Photo by Stephanie Simpson
Kevin Noonchester may have come to Chicago to contribute his puppetry expertise to Mercury Theater’s production of "Avenue Q," but the non-work highlight of his trip was visiting the offices of Cards Against Humanity. “If you love Avenue Q,” Noonchester says, “then you're the right person for this hilarious party game.”
And no, Cards Against Humanity didn’t pay him to say that. What he was paid to do, was unite actors and puppets to create believable characters in the much-loved musical. While Noonchester works as a voiceover actor and puppeteer, perhaps the endeavor closest to his heart is Avenue Q Puppet Camp, which brings "Avenue Q" to schools and theaters across the country. He spoke with Our Town about his experience with Mercury Theater, eating his way across Chicago, and the unique physicality of creating puppet characters.
Our Town What inspired you to found Avenue Q Puppet Camp?
Kevin Noonchester When you produce a show like "A Chorus Line" or "42nd Street" you cast people who have dance experience. However, with "Avenue Q" that show-specific skill is puppetry. But, WHERE do they learn the puppetry? That's where I come in. I was trained by the original Broadway creative team and worked alongside members of the original cast That "authenticity" is something that helps Avenue Q Puppet Camp pass along the magic that helped make the show such a success. The magic of "Avenue Q" is in the audience believing that the puppets are alive and are the ones experiencing the love, the loss and the journey of the characters in the show.
OT For the actor, how does establishing a puppet character differ from just creating a character?
KN In puppetry, there is a vocabulary of movements and gestures that will help you translate all that internal work into a performance you share with your audience. For example, you need to make a specific motion with your arm and hand if you want your puppet to breathe or sigh. When an actor does it, they just do it and no one stops to break down the technical aspects of it. Everything we take for granted as living, breathing actors is something we need to deliberately do in order to make our puppet come to life.
OT The actors in "Avenue Q" are visible as they operate puppets. Essentially, this requires that both person and puppet sync to create one character. Can you talk a little about the opportunities and drawbacks there?
KN Having the actors be visible and playing the part in tandem with their puppets was one of the first real concept obstacles the show had on its way to Broadway. It was a theatrical convention invented for Avenue Q that freed the characters to move where they wanted without having to build an elevated set like they had on The Muppet show. Puppeteers are used to not being seen. Having to deliver a quality facial acting performance while manipulating a puppet, like in "Avenue Q," is foreign to even the most experienced puppeteers.