Monday, 27 February 2012

My journey down Avenue Q: Could Puppetry Be My Purpose? - Part Two

 In part one, I talked about my three lifelong pursuits: Cartooning/Animation, Music, and Puppetry. I talked a bit about my background in puppetry, and left you with a cliffhanger ending: What happened at the big "Avenue Q" audition? And what events unfolded since?

Two weekends ago, I attended the "Male Puppet Roles" audition for a local production of Tony Award winning Broadway Musical, "Avenue Q". 

I've never really acted before, except for a few plays in school. And I was awful. Terrible at learning and remembering lines, and then being able to convincingly act them out. And, even though I'm a musician, I'm not much of a singer. Maybe it's just a confidence thing. But either way, I don't like singing.

BUT I've done plenty of voice acting for animation - both for my own films and for other people's animated films. I have always loved doing silly voices. And grew up recording comedy sketches and silly radio plays on tape. This is the kind of acting I feel confident with. And singing in a silly puppet voice is also more comfortable to me than singing in my own voice. That confidence of becoming someone else. Is it called masking? Maybe it's just called acting. But if I'm performing a character that is not physically me - like a puppet, or a cartoon character's voice - then I seem to do pretty well. And these skills, along with my puppetry skills, were what gave me the confidence to audition for a musical. A musical of all things! I would never have done this had it not been for the fact that puppets are in it. 

So I turned up to the dance studio where the audition was being held with one of my monster puppets. I was surprisingly calm, considering this was my first ever theatre audition. But I think it was having the puppet with me that gave me the confidence. I knew what I could bring to this, and figured I'd show them just what I could do. 

As requested prior to the audition, I had practised two songs in puppet voice. One chosen piece ("Simon Smith and the Amazing Dancing Bear" by Randy Newman) and one set piece, which everyone had to learn ("Movin' Right Along" by Paul Williams, from "The Muppet Movie"). Sheet music was provided for the set piece, and we had to acquire the sheet music for our chosen pieces. 

After signing a form and filling out a questionnaire, the audition started with the entire group of about 17 or 18 auditionees all lining up in the studio, and all singing "Movin' Right Along" together, with the accompaniment of a pianist. So far, so good. A great warm up for us all. 

Then we all sat in a waiting room and got to know each other. A really nice bunch of guys. We discussed Avenue Q, puppetry, musicals, Sesame Street and the Muppets. We practised some puppetry. Another monster puppet like mine was provided for people to use. Others brought along their own puppets too, including a penguin, a pirate and various socks with googly eyes. Most people had never worked with puppets, but were confident in their singing and acting ability. I was the opposite. 

The director and musical director called everyone in one by one to perform the two songs. We were encouraged to sing the set piece in the voices of our favourite Avenue Q characters or Muppets, and then sing the chosen piece as ourselves. Many went in without a puppet and showcased what they were good at. They were fantastic singers! But I felt like I needed to show them straight up where I was coming from. 

I sung my chosen piece (Simon Smith) in a puppet voice, while operating the puppet. They had a great laugh and applauded at the end. Then, they asked me to sing it again as myself. Uh oh... I got through a few lines, and then they asked me to stop. And I was glad to. 

I was able to redeem myself by singing, "Movin' Right Along" half in a Kermit the Frog voice (which sounds like the character of Nicky in Avenue Q), and half in a Cookie Monster voice (which sounds like the character of Trekkie Monster in Avenue Q). I was hoping to get the roles of Nicky and Trekkie because they are the most Muppet-like characters in the show, who have a lot of funny lines, and not as many emotional and dramatic scenes as some of the other characters. 

"Emotional and dramatic?", you ask. "In a show with puppets?" Yes! You would be surprised. While Avenue Q is full of laughs, there are some moving scenes. These characters are capable of being just as powerful as the human characters in any other play or musical. It's a very good story. And remember, this show won numerous awards. In 2004, "Avenue Q" won the Tony Award for Best Musical, BEATING popular favourite, "Wicked"! 

After again impressing them with my puppet voices and puppetry, I received more laughter and applause, and was asked to do one more thing before leaving the room - "Can you speak in a Kermit the Frog voice?" And so as my final hoorah, I said, "Hi Ho, Kermit the Frog here!" in my best Kermit voice. They loved it, and I left the room on a high note. 

We were all required to stick around for more. They had said to allow up to three hours for the whole process. So I went back to the waiting room with everyone else and continued chatting until everyone was done with their separate auditions. 

Next, we all had to go into the studio again and we learnt some choreography. Lots of fast paced steps back and fourth, arm movements, spins, turns, and linking arms, all to the tune of "Movin' Right Along". Every phrase within each sentence of lyrics featured a different action. We learnt the moves together. Then we had to sing while dancing. Then partner up and showcase what we'd learnt, one 'couple' at a time. I have two left feet. I couldn't keep up. I was hopping and tripping around, turning the wrong way, and royally screwing up the routine. 

Then it was time for a group puppetry session. My time to shine again. We all lined up in a single line in front of the wall mirror, and the director watched how we all handled singing while moving the puppets mouths in sync with our own mouths. I felt great about how I did. And clearly, they were impressed too. This was followed by having two puppets sing to each other, making sure they had good eye contact with each other. And then we did that choreographed dance sequence again, while singing, and puppeteering. Could you spin, jump and skip around the room while singing in key and operating a puppet that moves its mouth perfectly in sync, and maintains the illusion of being completely 'alive'? Not many people can, but this is the challenge of the Avenue Q performer. And if you can imagine it, I was tripping around like a fool, but my puppet was more co-ordinated than me. 

After the audition, the director told us to keep a look out for a phone call or email before Wednesday. Wednesday night was going to be the "callback", which I learned was a follow up audition for those who the director felt had the best potential to be a cast member. At the end of it, we all wished each other good luck. And went on our way. 

Monday came and went, Tuesday as well. By Wednesday, I was anxious. On one hand, I felt that it didn't matter too much if I didn't get into the show, because Jen and I already had tickets to the Melbourne Comedy Festival during the time of the rehearsals. If I was cast in the show, I would be required to stay in Brisbane to attend all rehearsals. So Jen's Mum was prepared to take my place on the non-refundable trip to Melbourne. But I still had that hope. I kept playing the audition through in my head, over and over. I remembered how well I did with the puppetry, but how terrible I did with the choreography and singing in my own voice. I thought that surely, my puppet voices would've been more important, considering I was auditioning for puppet roles. And I felt that if I wasn't going to get a lead role, perhaps I would be able to perform one of the "Bad Idea Bear" characters or perhaps another background puppet role. But Wednesday ended, and I heard nothing.

I was feeling a bit down in the dumps on Thursday. I knew that I would continue to support, promote and attend the show, regardless of whether I was in it or not. Part of me was happy to be going to Melbourne. But then, there was that element of disappointment too. I figured that if I hadn't heard anything by Wednesday, it meant that I wasn't going to be a part of this amazing show. Yet there was still a glimmer of hope that maybe I'd hear something by the end of the week. According to "Yahoo Answers", not getting a callback usually means not getting a lead/main cast role. But it doesn't necessarily mean you won't get in at all. This kept me hopeful that I might still hear something.

On Friday morning, I commenced work as usual. And then a mysterious mobile number appeared on my phone at around 10:30am. Without hesitation, I answered in probably my most confident and professional manner ever. Sure enough, what I heard next was, "Hi Brett, it's Miranda from Avenue Q". At this point, I think my heart stopped for a moment. But instantly, I prepared myself for whatever the purpose of her call was going to be. I knew I would take it well whatever the outcome. 

She proceeded to tell me that unfortunately, she could not offer me a role in the cast of the show. I was relieved just to know officially what was happening. And I replied with, "Oh that's ok", like it was nothing. But she was pretty quick to back that statement up with reasons that were both expected and unexpected. As I'd predicted, the cast were selected based on their singing, acting and dancing/choreography abilities. However, she pointed out that none of them were very good with the puppets. She told me that I, on the other hand, stood out as the best puppeteer who clearly has a lot of experience and skill. I thanked her for this compliment, and wondered where this might be going. 

"As I don't know a thing about puppets either", she said, "I would like to ask you if you would be happy to work alongside me as the show's Puppetry Consultant". I was both shocked and extremely happy at the same time! She explained that my job would be to assist and train the cast in working the puppets, and making sure they learn to operate them as confidently and as convincingly as I did at the audition. And perhaps even run an intensive puppet workshop at some point during the rehearsal period. 

Wow! I was thrilled. I accepted the offer with honour. I knew I had something I could bring to this show. While I wasn't sure how my singing, acting and dancing would be, I knew that I had to try to get into this show as a puppeteer. I would regret it forever if I didn't at least try. Taking that plunge, and going for that audition landed me in a position of high importance. Many talented people didn't make the cut. So I feel very privileged to be involved in this amazing show. 

I won't be learning lines, and performing them in the spotlight. But I will still be able to work with the puppets (which is what I wanted all along), and turn that cast into a group of talented puppeteers. I've seen "Avenue Q" twice, and studied the movement of these puppets via YouTube hundreds of times. 

I cannot wait to bring to this production my passion for believable, convincing puppetry, like the work of my hero, the late Jim Henson and his team from Sesame Street, The Muppet Show, Fraggle Rock, and numerous films. This is going to be an exciting year!

The puppet adventures continue in Part 3! Last weekend, I attended a puppet workshop called, "Puppets Vs. People". I'll tell you all about it in my next blog post! 

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

My journey down Avenue Q: Could Puppetry Be My Purpose? - Part One

When I was a kid, I always knew what I wanted to do when I grew up. I was determined to be an artist. Art was all I was ever good at. I spent my childhood drawing, playing the piano, putting on silly voices and playing with puppets. And if I didn't have a puppet in my hand, I would operate my napkin or the tablecloth as a puppet. 

There were three goals I wanted to pursue - 

1. Be a cartoonist and/or animator.
I drew a lot of comic strips growing up. I knew I wanted to make at least one animated film. I've made a few, mostly during college. While I've never been able to make a living out of drawing, I still managed to earn a little bit of money here and there for the occasional drawing gig I'd get. And my animated films have screened at art shows and film festivals. Nothing big has come of my drawing. But I've had a go.

2. Write and perform music.
Since classical piano training from the age of three, I have played keyboard in a number of bands of many different genres. While I've never been able to make a living out of music, I still managed to tour the country, release an album with one of the bands, get a lot of good album reviews in overseas magazines, and made a lot of fans in the underground music scene. Nothing big has come of my musical endeavours. But I've had a go.

3. Work as a puppeteer, preferably with Jim Henson's Team (The Muppets, Sesame Street, Fraggle Rock, etc) if possible.
This goal hasn't been as easy to crack into, but as someone who has been obsessed with The Muppets my whole life, I keep coming back to it. With my own puppets at home, I'd practice along with the Sesame Street and Muppet Show puppets on TV. Being able to sync a puppet's mouth with my own or someone else's voice was a skill I picked up when I was very young, as well as being able to move a puppet in time to music. It's a skill that I always thought was pretty straight forward. I didn't realise it was considered by many to be such a challenging thing. To me, maths is difficult. Sport is difficult. Understanding politics and money is difficult. Most normal, everyday social interactions are difficult for me. Puppetry seems to be one of the most natural skills I have. But why has it been so hard to break into?

Performing lunch time puppet shows with the school library puppets proved to be quite popular, until the librarian confiscated the puppets. There was to be no more puppet shows in school. The library staff later took the tape recorder away too upon discovery of my interest in recording funny radio sketches in silly voices. 

My first proper puppet show at my youngest brother Dale's birthday party was properly scripted and featured songs. I combined my tape recording and puppetry skills for it. But unfortunately, the kids at the party were out of control and proceeded to pull the puppets off my hands, and come around into the back door of the refrigerator box puppet theatre I made, completely ruining all my hard work and preparation for the show. But this didn't deter me.

Since school, I applied for a puppeteer role in a children's television programme that was in early stages of development. I was cast. But the shows' creators pulled the plug on the project before we really got to do anything. 

My brother Dale and I created a TV show featuring my puppetry. We pitched it to the local community TV station. They liked the idea, but weren't willing to produce it without sponsorship. Sadly, no companies were willing to sponsor the show. So it never happened. 

In the mid-2000s, I heard about a Broadway musical called "Avenue Q" which had won a heap of awards. From the images I'd seen, this looked just like Sesame Street. It featured a cast of cute Muppet-style puppets (designed by Rick Lyon, who had worked with Jim Henson), alongside a human cast. But it was for adults. It's the story of a young college graduate entering adulthood and learning about real life issues such as finding your purpose in life, unemployment, racism, finding love, sexual identity, and learning to deal with the fact that you can't always achieve your goals without a lot of struggles and rejection. 

I finally saw the show when it came to Australia in 2009, first in Sydney, and then in Brisbane a year later. The story, the songs and the puppets were all brilliant. The show was funny, edgy, moving, inspiring, and thought provoking. I loved it, and really related to a lot of what the characters were going through.

Morning, Brian!


Hi, Kate Monster.


How's life?




What's the matter?


The catering company
laid me off.


Oh, I'm sorry!


Me too! I mean, look at me!
I'm ten years out of college, and I
always thought -




No, it sounds stupid.


Aww, come on!


When I was little
I thought I would be...




A big comedian
on late night TV
But now I'm thirty-two
And as you can see
I'm not




Oh Well,
It sucks to be me.




It sucks to be me.




It sucks to be broke
and unemployed
and turning thirty-three.
It sucks to be me.

More than ever today, these lyrics affect me. I too am ten years out of college. I too am thirty-two going on thirty-three. I too have not been able to make a comfortable living out of the things I'm good at and interested in.

In 2011, a fascinating and inspiring documentary called, "Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey" was screened as part of the Brisbane International Film Festival. It told the story of Muppet performer Kevin Clash, and his journey from rags to riches. From building his own puppets and putting on his own puppet shows as a kid, to meeting with Jim Henson and becoming one of the most important figures in puppetry today.

Shortly after that, the first new theatrically released Muppets film in twelve years (The Muppets) began screening. And I saw it three times, including two preview screenings.

During this time, I learned that Avenue Q was coming back to Brisbane - a local production! Which meant that I had an opportunity to audition! I'm not an actor or a singer. But I did know that the original cast of Avenue Q (in 2003) were puppeteers primarily, and have since been replaced over the years with seasoned musical theatre actors who had never touched a puppet until they were cast in the show. So I promised myself I would take the plunge and go for it. I figured I'd regret it forever if I didn't at least try. This would be another chance at puppetry. A rare chance to perform with professional Muppet-style puppets. 

I bought a couple of inexpensive (but fairly professional looking) monster puppets off eBay, so I could get practising again, and be able to show them at the audition what I could do. I made some alterations to the puppets, trimming the fur around their mouths, and making tongues for them out of stiffened felt. I thought they needed a bit of my own personal touch to them.

Leading up to the audition, I took the puppets out on the road to see people's reactions. They attracted several kids and their parents when I took them to the drive-in to see The Muppets. People were taking pictures of their kids with them and asking questions. I was reminded again that this could be my purpose. The puppets have even received fan art!

My wife Jen and I have since been discussing the possibility of starting a puppet show business. My boss had cut out a page from a parenting magazine showing all the clown and magician acts available for kids birthday parties. She pointed out that there are no puppet acts. She had recently paid a magician $300 for an hour at her daughter's fifth birthday party. She highly recommended that I look into it. These party entertainers make a good living, charging at least $200 per hour, and performing at several parties a week. Maybe this could be my purpose.

With all of these Muppet movies, public interest in my puppets, the idea that I could finally make some money doing something I enjoy, and an upcoming Avenue Q audition that I'd applied for, puppetry was really looking like my next big attempt at becoming a professional artist or performer.

In part two, I'll talk about the Avenue Q audition itself, and the events that are yet to unfold as a result. Will I be cast in the show? Will I receive any feedback on my strengths and weaknesses? Will I get the opportunity to perform with professional puppets on a production of a major Broadway musical?


Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Single? Lonely on Valentine's Day?

I'm happily married to a wonderful girl I met six years ago. (Yeah, rub it in why don't ya, Brett!) 
But it wasn't always this way. For a very long time, I was lonely and miserable too. I was always the "third wheel" as I hung out with my friends in couples. Every girl I knew was spoken for. Every new girl I met was spoken for. Every new 'single' girl I met was not at all interested.

I was the old fashioned 'nice guy'. I held doors open. I smiled. I was polite. This was considered creepy. Advice I was given? "Stop trying so hard to be all polite and romantic, and just be yourself"... This WAS myself! I knew no other way! It's how I was brought up! I should've been alive in the 1920s when this was acceptable behaviour. But in the 90s and 2000s, this was considered creepy, weird behaviour. Women gave me dirty looks and grunts of disgust ALL the time. 

And when I did find myself in a relationship, they were all very short term ones because I was always, "Too nice". That was the extent of the feedback I'd get. After I was given the initial, "It's not you, it's me" routine invented by George Costanza, I would usually find out that it was indeed me, because I was "too nice".  

Why was 'nice' a bad thing? Someone once explained it to me. These girls aren't used to being treated respectfully. It's uncomfortable for them. They need to be ignored and mistreated. They need a jerk, because that is what they're used to. It feels wrong to have a guy being kind to them. It's creepy. You've got to "treat 'em mean to keep 'em keen". Sorry, but that's not my style.

But anyway, all of that is neither here nor there now. Long story short - I found a girl who DOES like being treated nicely. 

What really gets me wondering is: Why are most of my female friends these days SINGLE? They're all very nice! They're attractive and a lot of fun to talk to! Why are all the girls alone on Valentine's Day? I don't have an answer to this question. My guess is there's a man shortage or something. All I know is, when I was single, ALL of my female friends were spoken for!

And then I think: Where were all these single girls back then when I was available? My first actual Valentine was Jen (my wonderful wife) in 2007. The first girl not to dump me before Valentine's Day (or ON Valentine's Day, as one of them did). But before I met Jen... Where were these single ladies?

Then it occurred to me: Of course! None of today's single girls were around at the time I was single. Most of my current friends were born between 1985 and 1991. So they were all still in school at the time.

Then I realised: Hey, my own wife was still in school at the time too. I met her in my ninth year out of high school! Most girls closer to my own age were in serious relationships early on during those nine years. Some were even married. 

So is there a point to this? Not sure. But I'll leave you with two pieces of advice about meeting someone. Take it from me. Someone who, for nearly a decade, could barely get or keep a girlfriend... 

1. If I can do it, you certainly can. And;
2. If there aren't plenty of fish in the sea now, there are always plenty of year 12 graduates around the corner.

Boom Boom!

Oh no he dih-ant! Cradle Snatcher!

Goodnight folks! Happy Valentine's Day! :P

2013 Edit: The joke's on me. Now we're separated. Divorce will take place in September of this year. We're still friends and all. But still... Heart breaking.

Monday, 13 February 2012

Brisbane public transport FAIL!

Getting my license can't come soon enough! I'm so incredibly frustrated with the inefficiency and shocked by the recklessness of Brisbane's public transport service!

Within just the last five days:

- I've had a bus driver reluctantly let me on at a stop, and then tell me that, "This bus is no longer meant to stop here"... Well how about either updating the bus stop/timetables or getting your facts straight! This same driver then proceeded to take the wrong route! People were having to give the driver directions on where to go! Clearly this driver thought he was driving a different bus. But the bus has zoomed past on several other occasions, so it very well *might* not meant to stop there. But the sign hasn't been updated.

- The Roma Street train station has about 6 or 8 gates for people to enter and exit the station through… Do you know how many gates they had working yesterday? One! Big queue of people were waiting on one side to get out, and another big queue on the other side to get in! Through one gate!

- And their train times keep changing, as well as the platforms! No longer can you rely on the Beenleigh train to come at 8:30 on Platform 4. Today, it might come at 9 on Platform 8, and at 9:10 on Platform 2 tomorrow!

- I saw a guy in a suit literally jump into a moving bus the other day! The door was open while the bus was moving, so this guy took a run up and leapt in from the side of the road! 

- A friend of mine yesterday was almost run over by a bus because the driver wasn't stopping at red lights! Probably because he was so busy speeding past all the stops and not letting people on! 

"Bus L5901 just ran a red light at Creek/Adelaide St while pedestrians were crossing. Then blocked them from crossing Adelaide St. Then nudged forward as people walked in front of him when the pedestrian crossing he was blocking went green. So, yeah. I was just hit by a bus (not badly)".

- And today, I wanted to get off the bus via the back door, so I swiped my card ready to go. And he didn't open the back door! So I had to come running to the front, saying, "Excuse me! Excuse me!" as he started driving on! He had to open the front door again to let me out! He'd already let people on, but wasn't letting anyone out! Why do buses have a sign saying, "Please exit via rear door" if they're not going to open the rear door to let people out?

- And then later, the "Out of Service. No Host" sign was on the rear Go Card machines, so nobody could swipe their cards at the back. People had to exit via the front.

Brisbane public transport has been terrible for years, but I never thought it was possible for it to get any worse! Reckless driving, broken doors, broken gates, broken Go Card machines, mixed up schedules, platform changes, confused drivers who don't know where to go! All within 5 days!


Not to mention the fact that the buses and trains are so few and far between that they're always PACKED beyond capacity! And the air conditioning rarely works. And we're right in the middle of a very hot Summer. And we don't have the same kind of train tracks as Sydney does, so we can't have trains with three levels of seating like they have.  We have these single-level, over packed, hotbox sardine cans plodding along rusty tracks at snails pace! And on our roads, we have outdated, over packed sardine cans on wheels zooming through red lights and not stopping to let people on or off! And when they do stop, the Go cards don't work! Or the doors! And it doesn't take much for them to break down!

Ok ok... Rant coming to an end... Soon enough I hope to be adding to the pollution by driving around in a car where I want, when I want, in air conditioning, while sitting in a seat (not having to stand up). Because quite frankly, "Take it easy, take a train" and "Leave the car at home and take a bus" are not the kinds of slogans that work here in Brisbane.