Most high schools “put on” shows. Staples Players stage them.
For “A Chorus Line” last spring, directors David Roth and Kerry Long brought in choreographer (and Staples grad) Bradley Jones, plus Baayork Lee. Both danced in the show on Broadway.
Two years ago, before “Curtains,” Tony Award-winner Rupert Holmes told the cast how he wrote the play.
This year — as Players gear up to present “Avenue Q” — Players are learning all about puppets.
From the pros. Rick Lyon conceived and designed the puppets for the Tony Award-winning show, and originated the roles of Nicky and Trekkie Monster. His company — The Lyon Puppets — built them all.
Pam Arciero — who portrays Oscar the Grouch’s girlfriend, Grundgetta, on “Sesame Street” — is also helping.
The spring production (set for the weekend of March 21-23) brings the happy puppets and cute songs of childhood into the adult world. Human actors — unconcealed — hold the puppets on stage.
Lyon’s role is to help Staples Players — most of whom had little experience with puppets — feel at ease performing with them. It’s not as easy as it sounds.
“People think of puppets as kids’ entertainment, something fun and funny,” he told Inklings‘ Kacey Hertan. “But learning to puppeteer is as hard as learning to juggle or tap dance or play football. It requires the acquisition of new skills and new disciplines. And new muscles!”
So for hours every day after school, Players work intensively with Lyon, learning skills like lip-synching. A puppet’s mouth cannot move randomly. Every action must have meaning.
And, Lyon notes, “those plastic eyes must be believably focused.”
At the same time, actors are learning the usual blocking, choreography and singing. For some, it’s the toughest challenge they’ve ever faced.
“Avenue Q”‘s style of puppetry is very specific, Lyon says. It’s based on the style Jim Henson created for the TV Muppets, but adapted for stage. The actor — who is also a character — and the puppet must always move together. Neither can upstage the other.
Actors work hard to make their characters believable. With puppets, they must also make something attached to their hand believable too.
Puppeteers are responsible for every move a puppet makes. Lyon compares the craft to playing a musical instrument. “You’re expressing something through a vessel outside yourself, which you control.”
Players have spent years learning how to move their own bodies. Now they have to do the same for something they hold — while also moving their own.
It should be noted that the puppets Players use are not exactly random or basement-variety. They come from a professional puppet company called Swazzle, and are based on Lyon’s original designs for the Broadway puppets.
He is excited about his young puppet proteges. “Everyone is working very hard to make this the best show they can,” Lyon says. “‘Avenue Q’ is fun, funny, and comes from an optimistic place without being corny. The message is that life is hard, lots of things about it suck, but together we can get through it. And things will get better.”
Staples Players’ new puppeteers are already doing very, very well.
“Avenue Q” will be staged on Friday, March 21 (7:30 p.m.), Saturday, March 22 (3 and 7:30 p.m.) and Sunday, March 23 (3 p.m.). For tickets, click here.