For those of us who grew up to the felted pedagogy of Sesame Street, the lack of puppet guidance later in life is sorely missed. It’s especially noticable when we need answers to racier questions ("Am I racist?" "Can I make love as loud as I want?"). Fortunately, Balagan Theatre promises to answer those pressing adult questions—and teach you unfathomable puppet sex positions—in its local production of the Tony-winning musical, Avenue Q. The lessons aren’t falling on empty seats either. Balagan opened to a packed house last weekend and has nearly sold out its run. The theater just added four additional Sunday performances to meet the public's puppet demands.
We caught up with Avenue Q’s assistant director and puppeteer trainer Doug Willott to talk all things felt.
What was the process you used to train local actors to work with puppets?
The actors all had different experience levels with puppetry, so it was unrealistic to find one universal way to train them in such a short amount of time. Instead, I focused on each actor finding their own way to bring their puppet to life on stage.
What sort of tips did you give the actors to help them ease into the role of puppeteer?
To look at the audience and not the puppets. Then, to help the actors trust their puppet to have a life of its own, I encouraged them to spend time conversing with it one on one: seeing how it moved, how it responded to their comments, finding its own voice. It helps them get to a point where they can slip their arm in and let the puppet do the work. Also, a big note: Drop the thumb to talk rather than moving your fingers up. It helps the eyes stay level. Think of it like human jaws—we move the bottom portion, rather than tilting our heads back, when we talk.
What is your personal experience with puppets?
I grew up addicted to Muppets. Since then, I've always had the urge to pick up puppets and bring them to life whenever they're around. I've taken workshops with various teachers over the years, and studied a lot of methods through my own personal research.
Which puppet is your favorite?
I don't know if I have one particular favorite puppet in Avenue Q; they're all so different and great in their own way. In general, I've always had a connection to Kermit (the Frog), since he takes charge of his own life and follows his dreams. There's no better lesson in life than learning to do exactly that.
What was it like directing a puppet sex scene?
Puppet sex is very fun—both for me directing it, the actors portraying it, and of course, the puppets getting the action. We chose to make it a ridiculous, energetic romp of a scene. Not everything made it in. ... It looked wonderfully graphic in rehearsals.
Thru Dec 16, Balagan Theatre, $20–$25