As an art

“It’s not just in this show, but in terms of it being something from your childhood, there’s some universal tendency that children all over the world have to personify objects and to make them move and to give them life and to give them voices. Every single one of us has done that at one point of another, and at some point you put that aside. But then when a puppet comes into your experience, you do go back to a more open place, and it allows you to see things and to connect with them in a different way.” — Jennifer Barnhart

The following interview was conducted during the 2013 University of Utah production of Avenue Q.  Doug Fabrizio talked to: Bob Mondello, NPR Arts Critic David Schmidt, Department of Theatre, University of Utah, director of Avenue Q Jennifer Barnhart, Original Broadway Cast Member, Avenue Q, Artist-in-Residence for the University of Utah’s production of Avenue Q; and Eileen Blumenthal, Professor of Theater Arts at Rutgers University and author of Puppetry: A World History.

Doug Fabrizio: When you’re onstage, you’re supposed to be there of course, but you’re also not supposed to be there.How do you explain your role as a performer in this particular play?

Jennifer Barnhart as a Bad News Bear

Jennifer Barnhart as a Bad News Bear

Jennifer Barnhart: In Avenue Q specifically it is challenging because I’m lucky enough to inhabit the world of being a puppeteer and an actor, or a human performer as I have now come to make the distinction, but in this show you end up doing both. It is a shared performance. The first time I was stepping into the show, I was trying to incorporate a sense of neutrality into my own facial features so that the focus would be forced to be on the puppet. Bu then I realized, after hearing some feedback from preview audiences, that that it was in fact distracting for them to look at my face and see that it was not emotionally engaging with what was happening with the character. So I found I had to bring my human chops into the play as well and find a delicate balance between how much of my face is being emotive and how much focus should be on the puppet. It’s a shared performance, not so much a split performance. Rich Lyons–he’s the original designer and builder of the puppets and the original Trekkie–he said that watching the first five minutes of Avenue Q is very much like watching a foreign film with subtitles. For the first five minutes you’re very aware of your eyes going down to the bottom of the screen and back again, very much like you’re watching a tennis match. But very shortly after that it just becomes incorporated into the storytelling and you don’t notice it at all. And when it’s seamless I think is when it works best.

DF: Once the novelty or the shock wears off, is it hard to maintain the essence of this show?

David Schmidt: No. When Kate gets her heart broken, the audience sighs. It’s beautiful, because before that, they’re gasping, it’s like they’re watching a scary movie. And then when Kate has her heart broken, they’re crying and sighing–it’s wonderful.

So it’s not just the silly novelty of a cursing puppet… So what’s the novelty of Avenue Q, ten years on?

DS: It’s always been novel to a new audience, and it just goes back centuries, the use of puppets. I’ve seen puppets used in Shakespeare, all kinds of different things. The novelty is always magical. And I hadn’t really thought about it before, but yes, we do give voice to things, and it’s a perfectly natural thing to do. Have you ever watched a 4-year-old watching a puppet? Because the person manipulating the puppet disappears for the kid,  you can tell, he believes in the reality of that thing. And whats amazing about puppetry when it’s done well onstage is that you fall into that pattern again, and you believe. I confess to being a total sap, but I fall apart at this kind of thing, and I remember being moved by Avenue Q. Willing suspension of disbelief.

DF: I guess we should start with the question of what is a puppet, because you start in your book, Eileen, that whenever someone endows an inanimate object with life and then casts it in a scenario, you’ve got a puppet, a puppet is born. So in that sense, a puppet can be all kinds of different things, but as long as you’re trying to imbue it with life and put it in that kind of scenario, that’s a puppet?

Eileen Blumenthal: I think that’s a puppet, and by the way, that’s as close to a definition of puppet as exists in that book, and it’s as close to a definition I can come up with. The edges of what a puppet is are very fuzzy and porous.

DF: Jennifer, I want to hear what you have to say about that, distilling a gesture, because you’ve talked to us about that before. What is the gift of a puppeteer, what do the good ones have? Is it a physical thing, like dexterity? Is it the ability to be fluid? What is it?

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Jennifer Barnhart as Mrs Thistletwat

JB: It’s usually the ability to make observations and be able to translate through the puppet and interpret through the puppet to get at the essence of that emotion or intention or gesture. When I’m working with a new puppeteer for instance…I say, “Show me in your body how you would do this scene, because I want to look at your hand gestures, and I want to try and translate what you’re doing into the puppet. Now I can’t translate directly, but I can find the essence of it, and that I can replicate through the puppetry, so there’s no extraneous gesture, there’s nothing leftover but what is essential to communicate an idea or emotion.

DF: What’s the mistake they often make, the thing that they’re doing wrong, if there is one common element that they don’t quite get at first.

JB: There are a couple of common elements that beginning puppeteers don’t get when they’re first trying their hand at a new instrument, because learning to puppeteer is a lot like learning a new instrument. When they’re picking up the instrument and trying to make it do things, very often they’ll be working so much harder than they have to. They’ll be working their hands with such force and strength behind it, and you can see the effort in their faces and their hands, and because there’s so much tension there, it’s binding the puppet, it’s not letting the puppet move as freely and as openly as it can, so often over-muscling it and trying to make it do too much and trying to do too many gestures. Very often they’ll do something, like they’ll nod in agreement, and they’ll do seven or eight quick little nods, which really just makes the puppet look like it’s having a seizure. But if you just do two simple nods, that’s much cleaner and gets away with all the extra stuff you just don’t need.

DF: I guess you need to understand human expression to bring a puppet to life, because that’s the thing that you’re interpreting as a puppet and we have to understand it as a puppet…do you pay more attention to gestures than the rest of us? Do you pay more attention to he way we express, things? facial gestures, those movements, tapping of toes–

Jennifer Barnhart as Lucy the Slut

Jennifer Barnhart as Lucy the Slut

JB: –a slight incline of the head…Yeah, I think I am more attuned to it. Most actors are attuned to it anyway, but I do think that puppeteers go the extra distance and really hone in on what is the essence of the gesture, and what is that gesture an essential expression of, whether it’s an emotion or an idea or a behavior, so yes, I do find that I’m constantly studying people’s body language on the subway. And I also often tell beginning puppeteers, film animation is a similar art, you’re trying to evoke life, so I often tell them to take their favorite Pixar film and turn the sound down and see if they can track what is happening emotionally with a character. Because I also really think that puppets work best when there are no words, when there is language I feel that they puppet can express more sometimes, paradoxically. So I will use that as an exercise, where I’ll ask, can you tell what a puppet is telling emotionally purely through what you’re seeing, not through what you’re hearing, and trying to apply those principles to puppetry. that’s a very useful tool.

…When I have a puppet character on, I’ll find that when I’m improvising or talking–for instance, when I was working with the students at the University, I brought the original Bad Idea Bear from the Broadway production. As I was explaining to them, you’re learning a foreign language here, and if you were taking a foreign language intensive, your teacher would only be speaking to you in French, so I’m going to have a puppet on pretty much for all of rehearsal, and you’ll be taking not to me but to the puppet. But periodically the character of the Bad Idea Bear would take over and she would say things that I wouldn’t even know were about to come out. As a human, I’d think, “I can’t get away with saying that in front of these students,” but my Bad News Bear would say it, it would come out of her mouth, and I’d look at her as if she’d pulled a trick on me somehow. So puppets do have that incredible ability to take you outside of yourself in that way, and you can get away with a lot.

DF: What was the influence of Jim Henson?

JB: He’s largely what drew me to this form in the first place. I had been a huge fan of the muppet show particularly as a kid, and I remembered how funny the puppets were. and then when I saw the movie The Dark Crystal, and it was around the same time that start wars had changed the face of science fiction, fantasy, film making, and you could make a whole world to this, and Jim’s response to this artistically was The Dark Crystal, where he created a whole world entirely inhabited by puppets and sentient plants that moved and did things, and it was such a beautiful story, I remember getting so swept up in it and thinking, “Wait a minute, Muppets made me laugh, but puppets can do that, artistic myth and storytelling? I want to do that.” So it really was my first inkling of wanting to do this. But what’s interesting too about Jim is I think he used puppetry to explore what I think then was a burgeoning medium of television. And I think if he could have explored television in another way he would have done that, he just wanted to know how to work this medium. And he wanted to direct, and he had great, brilliant, imaginative ideas, and the one amalgamation that allowed him to do all of those things was puppetry. I still maintain that it’s still one of the few art forms, puppeteering for television especially, is one of the few art forms I’m aware of where you’re simultaneously performing and directing, because you’re looking at the picture that you and the puppets are composing. So I think that was what enlivened him as an artist, just wanting to find a mode of expression in what was then a fledgling art form, and then once he started exploring it, he really did start to nurture and foster it. He embraced the tradition and wanted other forms of puppetry to be embraced in this country. through the foundation there continues to be a great influence thanks to him.

DF: Puppetry really brought you out of your shell.

JB: Yes, as a young actor I loved doing period pieces, I loved being in big costume dramas because the costume told you how to move, it helped inform your physicality. But in terms of my own physicality, I was always the tallest girl, which made me hunch over a little bit as tall girls are want to do. I felt awkward in my own skin, and I didn’t feel as though I moved terribly gracefully. And I didn’t. And my movement class for the actor in my freshman year at university was so challenging; what I felt was the box of my own physicality. And there were times that it was very frustrating, but the moment I found puppetry, which was shortly after I started taking classes and exploring that, my ability to express other options–I can’t keep my hands still when I’m talking–but toeing able to explore movement potential in something outside of myself, and I thought, “if I can make this move in a beautiful graceful way, all of have to do is take that same energy and move it up my own arm and translate it up my own arm and work backwards. usually what a puppeteer tries to do is take an impulse from inside and channel it through their arms, through their hands, through musical instrument of the puppet in front of them, and I did it in the reverse. I found that the puppet moved far more gracefully than I had done, so I tried to learn from it, and it’s been a happy symbiosis ever since.

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