Puppets Come Alive in Production of Avenue Q
By Miguel Perez
Editors’ Note: This feature appears as it was published in the spring 2017 edition of UT Dallas Magazine. Titles or faculty members listed may have changed since that time.
Having acted in three productions at UT Dallas since 2015, Cody Kuhn is by no means a stranger to the stage at University Theatre.
The sociology senior, who has been dabbling in musical theatre since he was 8, served as an understudy in The Complete Works of William Shakespeare Abridged and played the role of a Swedish statesman in a translated retelling of Michel Marc Bouchard’s Christina: The Girl King. But it was his third role at UT Dallas — in the theatre program’s enthusiastic production of Avenue Q — that he most enjoyed.
“Avenue Q has held a special place in my heart since I first heard the soundtrack when I was 12,” he recalls. “There was no way I was going to pass up an opportunity to be in a show I loved as much as I love this one.”
An off-color musical parody of Sesame Street, Avenue Q follows recent college graduate Princeton as he settles into his new home in the middle of an unnamed “outer-outer borough” of New York City. On Avenue Q, the young, Muppet-like character falls in with a crew of eccentric neighbors who contemplate and lament the uncertainties of adulthood through numbers such as “What Do You Do with a B.A. in English?” and “There Is Life Outside Your Apartment.”
For the university production, which ran last November, Kuhn landed the role of Nicky — a blue-haired puppet that he describes as a well-meaning slacker. He shared the task with co-actor Denzel Buenafe, working in tandem to bring the character to life.
“Nicky has four legs, so I had to work with Denzel completely in sync to move as one without looking at each other — or sometimes even where I was going — and without verbally communicating,” Kuhn says.
The musical, which opened off-Broadway in 2003 and went on to nab three Tony Awards, has been one of the more technically ambitious productions the theatre program has undertaken. Shelby Hibbs, clinical assistant professor in drama and the show’s director, said the show used more than 30 puppets in addition to the set, lighting and sound specs that gave the show its Broadway sheen.
“Initially, I was nervous about tackling the show,” Hibbs admits. “It’s been wonderful to see students who have never been in a musical or theatre production before make their debut with Avenue Q.”
The official cast comprises 11 characters, including a woolly puppet inspired by the Cookie Monster and a fictionalized version of child star Gary Coleman. Biochemistry senior Kumail Haider played Brian, aspiring comedian and unemployed fiancé of Christmas Eve (a character, not the holiday). Decked out in cargo shorts and a Hawaiian-print shirt, Brian is one of the three human characters living among the puppets.
For Haider, who immersed himself in the theatre program after participating in a string of improv shows, Avenue Q was his first foray into musicals.
“Even though I played a human character, it was still tough getting used to interacting with the puppets,” Haider says. “Throughout the entire production, my main challenge was maintaining eye contact and speaking to the puppets as opposed to the actors. I would always want to speak to my fellow actors when I delivered my lines, but I had to actively remember that they weren’t even characters on stage.”
Hibbs said the theatre program selects projects that allow students to strengthen specific skills, and acting with puppets helps actors hone their precision because the prop can easily “die” on stage.
“A puppet is always trying to live; that’s the main trick with it all,” she says. “The actor not only has to be responsible for themselves, but they have to breathe life into this concoction of foam and felt. It’s quite challenging because you have to keep that illusion afloat from the moment the puppet appears.”
The colorful puppets were designed and created by Dallas Costume Shoppe, which has worked with the theatre program for previous shows. Shop owner and fellow actor Michael Robinson took the students through two puppet “boot camps” to teach them the ins and outs of puppeteering.
The cast was also encouraged to practice outside of rehearsal. Weeks before the premiere, Haider would find himself singing aloud in crowds of students. “I swear people thought I was crazy because I’d be walking from my car to go to class singing all the songs I needed to rehearse out loud,” he says.
“It sucks to be broke and unemployed and turning thirty-three,” sings Brian in the particularly self-deprecating number “It Sucks to Be Me,” and to ensure he got his characterization just right, Haider forced himself to push out his gut, slouch and walk listlessly. “I wanted to channel my inner slob,” he said.
With the production over, Hibbs was most pleased to see new faces and returning students working together on the musical.
“It’s been amazing to see students who were first intimidated by the puppets become so adept at bringing these characters to life, even improvising with them,” she says. “Being a part of a play or musical is a life-changing experience, and I’m so thrilled that our students had the opportunity to put on this professional production of Avenue Q.”