R-rated puppets to mouth off at Weitzenhoffer School of Musical Theatre
Ricardo Patino, The Oklahoma Daily
Audience members will learn the only difference between post-grads and puppets is a pair of legs with OU’s Weitzenhoffer School of Musical Theatre’s opening of a Tony award-winning production this Friday.
“Avenue Q” essentially is a “Sesame Street” meets “South Park” musical teaching adult life lessons in the simple style and setting of the beloved children’s program but with the content worthy of an R rating, director Shawn Churchman said. The puppets are a device to convey adult situations and matters, such as racism, relationships and “What Do You Do with a B.A. in English?” through a comical and cathartic delivery, Churchman said.
Starting the audition process the first day of this semester, students did not need to know the word of the day, their ABCs or what thing did not belong with the others. But, they were expected to understand “Sesame Street’s” bright, optimistic tone and diversity, Churchman said.
The 10-member cast of “Avenue Q” includes seven puppets and three humans — unemployed Brian and his foreign fiancee, Christmas Eve and late child star, Gary Coleman, according to the show’s synopsis. The onstage interaction between the students operating the puppets and those portraying humans established several new technicalities for the actors, Churchman said.
“You have to learn to express yourself through the puppet, which sounds easy,” Churchman said. “The truth is, it’s incredibly technical and complicated to manipulate the puppet where it actually looks like it’s thinking and breathing and living.”
Lip synchronization, wrist intricacies and flesh-to-felt visual cues are all skills to direct quickly and seamlessly the audience’s attention from the puppeteer’s manipulation to the puppet’s story, Churchman said.
“When the puppet cries, you have to know how to make its little shoulders move up and down and wipe a tear from its eye and then you move its head to go [to the side],”Churchman said. “It’s amazing how the puppet will break your heart.”
Churchman recruited Cullen Titmas, a friend and member of the “Avenue Q” National Tour, for five days to develop this new and marketable skill with students, while also preventing upper body injuries, such as tendonitis, rotator cuff issues and soreness.
“[‘Avenue Q’] offers them to learn a skill that they can put on their resume and now go to New York and know how to be a puppeteer,” Churchman said.
Heading to New York after graduation, senior Ethan Spell will have the lead role of wide-eyed romantic, Princeton and uptight Republican, Rod to his advantage, he said.
“What am I going to do with a B.F.A. in musical theater other than perform, and hopefully that’s it,” Spell said.
Performing Princeton and Rod provided Spell the chance to differentiate the characters and his technical ability to personalize the two.
“Both characters kind of fit me in a way,” Spell said. “Rod is me: uptight growing up, hiding things and staying in the background. And Princeton’s the part of me that’s always been wide-eyed and, ‘I can’t wait to move on, and I want to make a difference and help people.’
Puppetry is the means to the musical messages that “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” and “It Sucks to Be Me” convey. These complicated adult problems are solved scene-by-scene with the small cast coming in and out of doors on the perpetual set of Avenue Q, Spell said.
“It’s not about puppets,” Churchman said. “The play is about 20-somethings trying to find their place in the world. That alone should apply to everyone.