Move your mouth when you talk.
Don’t stand on stage with your mouth open, staring blankly at the stage floor or at the lighting rig.
Try not to slump over or collapse on stage.
These are challenges that even the greenest of performers don’t need to dedicate too much thought or effort to. And yet, for myself and the other puppeteers in Altona City Theatre’s production of Avenue Q, opening this week, we’ve had to learn them all over again.
Part of the broad appeal of Sesame Street, and the wider Muppet-verse, is the deceptive simplicity of both the puppets and the puppeteering style. Think about Kermit; no moving eyes, no fingers, a simple open-and-close mouth, and yet we’re so instantly and easily convinced that he’s happy, sad, frustrated, angry, etc.
As simple as the puppet seems, it turns out there’s a whole lot of work that goes into making us, the audience, believe he’s not just an oversized felt glove.
In addition to being a fan of the show that beat Wicked to the ‘Best Musical’ Tony, I auditioned for Avenue Q because I thought, in my increasingly debilitating ignorance, that I would enjoy the simple challenge of playing around with puppets.
The show, if you’re the unlikely Theatre Person™ who hasn’t heard of it, is a delightful parody of the Sesame Street universe, used to tell a mature (yet appealingly childish) story about love, meaning, growing up and, of course, porn.
Human characters, including a posthumous appearance from Gary Coleman (played to utter perfection by Natalie Calia), interact with puppets as they go about their daily struggles.
I was added to the cast — a mind-blowing one that includes Jez Hunghanfoo (Princeton/Rod), Penny Bruce (Kate/Lucy), Dave Barclay (Nicky/Trekkie), and Tegan Jones (Christmas Eve) — once rehearsals had begun, among them a series of puppeteering workshops led by professional puppet-wrangler Darren Varley.
Perfecting eye contact between two puppets, sounding out vowels and consonants perfectly with a rigid puppet mouth, nailing the puppet’s walk; these were among the many intricate techniques each of us needed to develop to the point where they were second nature. Instinct.
The processes of putting on a show — processes we’re so familiar with — all needed to be adjusted for the benefit of the puppets. Lines, music, blocking; all had to be learned as quickly as possible to accommodate the additional puppetry elements.
But just as we were starting to despise the puppets for their neediness, their complexity and the effect they were having on our forearm muscles, the world of Avenue Q began to appear around us.
The set started coming together. Amazingly animated videos and flawless sound clips appeared. Props and specially-made puppet costumes were added. And soon we all, even those of us with the puppets on our arms, began to believe were on Avenue Q, a place where a puppet is more real than the person holding him or her. Where you understand why Monsters are so sensitive about their ‘race.’ Where it’s okay to laugh at somebody else’s expense, because it makes you feel better about yourself.
Of course, to pull this off, to make the countless, complex elements come together takes one hell of a team. And this, fortunately, has been one hell of a team.
Director Dean Mitchelmore’s love of puppets (and experience directing them in Altona City Theatre’s Little Shop of Horrors) has been evident throughout the process, encouraging the cast to find their inner puppet (or, in Natalie’s case, their inner Gary Coleman).
Dan Heskett’s always-brilliant musical direction and truly incredible band has brought the best out of every note, despite multiple character voices, puppets covering mouths, and all the other challenges this particular show brings. And believe me, when you hear the band play "Loud as the Hell you Want (When You’re Making Love)," you’ll wish you could rewind time to hear it again and again.
A set that looks straight out of Sesame Street and New York City, a crew as ready to grab a rollerblading puppeteer as they are to move a set piece or open a trap door in the stage, and a technical team that I believe could fix the Spider Man musical in half an hour; they all share the same vision and have all been working tirelessly (and literally around the clock) to bring it together.
But, of course, there’s no show without the puppets themselves, and therein lies one of the most incredible feats I’ve seen in all my time in and around theatre.
Our team of puppet makers — led by Kristen Mitchelmore — have made over 30 puppets from scratch. From ‘rehearsal puppets’ to the finished products, naked puppets for the ruder moments, and blank ‘whatnot’ puppets whose eyes, hair and clothes can be switched around to create all-new characters; each are the product of hundreds of hours of work.
The puppets are, of course, based on the same design elements that made Jim Henson’s puppets, and the original Avenue Q puppets, so beloved. But our puppet team has even gone even further for the sake of authenticity, importing the actual fleece used by Jim Henson’s workshop to use on this very special ‘cast.’
As the puppets have been finished, with costumes, jewellery, makeup, facial features, tongues and other similar touches added, the cast has been able to further develop the nuances of the characters, in what’s been a wonderfully symbiotic relationship.
I’m biased, of course, but I’m also incredibly lucky; through all the tireless work carried out by dozens and dozens of people, I’ve been lucky enough to share the stage with some of the most endearing characters you’ll ever get to meet. They may be made of felt, and they may be singing about hypothetical homosexuality, but they’ve stolen my heart.
And trust me, whether you’ve seen Avenue Q before or not, they’ll steal yours too.
Tristan Lutze, Ensemble (& Bad Idea Bear)
Avenue Q opens this Friday, 11 February, at Altona City Theatre.
Tickets are available by calling 0425 705 550 or visit www.altonacitytheatre.com.au
Priceton/Rod — Jez Hunghanfoo
Kate Monster/Lucy the Slut — Penelope Bruce
Nicky/Trekkie — David Barclay
Gary Coleman — Natalie Calia
Christmas Eve — Tegan Jones
Brian — Chris Welldon
Ensemble — Tristan Lutze, Patt Ryan, Laura Wilson