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! 

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