Puppet power

Psychology junior Ali Peterkort (left) and arts and performances junior Natsumi Bailey played the roles of Kate Monster and Christmas Eve, respectively, in the fall production of “Avenue Q.” Photo courtesy of UTD Theatre.

Singing, off-color humor and puppets all came together to communicate important life lessons in UTD’s production of “Avenue Q.”

“Avenue Q” is a musical written by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx that stars a puppet named Princeton. Upon graduating from college he moves to New York City where he makes poor choices and learns about the ups and downs of life. Using puppets helps to address Princeton’s struggle in becoming an adult from a satirical angle.

“They wanted to use (the musical) under the premise of something familiar, so they used the concept of Sesame Street but transformed it into something that would be used for adult audiences,” the UTD Theatre director, Shelby Hibbs, said. “It blends this childhood puppet show with something that is more about adult themes and adult problems as well.”

The musical features songs with adult humor, including “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist,” “The Internet is for Porn” and “Schadenfreude,” which reveal a pressing underlying message.

“The basic (assertion) of the show is having puppets on the stage singing ridiculous songs, and it’s pretty much going to be a fun, crazy and ridiculous musical, but there are moments where these puppets become fully three-dimensional beings,” Hibbs said. “We begin to empathize with them, begin to feel for them. We begin to identify with them. While it is really fun and crazy, there is real heart to this show.”

The show addresses the struggles of becoming an adult while portraying how there can be brighter sides to tough situations.

“Despite the hard times you go through, not everything is forever,” said Natsumi Bailey, an arts and performance junior and the character of Christmas Eve. “You might be in a bad place right now, but things will get better. Life is always changing.”

This show is the first musical UTD Theatre has produced. Psychology junior Ali Peterkort, one of the leads in the show, said musicals bring together dancers, actors and singers to create a fun show that provides a different rehearsal and performance experience, and she hopes to do more musicals through the program.

“It’s incredibly exciting and I’m very glad it’s happening,” she said. “Last year we really fought to have musicals be a thing here at UTD and I’m really glad that it’s come to life and we’re able to put on the best production that we can because we are supported.”

The show not only teaches the audience how to deal with the issues they face growing up, but it also addresses social problems such as racism and stereotyping by incorporating human characters as well as puppets. Bailey said her character, Christmas Eve, struggles with stereotypes.

“She is one of the human characters,” Bailey said. “She has a very heavy Asian accent, and is very stereotypical, but she’s actually a very real person. It’s cool to play someone who is a realistic person that has to live with that stereotype and the difficulties understanding her and other people.”

Racism is another central theme addressed in the musical.

“There is a lot of racism and relations between people, and I think that’s important even now because of movements like Black Lives Matter,” Bailey said. “The show will help people understand racism and how everyone is different but that we are all humans.”

Peterkort said she wants to see the show offer a form of support to audience members who feel marginalized.

“We will be coming on stage with more love and exuberance to share in this time of division,” Peterkort said. “The theater has always been a place for acceptance, and we hope that everyone who takes a seat in our house can find some comfort in the stories we are telling.”

Students’ efforts impacted the show tremendously, Hibbs said.

“With all the things that have been thrown at the students like puppetry and singing and learning how to sing with a puppet there were a lot of difficulties, but everyone has been really great about pushing forward and building arm muscles so they can hold the puppets,” she said. “Once we got started with the rehearsals everything just sort of fell into place.”

The biggest struggle for Peterkort was learning how to effectively maneuver a puppet in the show. To help, the students participated in a puppet boot camp. Professional puppeteers came and taught the students the basics of getting comfortable with the puppets and how they worked. In order to connect with the character, the actors had to essentially “become” the characters and understand their problems.

“Facing the puppets was kind of terrifying because I have never done puppet work before,” Peterkort said. “It is not something you would think about. It went from a challenge to something that was really fun. … I have been able to find more life and play with it instead of being scared by doing something wrong or looking awkward because I don’t know what I’m doing.”

Casting originally took place in May, giving the students the opportunity to study the script over the summer. Rehearsals began near the end of September.

“It’s basically taken over my life, but it doesn’t bother me,” Peterkort said. “I love it. This semester, since I knew I was going to be doing the musical I wanted to devote a lot of my time to it.”

Hibbs was excited for opening night on Nov. 10.

“We had a nearly full house and a very responsive crowd,” she said. “At the end of the night, many people stayed to meet the puppets and performers in the lobby. Overall, it seemed like the show was a hit.”

The show will go on until the Nov. 18 and is free to all UTD students and faculty with a Comet Card.

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