INTERVIEW: Spiro Veloudos Moves to Avenue Q
The acclaimed Boston-based director discusses his new production of the Tony Award-winning musical.
Winner of the Best Musical Tony Award in 2004, the show mixes together humans and puppets, as it tells the tale of a recent college grad who moves into a shabby New York apartment on the musical's titular street and learns a number of life lessons thanks to the eclectic cast of characters he meets.
Veloudos recently took the time to chat with TheaterMania about the show, puppeteering, and the influence of the Muppets.
THEATERMANIA: What was your first experience with Avenue Q?
SPIRO VELOUDOS: I first saw it on Broadway, and had the last two seats in the upper balcony. I went in not knowing much about it, other than it was a Sesame Street send-up with puppets. And of course, the marquee had: "Warning: Full puppet nudity." So, I was intrigued. After the first act, I was in love with the show; I thought it was so clever, and takes an irreverent look at all these different themes, such as we're all a little bit racist. It's not just casual entertainment; it has something a little bit provocative that will challenge an audience.
TM: When did you get it in your head to actually direct a production yourself?
SV: When I was walking out of the theater! I said, I'm going home and start working on trying to get the rights to this show.
TM: Prior to this production, what was your experience of working with puppets?
SV: Um, none? (laughs) But last September, I took a class with a puppeteer master named Jonathan Little at the Puppet Showplace Theatre in Brookline -- which is probably the smartest thing I ever did in terms of this production. I worked with him in a four-week class that was called "Furry Monsters 101," which was specifically about the Muppet-type puppet and I learned a great deal. While I was taking that class, we talked about collaborating in some way in this particular production. Their artistic director, Roxanna Myhrum, is now the puppet coach in rehearsal, and Jonathan did a master class in puppetry that started our rehearsal process.
TM: How easy has it been for you to integrate the puppets with the actors?
SV: We started by working with the four actors that do the bulk of the puppeteering. And for four people who have had little to no puppet training before we began rehearsals, they're working like they've had these puppets on their hands for years. To watch the kind of work that's been happening is real exciting.
TM: So, it was not a requirement of the audition process that they needed a prior background with puppets?
SV: No, and in fact it's not a requirement in New York, from what I understand from the two people I know in the Avenue Q company there [where the show is now running Off-Broadway at New World Stages]. You audition, then they send you to puppet school for two days, and then they bring you in for your callback. We didn't have that luxury. I had to make a decision about people based on acting, dancing and singing, but we felt that if we had people who could do those three things, then certainly we would be able to teach the puppeteering. And I've been in contact with my cast all along, sending things to look at, and videos online about certain ways of doing things so that they would get familiarized with puppeteering before coming into rehearsal.
SV: Well, when it started I was already in college, being you know three days older than dirt. (laughs) But it always amazed me how the Children's Television Workshop, which was the producer at the time, was able to take educational ideas and make them so interesting both visually and exciting to a young person. And as time went on, Sesame Street -- and not only those characters but the Muppets in general -- sort of took over a whole position in our collective memory, and became part of our culture. I just saw the Being Elmo documentary, which was so fascinating to watch and understand how that particular character and that particular puppeteer developed. So, while I can't say I had some kind of cathartic experience while watching Sesame Street -- I didn't -- I certainly have an appreciation for it and for Jim Henson and what he did for puppetry and the puppetry arts.