I love you, you’re puppet, now change

‘The Michaels’ — partners Robinson and Serrecchia — ‘felt’ right at home teaming up for ‘Avenue Q’

stage

HAND JOB | Michael Robinson (rear left) designed and constructed three dozen puppets of all styles and sizes for Theatre 3’s ‘Avenue Q.’

 

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor
jones@dallasvoice.com

After nearly 10 years, the musical Avenue Q has been around long enough that it has been off-Broadway, on Broadway, back off, had a permanent show in Las Vegas, international productions and two national tours. But something you haven’t seen (not in North Texas, anyway) is a regional premiere. That’s surprising, considering that the market for the show — aging Gen-Xers who suckled on Sesame Street, which this foul-mouthed Tony winner mercilessly satires — are famous for spending their dollars on childhood nostalgia.

Probably the reason for it has been that Avenue Q presents casting issues: About three-quarters of the characters in the show are played by puppets.
But that didn’t deter Michael Robinson.

Robinson, a popular costume designer for numerous theaters and owner of the Dallas Costume Shoppe, has for decades also been the artistic director of the Dallas Puppet Theater. DPT doesn’t perform many shows anymore, though it does construct puppets for clients, including large-form corporate and sports mascots. But assembling the foam actors for Avenue Q forced Robinson to flex some old muscles.

“I’ve worked with fleece a lot, but this kind, the big-mouthed hand-puppet? It’s been new to me again,” he says.

Small wonder Avenue Q hasn’t been widely revived; to put in on in their downstairs space, Theatre 3 has to clear out an office and reconfigure the stage just to store the 36 puppets Robinson and his staff at the Costume Shoppe created  in three weeks. (There are also multiple styles: two-rods for moving both hands, one-rod, live-hand — where the puppeteer wears the hand like a glove — and miniatures.)

“We had considered [building fewer puppets and] doing costume changes, but Rick Lyon [who designed the original puppets for Broadway] said, ‘Don’t change clothes.’ That’s what we did. So there are multiple puppets for each character,” he says.

Multiple doesn’t come close. One supporting character — Lucy, the femme fatale — has no fewer that five incarnations; romantic lead Kate Monster has six iterations. That’s been a lot of work for Robinson, but almost as stressful for the show’s director, Michael Serrecchia, who is also Robinson’s partner of nearly 20 years.

“The other day he spent all evening doing nothing but stuffing arms,” Serrecchia sighs about how the show has invaded his home life. “I came to breakfast the other day and there were dozens of eyes staring at me and I said, ‘That’s it!’”

Working with puppets is new to Serrecchia, himself a Broadway veteran. He was familiar with the score but didn’t have much interest in the show until he was dragged to see it a few seasons ago; he was immediately charmed.

“I didn’t realize how touching it would be,” Serrecchia says. “My work is about heart.” It was a good fit. When the rehearsal process started, Serrecchia was surprised by some of the challenges.

“He looks at the puppets when he gives direction,” Robinson says with a smile. “I was concerned about Michael not being a puppeteer. But he’s directing the puppets, not the actors.”

The actors themselves had to undergo a puppet boot-camp, learning to manipulate them (I tried; it’s harder than it looks) and some tricks of the trade (never look at the puppet; make sure the puppet’s eyes, not yours, are focused properly, etc.). They are set for a one-month run, but Theatre 3 hopes for an open-ended extension for as long as there’s interest. Serrecchia hopes for it, too, but Robinson’s probably the one who can get it done — after all, he’s used to pulling strings.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition June 29, 2012.

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