In the world of big-budget performing arts, it’s not uncommon for companies across the country to engage in co-productions to help share costs for sets, costumes and, with new works, commissioning. It doesn’t happen often, though, on a mid-size or small budget level, which might seem odd in a region like Dallas-Fort Worth, where sharing productions could work to the advantage of such groups on either side of the Trinity.
Stage West has been working to change this, having imported a complete Dallas production of Blues for an Alabama Sky in the early 2000s from Soul Rep Theatre Company, and then having taken its 2012 production of Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-A-- Wit of Molly Ivins to Addison’s WaterTower Theatre.
Next up, Stage West receives the production of the Tony-winning puppet musical Avenue Q — including all 36 puppets, the director and the original cast — from Dallas’ Theatre Three, where it opened in fall 2012.
“I like this idea of sharing artistic currency between theaters,” says show director Michael Serrecchia, who has never worked at Stage West. Neither have most of the performers, even though some of them, including Denise Lee and Megan Kelly Bates, have been regulars in North Texas theater for more than a decade.
The exception is Michael Robinson, who is artistic director of the Dallas Puppet Theater and has been a frequent costume designer at Stage West. In Avenue Q, he also plays the role of the show’s largest and loudest puppet, Trekkie Monster, which has one of the musical’s most famous songs, The Internet Is for Porn.
The seed for this cross-pollination began when the now-late Jerry Russell told Robinson, when Theatre Three’s show was opening, that he wished he had thought to do the production using the Dallas Puppet Theater. “He said, ‘I wondered if we could steal you away,’ ” Robinson said. “It wasn’t mentioned again until Stage West was planning this current season.”
When Serrecchia mentioned it to Jac Alder, the executive producer-director of Theatre Three, it was all systems go. The Theatre Three show had a healthy run of several months and was brought back periodically in 2013. Stage West has a larger theater and stage, and a new two-story set — similar to the original Broadway one — has been built. That wasn’t possible in the 99-seat basement space in Dallas, which has a low ceiling.
Avenue Q shocked the commercial theater world when it beat the mammoth Wicked for the Best Musical Tony in 2004. AQ, which began off-Broadway (and moved back to off-Broadway after its few years on the Great White Way), is inspired by the look of the puppets (not to mention the simplistic music) in Sesame Street, and tells the story of post-college 20-somethings in a not-so-expensive part of New York City, trying to figure out their futures and life in general.
The delightfully hummable but decidedly “adult” songs include What Do You Do With a B.A. in English?, It Sucks To Be Me, If You Were Gay and Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist. Many of the puppets, notably Trekkie, spout profanity, and there’s even a racy scene involving puppet sex. The puppet characters interact with human characters, including a struggling comedian and Gary Coleman, played by a black woman (Lee), who is the building supervisor.
This is the first local production of the musical in Fort Worth but not the first time it has been seen here. The national tour came to Bass Hall in 2007, three years before it hit Dallas in 2010, at the AT&T Performing Arts Center (the show was too risqué to be booked by Dallas’ more conservative touring producer, Dallas Summer Musicals).
The show is funny and touching, and part of its genius is that even though the rod puppets are manipulated by puppeteers in plain sight of the audience, viewers quickly learn to focus on the puppets and not the humans controlling them.
It was like that for Serrecchia, too, who had never directed puppeteers. Most of the actors hadn’t performed with them, either. The rehearsal process at Theatre Three was actually a week longer than usual, with the first week being “puppet camp.”
“Getting past that hump is what made it successful,” Serrecchia says. “Because you have to be concerned with the point of view of the puppet, the eye direction of the puppet, the body language of the puppet. Once you have that nailed, you can augment that and make sure the puppeteer’s body language and eye focus matches.”
Although there are only a handful of major puppet characters, there are a total of 36 puppets. Characters with costume changes were duplicated, each one wearing a new costume. So the character of “Princeton,” for instance, has six versions. Robinson says that because the time to initially build them was only a few weeks, the Dallas Puppet Theater worked 24/7 to finish them.
“I’d come home from work and spend all night on the puppets,” Robinson says. “There were puppet eyes and hands all over the house.”
It paid off. They look so great that other theaters around the country, from Houston to California to New Jersey, have rented extra sets of its puppets.
For the Dallas run, a puppet version of Theatre Three’s Alder was created to give the curtain speech before every performance. Fort Worth audiences can look for something similar, with the Stage West folks in mind.