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When Daena Schweiger signed on to direct “Avenue Q,” a musical that combines live actors and puppets, she knew she would need extra time.
“The actors on Broadway had four to six months of puppet training,” Schweiger said. “We couldn't cast that early, but I wanted two or three weeks of just getting the music in their heads and the puppets in their hands.”
An added challenge is the tiny SNAP/Shelterbelt Theatre, where the show opens tonight. It's tightly packed with scenery, cast, orchestra and crew. Rehearsals began in June, and production meetings about lighting and scenery started months before that.
Winner of the 2004 best-musical Tony, “Avenue Q” is a sort of R-rated, profane version of Sesame Street. On Avenue Q, recent college grads confront the issues and anxieties of entering adulthood, including racism, finding and keeping a job, sorting out sexuality and love lives — or lack of them.
The show includes 11 puppet characters and three human characters, all played by a cast of seven. Versatility is essential, Schweiger said. Playing multiple characters is one challenge. Singing is another. Operating and interacting with the puppets is a third hurdle.
“An actor's natural instinct is to look at another actor,” she said. “But they have to look at and react off the puppet, not the actor operating the puppet. They interact with felt and fur.”
Although the puppet operators are completely visible in each scene, cast member Homero Vila said the puppet should be the focus. “If you're doing it right, the audience isn't looking at you.”
Cast member Kate Simmons had to learn about two-thirds of the script, since she operates or interacts with every puppet. Sometimes she helps to operate a puppet for which Vila provides the voice.
“She basically has to read my mind onstage,” Vila said. “I try different things every night, and she has to be right there, gesturing with my different interpretations.”
Simmons, who learned puppetry volunteering with children at the Logan, Iowa, Public Library, said translating emotions into something visual for the puppet is the challenge, finding just the right small gesture or body language.
“Operating a puppet is easy to learn, but difficult to master,” she said.
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