moment that I look forward to every night.
RM: Puppet sex scene! The audience reaction is always enthralling.
DB: I love singing "I Wish I Could Go Back to College." The song is beautiful, yet funny and a little bittersweet for me. Musically and harmonically, it is exciting and shows a more vulnerable "human" moment for the puppets and actors. Beyond that, as a comic actor, it is thrilling to hear audiences everywhere laughing uncontrollably. Very gratifying.
What do you want audiences to come away with?
KS: I don't think there's any question that this show delivers something that we all long to experience when we see theater. It's hysterically funny, but there's nothing shallow about the humor. It has depth and heart and we, as a company, try to honor that more than anything else. I want audiences to come away with an appreciation for the artistry that I am so proud to be a part of in "Avenue Q."
RM: I know the audience will come away laughing, but what I don't think they expect is to be so emotionally connected to these characters over the course of the evening. That heart is what, I believe, won "Avenue Q" the Tony.
DB: A feeling of hope, of warmth, of sore cheeks from smiling and laughing, and relief from any abnormal fears of puppets.
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