Avenue Q, the Tony Award-winning musical by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, is once again touring in the UK. Widely acclaimed as ‘Sesame Street for adults’, the show uses puppets to explore ‘taboo’ topics such as racism and homophobia.
As Avenue Q prepares for opening night in Oxford, Emma Turnbull speaks to performer Stephen Arden about the show’s puppets, puns, and popularity.
Stephen Arden trained at The Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama and has starred in Scottish productions of Spring Awakening and Sleeping Beauty, and Clinton the Musical in Dubai.
Emma: Stephen, you have been touring with Avenue Q since April, what is new or different about this UK tour?
Stephen: Our director is new and had never seen the show before, but there is definitely a core similarity with previous productions. The show is a brand: people know it and they expect the puppets to sound a certain way. It would be like watching an episode of The Muppets where all the characters had different voices, it wouldn’t feel right.
Emma: What characters are you playing?
Stephen: There are three puppets you will see me play: Trekkie Monster – a porn-addicted monster living in the avenue; Nicky – a parody of Ernie from Sesame Street, who sponges off his investment banker friend; and one of the Bad Ideas Bears.
Emma: Do audiences react positively to the show?
Stephen: Completely, yes. There are a few people, you can tell in their faces, that have no idea what they are coming to. Some of them stay with it and enjoy it, but sometimes you come out after the interval and there are empty seats.
Emma: Is Avenue Q still as controversial as it was when it opened in 2003?
Stephen: For some people, yes, if you didn’t grow up watching Sesame Street and those sort of shows, if that’s not a familiar form to you, then you are perhaps not going to relate to it in the same way as people who did. The majority of the audience, though, are having an absolute blast.
Emma: Do you think that is the key to the show’s success, this ability to use puppets to tell an adult story?
Stephen: Yes, I definitely think it is part of the appeal. The show is an invitation to the audience to come and play with us: to suspend your disbelief and believe that each puppet is completely real. When the audience can do that, they will tell you that they weren’t looking at the actors at all they were just looking at the puppets – that is incredibly satisfying.
Emma: Do you feel part of the Avenue Q brand now?
Stephen: Yes, until you have been part of it you do not realise just how much joy it can bring to an audience: until you hear the constant laughter, people genuinely crying. You get people who have followed the show for years.
Emma: How does Avenue Q compare to musicals you have done before?
Stephen: In most musicals you find your path through it through your body and your voice, with Avenue Q I have to try and translate it through my hand; and sometimes with another person on the other end of the puppet. The show is very mentally involved and it takes stamina.
Emma: So is there a future career in ventriloquism for you?
Stephen: No! We wouldn’t be able to do that. We never hide the fact that we are there: the puppets never reference us and I never look at the other actors.
Emma: Have you ever had a mishap on stage?
Stephen: Sometimes you are singing or doing a dance move and you’ll forget to move the puppet’s mouth, but hopefully the audience don’t notice!
Avenue Q will be at New Theatre, Oxford from 11-16 August.