The Master Puppeteers
Just when you thought puppets couldn't get any more streetwise than the Muppets, along came Avenue Q to take manually operated puppetry onto a new level of sophistication.
The idea of a show in which the puppets and the puppeteers worked side by side, with no attempt to create an illusion of ventriloquy, was revolutionary.
What surprised everyone, including the creators of Avenue Q, was how audiences focussed on the puppets rather than the puppeteers during the performance. This was achieved partly by the attention-grabbing appearance of the puppets, with their big googly eyes and garishly coloured skin and clothes, and partly by the ingenuity of the puppeteers themselves.
This was puppeteering as it had rarely been seen before in mainstream theatre - in your face and larger than life.
"It's actually a really difficult thing to do," says Nigel Plaskitt, who has been operating puppets and training puppeteers for nearly 40 years. "You've got to play the character, create his or her voice, animate this creature on your arm and become so expert at the lip-synching that you don't even have to think about it. There is a lot going on."
In the eight years he has worked on various productions of Avenue Q, Plaskitt has coached dozens of actors in the subtle art of puppeteering. Is it something any actor can master?
"Out of hundreds of people I've seen at castings, I can count on the fingers of two hands the people who haven't been able to do it," he says. "I look for coordination, that's essential. In some ways it's a good idea not to have had any prior experience; then you have no preconceptions. You come to it with a clean slate.
"Dancers, singers, musical theatre people tend to get it quicker than most. Occasionally you get someone who isn't a natural puppeteer but who gives a stand-out performance, so I have to do more work with them."
During the 1980s and 90s, Plaskitt worked for the Jim Henson Company as well as on TV's Spitting Image. It was one of the Sesame Street team in New York who suggested he should be brought in to work on the London transfer of Avenue Q, produced by Cameron Mackintosh.
"This wasn't a show attacking Sesame Street, or even mocking it; rather, it showed how much affection people had for it," Plaskitt explains.
Working alongside master puppet-maker Paul Jomain, who also worked for the Jim Henson Company in the past, Plaskitt has tried to make the Avenue Q puppets as user-friendly as possible.
"Operating puppets can be very tiring. Paul's puppets are very light to hold but even so it can be quite uncomfortable being in the same position for 20 minutes at a time. You have to train your muscles to stretch into the positions they need to hold. It's a matter of building up your strength and not going too fast. We've had to bring the physios in a few times over the years."
Training actors to operate the puppets requires patience, sensitivity and expertise. Is he ever tempted to get up and show them how it's done?
"I don't like to show by example; I prefer people to find it for themselves. I might give them some examples of how the puppet can look happy, sad, grumpy etc and then encourage them to find their own ways of getting those emotions out of the characters. I know the show so well now that I find it interesting to see how the newer actor-puppeteers often arrive at the same solutions as the ones who did the show originally!"
Because the puppeteers cannot always see the effect of their manipulation on the audience, Plaskitt encourages them to rehearse in front of mirrors, and sometimes uses video recordings to help them critique their own performances. "They have to know exactly where the puppet is meant to be looking, which is difficult if you're behind it. Eventually it becomes muscle memory but you have to find it in the first place, which isn't always easy."
For Paul Jomain, making and maintaining the puppets has become a full-time job. The current tour requires 34 hand-stitched puppets. He says: "The clothes for Lucy and Kate Monster are made by hand, but the boys can be fitted out in the high street. Over the years, I've developed an eye for what works and what doesn't.
"It was important to make the puppets as light as possible; otherwise, the operators quickly become worn out by the effort of holding them up."
Paul makes four versions of each character to cover costume changes. "They're not washable, so once they start to look a bit grubby they have to be replaced. If you put them in the washing machine, I'm afraid they'd probably fall to pieces," he says.