Constellation Theatre Company, now in its ninth year, is taking a bold new step with its first production of a Broadway musical. “AJ and I have always loved musicals,” explains Artistic Director Allison Stockman, speaking of Managing Director AJ Guban. “And we use live music a lot in our work. It will always be a part of what we do at Constellation.” With the current production of Avenue Q, playing through November 22, that love expands to encompass a six-piece band. “We’re finally in a place where we can afford an orchestra,” Stockman says with delight.
On the surface, Avenue Q, a hit on Broadway from 2003 to 2009, doesn’t seem an obvious choice for a company that has brought such epic stories as Gilgamesh and The Ramayana to the intimacy of Source Theatre’s black box space. “We want to build and foster the next generation of theatre goers,” Stockman says. “And that’s the millennials, and our neighborhood is thriving with them.” Avenue Q has proven an enormous success with the 14th Street crowd. Stockman advises, “A lot of shows are sold out but then people on the waitlist end up getting in, so come see us!”
Most important, though, are the puppets. “Puppets bring everything into this larger-than-life action,” Stockman says, moving away from the practical art of building audiences and into her passion for creating theatre. “In Avenue Q, the puppets are there but you also see the puppeteers. I encouraged our actors to take all the emotions they’re feeling, and all their intention, and express it through the puppet. So actor and puppet become one. Two creatures become one creature. That’s really interesting.”
Stockman recognizes, though, that it’s often the puppet that is the most expressive part of the equation. “It’s amazing,” she says. “The cleaner, the more specific the gesture is, the better it works with a puppet. Just a little tilt of the head, and you project all this emotion onto it.” And sometimes the equation extends to include a third participant. “Some of the Avenue Q puppets require two operators,” she explains, her face lighting up. “There’s something about the coordination of the puppet and two people that is just joyful, just really delightful. The puppet Nicky does a kick line and the actors are doing the kick line too, and it’s just so fun to see all of them doing it together, to see that coordination of gesture.”
Audiences have been responding to the comedy, but also to the more touching elements of the show. “People are very sympathetic to the puppets,” Stockman says. “At the end of ‘Fantasties Come True,’ every night there’s an audible ‘Awww.’ It’s the same with the song ‘There’s a Fine, Fine Line’ near the end of the show. People are very moved by that. It’s been a really pleasant surprise. I knew the show was funny but I didn’t know how much I would care about it.”
Putting the show in the intimate Source space led to some theatrical innovations that make this production different from the Broadway or touring shows that local audiences might be familiar with. But the smaller space doesn’t mean a smaller experience. In fact, Stockman chose not to use the double-casting employed in the original production. “Because we didn’t do that,” Stockman says, “we invest a little bit more in those relationships. We see the actor dedicated to that part and interacting from that place with the other people on stage.” The extensive use of video dictated by the script has also been transformed into live moments with actors, often to greater comic effect.
Like the epic narratives the company is known for, Avenue Q asks fundamental questions about life. “They’re basic and they’re pretty simple, but they’re epic questions at the same time” Stockman explains, listing “Who am I?” “What is my purpose?” and “What is the meaning of life?” as questions proposed by this popular Broadway comedy. “The show also offers some pretty basic answers,” she points out, “like, ‘Be yourself,’ ‘Racism is bad,’ and ‘Loving your neighbors is good.’”
Stockman points to the power of a song like ‘For Now’, which closes the show. “It’s about how everything in life is ephemeral,” she says. “All we have is the moment we’re in. Those of us in the theatre are aware of that all that time. We work so hard on something and then it’s gone. But it’s really true for all of us.”