Monday, June 7, 2010

Puppet Regime

Posted By on Mon, Jun 7, 2010 at 11:23 PM

Any Avenue Q fans planning to check out the show's Broadway Across America stops at the Mahalia Jackson Theater this week (8 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Saturday-Sunday, 7:30 p.m. Sunday) might notice a few tweaks to the script made after Gary Coleman, who's portrayed in the show in a not-so-nice way, died of a brain hemorrhage May 28. While the changes might be a surprise to some, there's some things audiences can definitely expect. "We advertise plenty. We put puppet boobs on billboards," says Brent Michael DiRoma, who plays Princeton and Rod in the touring cast. "I mean, if that doesn’t give you the first hint (about the show’s content), I don’t know what will."

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Even when Avenue Q's most mocked resident dies in real life, the show — and its bawdy, non-PC humor — must go on. Here's more from my chat with Avenue Q cast members DiRoma and Jacqueline Grabois, who plays Kate Monster and Lucy the Slut, on working with puppets, what puppets bring to the show, relating to their characters and more.

On working with puppets

Brent Michael DiRoma: We were actors and singers before we were puppeteers. When we started the show … we were learning a lot at once. Not only were we learning the show, but we were learning how to do the show with puppets on our arms and finding the balance of, you don’t want to upstage the puppet, and you don’t want the puppet to upstage you. Really, the goal is to leave it up to (the audience) whether or not they want to watch the puppets or the people. Doing the show in that matter kinda leaves a lot to take in at once, so audiences end up choosing or gravitating toward one or the other.

... you’re doing something that's so out of your elelment. For me, at least, I spent 20 years of my life just trying to use my own body to perfect my art and then it’s like “here, put a puppet on your arm.” It’s almost like starting from scratch again. You’re learning to emote in such a different way. It’s fun now, but it was quite a challenge at first. But if you ask anyone, we could all do the show in our sleep. ... I don’t think I could go to an audition now without raising my hand to speak with it (the puppet).

Jacqueline Grabois: It was really difficult. I had never really worked with puppets before. We went through this puppetry camp where we learned the ABCs and 1-2-3s about puppetry. And we were sort of just thrown into the process. As soon as rehearsal started ... (when) we got up on our feet to learn the blocking, the puppets got up on our (their) feet, too and learned the blocking, too. I’m glad that they did that, too, because even though it was tough, as an actor you’re always trying to focus on making a script become alive and become real, and we had sort of a harder job because we had create these puppets and make them become people onstage with us — going through the same emotions as I’m going through, looking where I’m looking and breathing when I’m breathing.

On the rehearsal process

DiRoma: I remember a few times during the rehearsal process the director kind of telling us at the beginning of rehearsal — we’re going to a full run-through tomorrow. The next day, he shows up and says “no puppets. We’re doing it without the puppets, just to make sure this show stays grounded." The next day, we put the puppets back on and it was like “Oh, thank God.”

Is there pressure in touring with such a successful show?

Grabois: No, I feel excitement. I feel like I’m involved with a show that’s so awesome. I can’t do wrong. Basically, even if I stood up there and didn’t act and just said the lines, people are gonna laugh. It’s such good material.

On what the puppets bring to the show

DiRoma: If we went on stage and started singing about about racism, it might not be so well received. I think the puppets bring innocence and naiveté to the show that makes it a little more playful and lighthearted.

On relating to the characters

DiRoma: I relate most to Princeton, probably not so much now. When we first started, I was Princeton. I was fresh out of college, kind of searching for the next big step in my life. It was hard to find it for a really long time. I was looking for a job; Princeton’s looking for his purpose. Rod, I’m the total opposite of. But he’s my favorite character to perform, by all means, because Rod has such a journey throughout the entire show and takes some huge steps with himself and with the people around him. And I love taking Rod’s journey, whereas Princeton is definitely a blast to perform, but he's is almost second nature to me. Princeton happens every night whether I want it to or not. With Rod, I definitely feel taken by him.

Grabois: With Kate Monster, I’m fourtunate, because she’s in my age range and we’re sort of going through the same thing. She’s looking to further her career, I’m also building my career as an actor ... I’ve gone through relationships like she has and break-ups like she has and I can really relate to a lot of the things that she’s going through and working through and her life. My secondary character is Lucy the Slut, and she’s looking for a warm bed in to sleep every night. I don’t think I really side with her too much, but she’s a very strong woman and she says what’s on her mind, and I think that’s a little like me.

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