The characters in the SUNY New Paltz production of “Avenue Q,” opening April 19 at McKenna Theatre, have a lot in common with those in other plays: they are complex, expressive, charismatic figures, who confront real-world problems with a compelling mix of humor and vulnerability.
Unlike most other characters who take the stage at New Paltz, however, many of the stars of “Avenue Q” are puppets, hand-crafted by costume design students who worked in consultation with alumna Danielle Jordan ’12 (Theatre Arts).
The Department of Theatre Arts has offered special programming related to puppetry for a few years, and expanded these efforts in fall 2017 by bringing in Anika Larsen, a Tony Award-nominated Broadway actress with extensive experience performing with puppets, to lead a new course.
The Department then needed to obtain professional-quality puppets for use in class and on the stage. Larsen helped guide that process, sharing her expertise about the impact of factors like construction, material and shape on the experiences of performers and audiences.
“Puppetry is a very particular task, and it distills for you the essence of acting,” Larsen said. “When you perform with puppets, you may have to hold your arm up for hours at a time, and maintain the balance of supporting the puppet without distracting from the puppet. If puppets are not well-made, it makes it hard to voice them with ease, and you lose a lot of your capacity to emote.”
The Department’s research led them to Danielle Jordan, who’d gone on to a position as the Crafts Artisan at the First Stage Children’s Theatre in Milwaukee, Wis., following her graduation from New Paltz.
“Danielle landed this great early career, and I knew she could meet our needs,” said Department Chair Ken Goldstein. “I reached out to her, and she was really enthusiastic.”
Jordan threw herself into the project, studying with colleagues, taking courses, and consulting frequently with the Department of Theatre Arts about “Avenue Q” and about the broader puppetry curriculum.
“From a construction perspective, puppet-building combines traditional elements of both costume and prop making: cutting wood, foam and fabric, patterning, gluing, sewing, and so many other processes,” she said.
“I love the constant balance of precision and imperfection. A puppet needs to be well made, but it also needs to have a personality. When you build a puppet, no matter how simple or complicated, you’re building an object whose sole purpose is to be brought to life by another person. When it’s done well, it’s an incredibly rewarding experience.”
When Jordan’s puppets arrived at New Paltz, Larsen was immediately impressed with their quality.
“I was delighted to discover how well the neck moved, and that it was attached to the body, but not too rigidly, almost as if they were two pieces,” Larsen said. “She did her homework.”
The 12 puppets Jordan created for the Department of Theatre Arts fueled a successful first offering of the “Acting with Puppets” course – so successful that the Department added another section to the spring 2018 schedule – and gave students a rare opportunity to learn the basics of an ancient, but still relevant, mode of performance.
“That class was definitely one of the deeper performance classes I took, because there’s so much being thrown at you,” said Zachary Gibson ’18 (Theatre Arts), performing as Trekkie Monster in the College’s production of “Avenue Q.”
“After this experience I’m very much interested into expanding more into puppetry, and having Anika in the class is a great connection,” Gibson added. “That’s what’s cool about New Paltz, is that all of our teachers are still working professionally, which helps with making connections.”
Larsen, who performed in “Avenue Q” on and off-Broadway as well as on the show’s national tour, is helping to advise the cast, crew and Director Bria Walker.
“‘Avenue Q’ is basically ‘Sesame Street’ for college grads,” Larsen said. “It teaches lessons you wouldn’t expect a puppet to say or do, but are somehow more palatable, easier to take, coming from a puppet.”
Jordan, too, has continued to consult with the student and faculty costume designers who are creating the puppets for the “Avenue Q” performance. She even returned to New Paltz for a two-day “crash course” on puppet craft early in the spring semester.
“It’s been exciting to work alongside the people who taught me so much in a professional capacity,” she said. “I owe so much to this institution, and it warms my heart to be able to be give back to my alma mater only six years after graduating.”
“Avenue Q” opened April 19 at McKenna Theatre on the New Paltz campus, with performances from April 19-22 and April 26-29.