“To me, puppetry is not the suspension of belief; it is the creation of belief,” states Rick Lyon, the man who conceived every single puppet in the award-winning musical production of Avenue Q. Not only is he the show’s Puppet Designer, Lyon is also the actor who originated the roles of Nicky, Trekkie, and Blue Bear in its 2003 debut on Broadway. Just one year later, Avenue Q picked up three Tonys for Best Musical, Best Book, and Best Original Score.
Created by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, the production’s 15+ year run started with six years on Broadway and continued for another nine at New York’s New World Stages, where it will remain until closing on May 26th, 2019. By then, Avenue Q will have a staggering total of 6,537 performances. So, what exactly is it about the show that makes it so appealing? “If Sesame Street is about teaching kids their ABCs, Avenue Q teaches adults about life,” explains Jason Jacoby, one of the show’s veteran actors and Puppet Captain.
Indeed, Avenue Q addresses one of the most difficult questions of adulthood, and young adulthood in particular: “What is my purpose?” The hilarious story revolves around a young college graduate discovering what life post university is really about. In the process, he learns about racism, sexuality, unemployment, dating, and questionable but reliable investments. According to the show’s creators: “Avenue Q proved to be timeless and we learned that sometimes it takes a puppet to make us realize how remarkable, complicated and messy it is to be human.”
To realize a production of such massive impact and longevity was no easy feat. “My association with Avenue Q is very unusual,” recalls Lyon, who first met Lopez and Marx when they were still honing their skills at the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theater Workshop in the late 1990s. At the time, they were working on their final assignment for the year. Having a shared love of The Muppets, they wrote the song “Kermit, Prince of Denmark,” and needed a puppeteer to bring their vision to life.
Rick Lyon had been working as a puppeteer at Sesame Street since 1987. Marx was an intern at the show’s music department. When he shared his idea with the show’s puppet wrangler, she put Marx and Lyon in contact. “When I heard the song they wrote for Kermit, there were two things that immediately impressed me,” recalls Lyon. “[First,] it was a great musical theater song; they didn’t try to reinvent the wheel. [Second,] it was a really good song for Kermit. They showed that they had a handle on the character.”
Lyon, Marx, and Lopez teamed up to develop “Kermit, King of Denmark” into a full length piece, "which took about year.” When they unsuccessfully pitched it to The Jim Henson Company, they decided to write their own TV show. “That’s when Avenue Q was born.” It was1998. “Our first public reading was in 2000.” Commercial producers, who were in attendance, asked if the guys thought about doing the show as a piece of theater. "We said, ‘Yes!’ So we started working on refining it for the stage,” he recalls. "Another two years [passed] before we did the developmental readings and so forth.”
Three years passed between the show’s first public reading and its first preview on Broadway. “For a musical, that’s pretty quick trajectory.” For all of Avenue Q’s many revisions and rewrites, Lyon supplied the puppets. “When something changes in the show, you reflect that in the puppet,” explains Lyon. Often, this means going back to the drawing board. “In human theater, you can write: Bob walks across the room, picks up a glass, and drinks out of it. Then, he walks to the other side of the room and puts it down. Well, how are you going to do that with a puppet who doesn’t have articulated fingers?”
The trick is you have to know what the puppet will do before you craft it. “It sounds really stupid but puppets are extractions; they are simplifications; they are reductions,” muses Lyon. “More than anything, a puppet is like a musical instrument. It’s an object outside of yourself that you use to express something.” For example, “ when designing, you think: When the puppet walks on stage, I immediately need to know something about him visually.” Details matter.
Colors have to be chosen carefully, because they have to say something about a character. Rod, one of the characters in the show, is very unhappy. He’s blue, because he is blue; it’s the most obvious color choice to convey how he’s feeling. Nicky is his best friend. Since blue is a cool color, Lyon made Nicky green to correspond to Rod to show that relationship. The color palette is shared with the other characters in a similar way. “One of the things that I wanted to do with Avenue Q — because I had the opportunity to create a whole population of puppets from scratch — is make the puppets' colors complementary to each other.”
It’s difficult to calculate how many hours went into the concepts and figuring out the details. But, actually crafting — not developing — a puppet like Nicky can take up to 120 hours. “You’re not likely to get the actual shape that you want on your first try. You’re gonna have false starts,” warns Lyon. Plus, there are several versions of each character, because puppets and costume changes don’t mix. As if figuring out and keeping up with the fast pace nature of the production wasn't challenging enough, Lyon was also acting in the show. “One of the reasons I do what I do is because it gets me to do everything. As an artist you’re always looking for more responsibility.”
Jacoby understands this challenge very well. He’s been part of the show’s main cast for the last six years, voicing the characters that once belonged to Lyon. But, he is also the production’s Puppet Captain as well as its Dance Captain. That means, whenever a new person joins the cast, it’s Jacoby’s job to show that person the ropes as well as get their choreography and puppetry up to the expected standard. Once that person is ready for the stage, Jacoby “will swing out of the show, which means [he] will watch from the audience and take notes to make sure everything goes as directed.”
The training period for new actors is typically two weeks, of course, that’s not definitive. Individual skill level has a lot to do with it. “There’s choreography. You have to sing. You have to act. And, you have to puppeteer,” explains Jacoby. And, even though “puppet camp is part of the audition process,” not all puppets are created equal. “They all feel differently. They’re made differently on the inside. And, they are manipulated differently.” On top of that, “they have very distinct personalities.” Understanding how all of these things intersect is immeasurably important for actors, so that they do not “overwhelm” the puppets on stage.
Of course, anything can happen during a live performance. “A lot of the puppets are hand-to-rod puppets. Sometimes those rods can pop out,” notes Jacoby. There’s also a matter of wear and tear. “The main characters that I do are live hand puppets. They are very expressive. I get to do [things] with my hands that some of the other characters can’t do,” he states candidly. In case of small mishaps, such as a loose nose or a missing button, the backstage puppet wrangler will fix the problem. At other times, actors may have to use a duplicate or a spare puppet. Occasionally, they may even have to improvise until a moment can be stolen to address a problem.
But, there are other things the actors have to be mindful of as well. “When you are on stage, and you have a puppet and I have a puppet, you and I are not looking each other in the face,” he explains. “Everyone is acting with your puppet, and you’re acting with everyone else's puppet. So, if people are making eye contact with you on stage it’s to signal that something has gone wrong.” But it's not always about problems, it could also be something a lot lighter, like someone intentionally trying to make the other person crack. According to Jacoby, it’s “something true professionals should never do, but it may happen.”
It seems like every person involved with Avenue Q really loves the message and life lessons behind it. “The show is deceptively deep, I think. There’s a lot to be mined in these scenes. Six years in, I still find things,” reflects Jacoby. “These characters allow you to let some steam off. You are who you are, and the day you’re having is the day you’re having. As much as you try to leave everything at the door, you’re a human being and can’t help feeling feelings.” Instead of trying to suppress these feelings, “the only other option is to let them help.” Trekkie Monster is the perfect vessel for this.
Before each show, the cast participates in a small ritual. They sing the first song in Avenue Q before they go on stage, as if reenforcing and strengthening their own sense of community; as if to remind each other of why they are there, and the purpose behind the show. “It’s usually very silly, or wrong. But, it’s something that makes everyone laugh.” Going backstage and seeing how the cast and crew interact with one another, as well as how they think about and approach the show, makes their love of their craft quite obvious, and infectious. “I don’t have a memory of not loving puppetry,” reflects Jacoby. And that is something that really shines through when he performs.
Note* The current cast of Avenue Q is comprised of Katie Boren (ensemble), Grace Choi (Christmas Eve), Matt Dengler (Princetin, Rod), Jamie Glickman (Mrs. T., Bad Idea Bear & others), Imari Hardon (swing), Jason Jacoby (Nicky, Trekkie Monster, Bad Idea Bear & others), Gizel Jimenez (Kate Monster, Lucy the Slut & others), Nicholas Kohn (Brian), Lacretta (Gary Coleman), Michael Liscio (swing), and Jr., Rob Morrison (ensemble). AVENUE Q production images by Carol Rosegg.