The Rutgers-NJIT theater program has been gearing up for the past year for its debut of Avenue Q – a coming-of-age story featuring puppets, music, and a lot of laughs. Employing a puppet-human dynamic similar to the beloved children’s program Sesame Street, Avenue Q details the struggles of the transition into adulthood from college.
“[It’s] about how we gear ourselves up to deal with real life,” says Dr. Michael Kerley, director of Avenue Q, as well as the Associate Director of the Theater Arts & Technology program here at NJIT, “It’s a youth-oriented show, and the perfect play for our audience.”
The production of this show has been focused on combining the uniqueness of Avenue Q with the essence of the NJIT and Rutgers communities. In order to accomplish this goal, the theater department enlisted students and staff members to actively participate in every phase of the show, from performance and set design to the creation of the puppets. Professor Louis Wells, Artistic Coordinator, says the decision to take on Avenue Q for the spring musical was made with the potential for student opportunities in mind. “For big shows like this, you can rent the whole package – the puppets, the sets, the music. NJIT rarely does this, because we live and die by our students.”
One of the most unique aspects of Avenue Q is its inclusion of puppet characters in the cast, which opened up the door for the theater department to take advantage of NJIT’s research and technology departments to help make the puppets come to life. An Industrial Design class lead by Professor Jose Alcala last semester actually spurred the creation of the puppets, where students were tasked with designing the puppets as a project for class credit.
One of those students, Lea Burlew, a senior double major in Theater and Industrial Design, took charge of designing the final puppets as part of her senior Capstone project, and has been working to ensure that the puppets look their best for opening day. “There’s not very much information on a specific way to make puppets, so it was first a lot of watching Avenue Q clips on YouTube and YouTube videos on different ways to make puppets,” Lea says of the design process, “and figuring out the best methods for making them and also coming up with your own methods on the fly.”
Nine out of twelve of the show’s characters are puppets, and bringing their personalities to life has presented a learning curve for the actors charged with that responsibility. “The biggest challenge has definitely been singing, dancing, and puppet-ing all at the same time,” says Isaac Jimenez, a Political Science major at Rutgers Newark who is playing the part of Rod.
In order to train the actors to handle the puppets during the show, the theater department enlisted the expertise of Jake Bazel, a professional puppeteer whose work can be seen on Sesame Street. Although puppets are the defining feature of Avenue Q, the production involves more than just puppets; the show utilizes about 200 light cues, a live orchestra, and 12 videos that have been developed by NJIT’s Digital Design department, in addition to the actors and production managers that are keeping the entire show running.
Despite all of the work, Steven Albanel, Rutgers graduate and production/stage manager of the show, believes that it is worth it. When asked to pick an aspect of the show that he is most excited about, he said, “[It is] easily the most talented cast here. I’m excited for everything. Especially the singing.” When asked the same question, Lea expressed similar sentiments, “I think it’s gonna blow a lot of people away.”
Avenue Q opens in the Jim Wise Theater on Wednesday, March 1st at 7pm. Tickets are $15