Puppets with purpose

Known as "Sesame Street" for adults, ‘Avenue Q’ brings its musical puppetry to Jerusalem’s AACI Theater.

November 27, 2016 20:13
THE CAST of J-Town Playhouse’s production of the musical comedy ‘Avenue Q.’

THE CAST of J-Town Playhouse’s production of the musical comedy ‘Avenue Q.’. (photo credit: HANAN SCHOFFMAN)

The beloved musical Avenue Q chronicles and satirizes the trials of burgeoning adulthood. It opened on Broadway in 2003 and subsequently won three Tony Awards in that same year. Avenue Q went on to become one of the longest-running shows in Broadway history. It is perhaps best known for its use of puppets alongside the actors. Now Avenue Q is coming to Jerusalem courtesy of the J-Town Playhouse.

Opening night at the AACI theater is November 30 and there will be 10 performances in total. Director Layla Schwartz sat down with The Jerusalem Post to discuss the search for meaning, her favorite musical number, and directing puppets.

How would you describe Avenue Q?

It’s a musical that’s like Sesame Street for adults. It’s not a plot-based show. It’s about people who are trying to make their way in the world; specifically in New York City.

They’re trying to find happiness, love, friendship, and acceptance from their peers. It’s full of life lessons and learning moments. It really maintains the structure of Sesame Street, where it teaches a lesson by characters making mistakes or seeking advice. It’s a musical about life. The main character is young, he’s just graduated college and doesn’t know what to do with his BA in English, which he sings a song about.

He’s looking for his purpose. He has this idea that there must be some greater purpose in life that he just hasn’t found yet.

That occupies and confuses him, and it’s one of the main themes of the show as well.

Does he find his purpose?

I think he does, but I’d be giving it away to say more. Everybody has their purpose in the show, but it’s much more small scale than people think when they’re fresh out of college. Helping your friends, raising money for a good cause, being good at your job, being honest with yourself and others, and finding your place in the community is a pretty good start on finding purpose in life.

Can you talk about your casting process?

We had a big turnout for this show because it’s a popular show. So many people wanted to be a part of Avenue Q that I was able to typecast everybody; everybody fits their role really well. I had more people that I wanted to cast than I had roles for.

There were a few people who could have fit multiple roles, so I fit them in a niche that best fit their type. It made my job easier.

It’s a great group of people who are having a lot of fun. It’s not like we’re doing Othello; we’re having a lot of fun in rehearsals.

‘Avenue Q’ is unique in the sense that several of the characters are puppets. How has that been for you as the director?

There is a wonderful woman in the English speaking theater community named Rachel Jacobson and she has designed and built the puppets from scratch. They’re really cute, but they’re also difficult to learn how to use. They require a little extra arm strength and coordination that you usually don’t need in a play.

That has been a challenge, but also a joy.

They’re a lot of fun. They do pose a variety of challenges in terms of coordinating and blocking them. Logistics-wise, how do you make it so the actor and the puppet are seen by the audience most of the time? On top of all of the singing and everything else going on, you have these puppets that are also singing along.

Do you have a favorite musical number in the show?

I do have a favorite song. It’s called “I Wish I Could Go Back to College” and three characters sing about how they wish they could go back to that time of their lives. They realize they can’t because they’re too old now, but they feel nostalgic for that stage in life when you go back to your dorm room to see “a message in dry erase pen on your door,” or doing a final paper at four in the morning in the computer lab and the rest of the class is there too. I think it expresses a sense of loneliness that a lot of people feel after college when they’re not in that communal environment anymore. But all of the songs are very well written and clever, like the script. The script is very funny and reflects human behavior very accurately.

The songs are entertaining and mostly upbeat. This is a fun show and I want to emphasize that. This is not a show about death and drama; it’s not melodramatic at all. It’s a comedy!

What has been the biggest challenge for you, besides the puppets?

It’s been a tough month and a difficult time of year with the elections and people having a lot of strong emotions. I’ve been feeling, and I think some of my cast members as well, have been feeling sort of beaten down by the sense that the world is getting worse. People are more full of hate and are more discriminatory. So we enjoy coming to our theater and creating something together that’s positive and has a good message. It’s been a nice escape for all of us.

Is there a message that you hope audience members take away?

I think the message is that people find their purpose. Some of the characters make mistakes and they can say they’re sorry and do something special for the other person to make them happier. It’s called Avenue Q because that’s where most of the characters live. The show has neighbors looking out for each other. People need that interaction with community and that support.

Avenue Q has its fair share of coarse language and mature subject matter. Not recommended for children under 13 as it addresses issues like sex, drinking and Internet pornography.

For teenagers, parental discretion is advised. For tickets visit www.aaci.org.il.

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