Sunday, 11 March 2012

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

Tonight is the first night of my role as "Puppetry Consultant" in the Brisbane Arts Theatre production of Tony-Award Winning Broadway musical, "Avenue Q". The cast and crew will all be getting to know each other, and then doing a first read-through of the script. I have my introductory notes prepared, and I'm bringing a puppet along to demonstrate some of the key things I'll be teaching them over the course of the rehearsal period.

In my last blog post, I wrote about the audition, which eventually lead to my formal acceptance into the production team. I also promised to tell you about the "Puppets Vs. People" workshop I attended a few weekends ago.

"Puppets Vs. People" was an improvisational theatre workshop for the performers in the Impro Mafia Theatre Company. This is the group that I perform music (piano) for at the weekly "Speakeasy" shows. If you're familiar with TV shows like "Whose Line is it Anyway?" and "Thank God You're Here", you get a bit of an idea of the format. Actors improvising their way through scenes, games and songs.  

The workshop, and then the theatre performance that night, was conducted by Sydney-based director and puppeteer Jon Williams, who is the former Artistic Director of Sydney's Impro Australia. While I'm not a trained actor, I was encouraged to attend anyway, seeing as I'd been asked to be a part of Avenue Q. I felt that it was quite handy to be able to experience a puppet workshop prior to my role training people in puppetry. 

Kermit (and Jim Henson) with John Cleese
The idea of "Puppets Vs. People" is very much based on Jon's fascination with how well Jim Henson's Muppets interact with human actors on Sesame Street and The Muppet Show (and movies). The way the human actors are able to act with a straight face and treat the puppet characters as other living actors. The way the puppets can make eye contact with a human, and have a believable conversation or interaction with them. Puppets and people working together as equals. Later, at the theatre performance, the audience would decide at the end of each improvised scene whether the puppets win, or the people win (hence the "Vs"). 

Grover and Madeline Kahn
Sam the Eagle with Alice Cooper

Jon is also quite fond of the 
fact that The Muppets were/are not solely for children. People who avoided going to see the recent film, "The Muppets" for reasons such as, "I'm too old for that now" or "I don't have kids, so I don't have an excuse to see it" have missed the point entirely. Henson always strived to appeal to adults with his puppetry. The pilot episode of The Muppet Show was titled, "Sex and Violence", which couldn't be further from pre-school entertainment. And even on Sesame Street, an educational show for children, the Muppet segments were, and still are designed in such a way that parents could watch with their kids, and laugh at the clever pop-culture references and parodies that would go over the heads of kids. From Miami Vice, Columbo and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest in the early years, through to 30 Rock, True Blood, CSI and Madmen today! 
Sesame Street Parodies: Miami Vice, Mad Men, Law & Order: SVU, True Blood

Parody of Bono's musical, "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark"

Adults Only Puppets: Meet the Feebles, Crank Yankers, Wonder Showzen, Rubbery Figures
Puppetry for adults has of course been taken further into 'Adults only' territory with Peter Jackson's film, "Meet the Feebles" and TV shows like "Crank Yankers" and "Wonder Showzen". And in Australia, we had "Rubbery Figures" during the late 1980s - a series of short episodes (later incorporated into sketch comedy show "Fast Forward") featuring puppet caricatures of politicians. 

Puppets Vs. People Workshop
At the workshop, Jon had provided a selection of different puppets, and I brought my two monster puppets too, which we all shared. The focus at this workshop was more on the Muppet/Hand puppet with moving mouth style, rather than marionettes.

The first exercise we went through was an interrogation scene, where the group split into pairs. One person would be seated with a puppet to perform, while the other (standing) would play the human who is interrogating the puppet. The puppet wasn't allowed to speak at this stage. We were concentrating on keeping the head up and the eyes following the human as he/she walked around, accusing the puppet of a crime. Everyone had a chance to play both roles, and change partners. 

Seeing what kind of emotions we could get out of the puppets was another exercise. From saying things to provoke a response, to simply demanding an emotion of the puppet - happy, surprised, shy, annoyed, depressed, etc. It's all about how you manipulate the mouth and head, and the whole body really. Simply having a puppet sit still and open its mouth occasionally just shows how fake and inanimate it is. The trick is to give the illusion that this inanimate object is a real, living, breathing character. Head tilts, mouth movements, arm movements. Jim Henson spent his life convincing the world that his Muppets were real. The Henson team continue to do this today. 

We did an exercise where the person had to show the puppet around the room. The puppet was to interact with its surroundings. Touch things, pick things up, do something naughty like knock over a chair or climb into the microwave and be scolded by the person showing them around. 

Then the puppets had to seek attention from the person, by annoying them while they were trying to read or watch TV. The person had to react as though they were a parent telling their child to behave, and the puppet would react accordingly.

Physical interactions between people and puppets came next, where the puppets actually got into fights with people. Strangling, slapping, kicking and wrestling. 

And then the puppet had to become a super villain and use its powers against the human superhero, and vice versa. 

Next came the operation of one puppet by two people. One person operating the mouth, while the other made the arms and legs move. Floating in space, swimming, etc.

Puppets Vs. People
Then we had puppets interacting with each other. Eye contact and lip sync was looked at. Opening your hand outwards to operate the puppet's mouth, and doing this simultaneously with your own mouth performing the voice of the puppet.  

Finally, we all sat down and faced the front for an end of workshop performance. Two people at a time would voluntarily come to the front to perform a scene with a human character and a puppet character. Jon would tell us what the scene was and we would improvise it. Scenes included prisoners sharing a cell, a sleazy boss at work, a doctor performing an unconventional check up, a vampire showing a girl around his castle, and a mafia goon bringing news of his failure to the big mob boss.

Jon casted people from the workshop to perform in the "Puppets Vs. People" show at the Brisbane Arts Theatre that night. As the show's focus was on experienced improvisational actors who had learnt puppetry in a day, I was not cast in the show. However my two puppets were.

Puppets Vs. People
It was a fun filled evening of very funny scenes and songs. There was a scene set during the Crusades, a scene set in the Vietnam war, a hospital scene, an audience volunteer being serenaded by puppets, and a wonderful 'rock opera' about gardeners at war with plumbers.

Avenue Q - Australian Touring Cast 2009/10

After learning of my role in the Avenue Q production team, I got in contact with Sue Giles (artistic director of Polygot children's theatre company in Melbourne) who held the same position of "Puppetry Consultant" in the Australian touring cast of Avenue Q in 2009-2010 to see if she had any tips from her time with the show. She sent me some really good 'puppet direction notes' for me to use. 

So with these notes, along with what I learned at the workshop, and my own knowledge, I am now ready to start work on this amazing production! The journey down Avenue Q begins! 

Oh, and by the way - Kate from Impro Mafia made this amazing cake for me, which we all shared after last week's "Speakeasy" show. 

And then this happened...