Arts on Friday
The Muppets it ain't. Avenue Q is no show for children, Lee Matthews discovers in speaking to director Steven Sayer.
Puppets and actors form intimate twosomes in Avenue Q.
It figures, it's a show that comes with a PG rating because it looks at fairly adult stuff, says director Steven Sayer. Not a show suitable for young children, but mature teens will enjoy it.
We'll have puppets bonking on stage. Puppets tangled about their sexuality, two-timing in their relationships. Puppets will laugh and cry about their jobs, their lives, their humour black as cop coffee . . . laugh before you cry. Some racism. A bit of porn, some rudeness. A little coarse. Raunchy, it delves into situations that make most people squirm a bit.
The puppets are the front face of each character, manipulated by actors who use their voices and bodies to create the musical's cast. Not ventriloquism, it's more like an echo-mirror effect. The human half of the puppet supplies mobility, voice, body language and tension, holding the half-body puppets on one arm and using their other hand to manipulate the puppets' hands, mouths and head movements. The puppets are the face or focus, with the actors projecting character through them.
Sayer says it's a technically challenging way to act, to present through something in this way. He describes it as being similar to freeze-frame acting. The puppet faces are fixed, but the actors' actions bring them alive.
"The audience will notice the actors for the first few minutes, then I think they'll find that they focus more and more on the puppets. They'll become real."
Avenue Q offers above-ordinary challenges for a director as well. Using puppets means the choreography has to be tight, blocking absolutely on the knocker, so the puppet wrangling doesn't go awry. With the moves fairly fixed, direction focuses on interpretation of the songs and music, on the creation of the characters, Sayer says.
Plotwise, Avenue Q's an interesting show, a coming-of-age story, funny and bleak at the same time. We've got a brand new young university graduate, no dust yet accumulated on his Bachelor of English degree, who goes to New York to start his first job. Broke, little life experience, he ends up finding a room in bottom-end Avenue Q, a neighbourhood most kindly described as a racial, sexual and low-economic melting pot.
And then he gets the phone call. Congratulations, you've got the job, but unfortunately the company's closing down so don't come Monday.
Sayer smiles reminiscently at this. He's had the DCM call himself - 1988, New Zealand raddled by recession and jobs dropping like flies. A good keen late teen, he'd just talked his way into a creative/design training position at Saatchi & Saatchi's Palmerston North office, on the basis of a handful of high school sketches ("I didn't even have a portfolio at that stage") and that hungry-to-do-my-best attitude that good managers can spot a mile away.
Then came the phone call. "They were closing the Palmy office . . . it was one of those moments . . . we've all had them."
Back on Avenue Q, the new uni grad, Princeton, is coming to terms with what happens next. Which is basically life.
Sayer says the musical's been called a chronicle of coming of age - a young person facing all those big life decisions for the first time, and having to make moral and ethical decisions, making them right, making them wrong. And again, everyone growing up goes through this. "It's very funny. Heartstrings humour."
Sayer brings a broad perspective based on wide experience to his directing. In his early 40s, he's been part of the theatre scene in Palmerston North for more than 20 years. His first show was All That Spice, at the Abbey Theatre, when he was 19.
"I kind of got dragged into that, and I think I've never left."
He has worked with dancers and choreographers Michelle Robinson and Val Bolter, he learned design with the late Bob McMurray, whose school of design was a shining forerunner to UCOL's current suite of performing and visual arts courses, and all the way through he has acted, sung, danced, designed sets and eventually moved into directing.
Two of his most recent big shows were Chess, earlier this year, and Jesus Christ Superstar - pulling together huge casts for outstanding big-stage performances in the Regent on Broadway.
He's got a confession to make about acting. He loves it, he misses it - his last big role was Fagan in Oliver several years ago - but he gets so "damned nervous" that he says he can go right through a scene and not be able to recall much about it. Even the applause doesn't make much impression.
"There's self-reward in acting, you create the character, you work with others, you trust deeply . . . but when I direct it's different, it feels different."
Listening to Sayer talk about directing could be an object lesson in simplicity for those knowledge-and-insight gurus who charge people megabucks to attend life-changing seminars. Sayer's got the ingredients taped: work hard, respect others, keep calm and don't indulge in egos or tantrums.
"Like the coffee mug says, ‘Keep Calm and Carry On'."
His reasoning is simple. He's got a cast and a crew of people who all have busy lives outside the theatre, yet they're willing to turn up and try hard, sometimes on the back of a difficult day at work, problems at home or worries about all the difficulties that beset humans. They've all got ideas about things, all have visions about what they're doing. The trick is to juggle it all together to best effect.
"I guess I've mastered the art of not letting anyone see my temper, see me lose it. There's huge pressure, directing. You listen and try to use all the best ideas that everyone has, but ultimately you're the person making the decision, you are the person who says ‘yes' or ‘no'. You have to have the vision for the finished scene, and jigsaw it together, no matter how scattered the pieces might be.
"Otherwise you've just got a big mixing bowl of ingredients that hasn't been baked."
Theatre's a good example of human aspiration. Everyone aspires to be better, to do better, that's the human condition. And that invariably leads to tensions, so those have got to be sorted out as they arise. "Ego's a dirty word . . . I hate that word."
He says Palmerston North is a great place to work in theatre. The pool of expertise is deep enough so just about everything can be done locally, by people who really care about the finished result.
He's come to the conclusion that the chief ingredients to success on the stage are hard work, hard work, more hard work and respect for other people.
"I make my luck, and I work damned hard to make it," he says.
* Avenue Q, at the Abbey Theatre, November 22 to December 15, directed by Steven Sayer with musical direction by Barry Jones. Cast includes Andrew Hodgson, Alexia Clark, Chris Thompson, Samuel Gordon, Janine Bonny, Danny Goodman, Kirsten Clark, Sera Devcich, Erica Ward, Lorna Beauchamp and Cam Dow.
- © Fairfax NZ News