Jacqueline Tate and Luke Kempner on Avenue Q
Hilarious and uproariously entertaining with songs performed by a cast of hugely talented performers and puppets, Avenue Q is a musical like no other.
The show has enjoyed enormous success, both on Broadway and in London, proving to be the perfect, contemporary musical. Witty, rude and extremely funny, Avenue Q ingeniously combines a cast of humans and puppets who tackle subjects such as dating, racism, being gay and finding your purpose in life.
What can you tell me about Avenue Q?
JT: The show was originally conceived as a television programme but as they were writing it the realised it would work much better on the stage. It’s a fantastic collection of songs with a wonderful set of characters. There are three human characters in the show, with 9 or 10 puppet characters. I suppose the best way to describe it is that it is like a Sesame Street for adults, and rather than teaching you lessons like your ABC’s and how to count, it is teaching you more serious life lessons. We are looking for jobs, working out our relationships, for example there is a character that comes out during the play. I’m loathe to say it deals with more serious issues, as it is not really very serious.
LK: It’s a comedy, it’s a musical, and its got puppets in it. But it’s the things that sesame street forgot to teach. Where Sesame Street would try not to patronise kids with what it taught, things like adding and subtracting, or friendships and bullying, it would do it without spoon feeding it to them. I think that’s the same as we do here, teaching things about homosexuality or racism, or relationship break ups.
What roles do you play?
LK: Well, I am resident director, operate puppets and cover the lead parts. The set is basically a house, and I perform a little bit in each of the windows, but when the leads are off I play some of those parts too. I get the all-round experience, and I can’t stop thinking for a second as I am always doing something different.
JT: I play a character called Christmas Eve. She is one of the three human characters, and is a Japanese psychotherapist, who lives on the avenue with her soon to be husband Brian, who is unemployed. I suppose she is the sort of mother hen of the group really. She’s the ‘go to’ person, as everyone goes to her with their problems. All of the characters in the piece have a lesson that they are learning, and Christmas Eve’s biggest lesson is that she has to learn to listen. She’s not a very good therapist as she just talks all the time, so when people come to her with their problems she just talks at them. So through the course of the play she learns to listen to the people around her. She’s a bit misunderstood and people think that she is not very bright, mainly because she speaks with a funny accent. People make assumptions about her based on that, when she’s probably the most intellectual person on the block.
What’s it like performing with puppets?
JT: It’s a really strange thing, because in the piece you are only allowed to look at the puppets. The human characters look at each other but when you are talking to a puppet character, you are not allowed to look at the puppeteer, so it’s a strange thing being on the stage with someone and having to speak to them without being able to look them in the eyes. We actually did a lot of work in rehearsals without the puppets, and would do the emotion exchanges with the performers who operate the puppets looking them in the eyes, and then adding the puppets in later, so that we still had that connection, but without looking at each other.
The puppeteers are also performers, they are standing on stage….. You can see their bodies and entire faces, they just have the puppets on their arms. So as an audience member you are watching the two of them together, and the performers are acting their emotions, which are transposed onto the puppet. It is very clever. It is difficult working with performers you can’t directly interact with, looking at their hands and their shoulders mainly, and just getting the feeling from their voices. But the puppets are very characterful, and very animated. They all have very different faces, and their expressions are different, their noses are different, tongues are different, and their eyes are different shapes, so they each have very different personalities.
LK: When operating the puppet, you are on stage the whole time, there’s no shadowing or anything like that. You are dressed in grey, but are on full view, and I think it adds an extra emotion. The audience don’t look at you, they do end up looking at the puppet, but there is an extra dimension and it allows you to get even more emotion than if you were just kneeling below the puppet, and controlling it from in a box or behind a screen. I think this is how they can get really strong actors into this show, if it were a straight puppet performance it would be frustrating and you would not be able to put much of yourself into it, but here you are onstage as well. You almost need to be a quadruple skilled, not just the traditional actor, singer and dancer, but puppeteer as well! And if you forgot for one second when you are with the puppet to act, then the whole performance is lost.
What is the enduring appeal of the show?
JT: I think the success of the show is due to a number of things really. Fantastic writing, and the songs are great. It’s very funny. And on top of it being wickedly funny, and quite naughty in places, it also has a real heart to it, which really comes through in the second half of the show and through all the characters. You really do walk out not only singing the tunes, but you leave with a really good feeling.
LK: There’s are really great innocence to it. With puppets, like with children, there is an innocence about them. So if a puppet says that your name is Kate Monster, and your name is Trekkie Monster, does that mean you’re related? Trekkie Monster would say, no, that’s racist! Now if an adult said that it would come across as a bit knowing, and almost slightly offensive, whereas through a puppet or a child’s eyes its really innocent. I think that’s why people find it so endearing.
How do you enjoy touring?
JT: Touring has its ups and downs. Its great to see parts of the country you wouldn’t normally get to see otherwise, but it can be very difficult to be away from home, and be away from friends and family. But we are very lucky in that we have a very lovely company of people, there are about 20 of us on the road, including the actors and the crew, and have a very nice mixture of people. We are in each place for a week, and we do try to get out and see different things, taking day trips and so on. We went to St Ives in Cornwall, and did the Isle of Wight when we were in Southampton, and the Giants Causeway when we were in Belfast, so we do try to do something a bit touristy and make the most of what little time we have.
LK: I have just finished a year with the Les Miserables tour and started with Avenue Q in January. When I got Les Mis I couldn’t wait to get out of London as I’d been stuck there for a year or so, and I really wanted to get out, but now I’d quite like to be stuck in one place for a bit as I’ve been touring now for about a year and a half. It has been a wonderful experience though.
Luke, you were also part of the 25th Anniversary Les Mis concert at the O2. How was it?
LK: It was really special. I was brought up on the 10th anniversary concert, and it was one of the first musical theatre CDs I was ever given so standing on that stage with Colm Wilkinson walking passed you saying ‘how are you doing?’ was just really surreal, and amazing at the same time. The atmosphere was incredible. I expected it to overwhelm me, going out there in front of 18,000 people, but it didn’t feel all that different to performing at Cardiff, where there are 3000 people. You just knew it was a big party. All day was just a big party for all the audience, for all the cast members and creators; just one big celebration! It really ranks up there as one of the highlights of my career. If someone had told me when I was at drama school that only a couple of years later I would be doing that I would not have believed them.
Is it Musical Theatre for you, or just where you are at the moment?
LK: Its where I’m at, at the moment. I’d either like to keep moving up in the musical theatre world, or do the straight stuff. I’ve done a couple of films and a couple of plays as well since leaving drama school, and I really do enjoy the acting side above all. As long as I keep getting challenged in whatever, it doesn’t really bother me if it is musical theatre, straight or TV. Some of the modern musicals have quite meaty acting roles. If you look at stuff like Parade, which was out a couple of years ago, there are really great parts in things like that. Something like We Will Rock You wouldn’t interest me – not because I don’t think it’s a great piece of theatre because it is – its just not something that would interest me, but then there’s probably lots of shows that wouldn’t interest other people that would really interest me!
Avenue Q runs at the Lowry from 31 May - 4 June.