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, and partly by the ingenuity of the puppeteers themselves.
‘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.
‘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, Plaskitt has tried to make the Avenue Q puppets as user-friendly as possible. ‘Operating puppets can be very tiring,’ Plaskitt says. ‘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.’
Mayflower Theatre, Southampton