Weekender

How do you make a puppet smile? ‘Avenue Q’ cast faces new set of challenges

Penn State Centre Stage will present the Tony Award-winning musical “Avenue Q.” The production is notable for the use of puppets, animated by unconcealed puppeteers. From left are Allsun O’Malley handling “Kate Monster” and Kevin Clay handing “Princeton.”
Penn State Centre Stage will present the Tony Award-winning musical “Avenue Q.” The production is notable for the use of puppets, animated by unconcealed puppeteers. From left are Allsun O’Malley handling “Kate Monster” and Kevin Clay handing “Princeton.” Photo provided

The Penn State Centre Stage cast faced new challenges with the production of “Avenue Q.”

The cast and crew have since learned to love working with puppets in spite of this unique aspect of the show. The Tony Award-winning musical is one of six productions being put on this season by the professional arm of the Penn State School of Theatre.

“It is the first time I have directed puppets. They are troublemakers,” said Courtney Young, the show’s director. “It was a little intimidating trying to figure out how (to make) a puppet show emotion. What do you do to make a puppet look happy? To look confused, sad or angry? The cast and I had to learn together how to tell the story with these little creatures.”

Young and the cast didn’t go without help when it came to figuring out how to bring the puppets to life. Darren Bluestone and Jason Jacoby each worked with the cast for several hours. Both actors have years of puppetry experience and have collectively starred in more than 1,000 performances of “Avenue Q.”

“Those two master classes were absolutely invaluable to learning how a puppet does things like breathe and walk and even say the alphabet,” Young said.

Although this is the theater company’s first time performing “Avenue Q,” the musical has ties to Penn State. The puppets used in the original production were designed and built by Rick Lyon, a Penn State alumnus.

“Our puppets are rented from the same company that we get the script and the score from,” Young said. “They are very similar to the original Broadway puppets.”

“Avenue Q” is a musical comedy that revolves around Princeton, a college graduate trying to find his way in the world after moving into an apartment in New York City. Princeton encounters a host of interesting neighbors including a clientless therapist, a lazy comedian and celebrity Gary Coleman, who serves as the building’s superintendent.

While the production employs the use of puppets, the show isn’t meant for children. It instead deals with themes and issues that will resonate with teenagers, young adults and older members of the community.

As for whether the cast and crew plan on working with puppets again, Young is optimistic.

“I loved this experience, and I love working with puppets,” Young said. “It’s been such a great challenge working with actors who have this extension of their soul on their arm. I would love to direct this show many more times. For the cast, to have this on their resumes, hopefully this sets them apart from the people who haven’t had this experience.”

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