After growing up in a world surrounded by shows like Sesame Street or the Muppets teaching about how to live life, it’s only natural you’d want to have more puppets guiding you through adult troubles. Well, congratulations, we now have Avenue Q to teach us those hard lessons in life. Princeton is unemployed. Kate is underemployed. Rod is in love with his straight roommate. Trekkie is a monster addicted to porn. What do they have in common? They are all struggling to find self-identity, purpose, love, and the occasional one night stand. Oh, and they are all puppets. 303 Magazine caught up with Laura Yumi Snell to talk about this rated R puppet show.
How familiar were you with Avenue Q when you joined the show?
I had seen the show three times and LOVED it, so when I saw the open call for it, I immediately called my manager to have her set up an audition. By the end of the whole audition process–which included many callbacks and a puppet camp–we were told they were only looking for two swings, and I was lucky enough to be chosen.
Were you familiar with puppeteering before you joined Avenue Q?
I had done one show where we used a different style of puppets. But I had never done anything with puppets quite like the ones used in Avenue Q.
Has anyone in the cast had any previous experience with puppeteering?
I think only one person in our current cast had previous experience with puppeteering. The creative team figured out that it’s easier to teach actors how to puppeteer than to teach puppeteers how to act and sing. Most of us learned puppetry through the puppet camp and rehearsals, and we continue to hone our skills by practicing backstage.
So what exactly is your role in the show? Are you responsible for all the female roles?
I am currently understudying two tracks. The first is Christmas Eve; she is Japanese-American and what I like to call the “big mama” of the neighborhood. The other is not really a named character because she operates every single puppet at some point during the show; we unofficially call her the Second-Hander, because on this track I provide the second hand to the two-person puppets. This track also gets to voice my favorite puppet called Yellow Bear, who is one half of the Bad Idea Bears duo.
Is it more fun to play a normal person or a puppet in the show?
It’s definitely more fun to be a puppeteer. It’s as if there’s a filter between you and the audience, so the puppet is able to say things that you as a human being can’t say. The puppets are almost like children blurting things out–you really can’t be offended because they seem so innocent. Another cool thing is that when you’re acting with another puppet, you’re making eye contact with the puppet and not the puppeteer, and even though you know the puppets’ faces aren’t actually moving, the puppets start to take on life and you can see different emotions on their faces. It’s the craziest thing.
How do you think Avenue Q will stand the test of time?
Originally, there was a time sensitive line about George Bush in the show, so I used to wonder what they were going to do after his term ended. But now that he is no longer around, we’ve had to come up with different lines to fill that void. It’s so fun and interesting to watch slight shifts like that happen to reflect what’s current and relevant. As far as content, we can all relate to losing a job or quarreling with a friend or falling in and out of love no matter what decade we’re in. There are always going to be new college graduates and young adults who are looking for their place in the world, so I think the show will be around as long as there are people searching for their purpose in life.
Do you think the fact that the show uses puppets is deceiving for its mature content because it can be compared to children’s television shows like Sesame Street?
I don’t want to speak for everyone, but if you don’t do enough research, you might see puppets and think, “How cute! It must be okay for kids!” and bring your children. We do try to advertise by using provocative shots of Lucy the Slut or by putting mature content warnings on the posters. I hope we are doing enough advertising to prevent people from bringing their children, but I’d like people to know that the language and those r-rated moments aren’t the main focus of the show. They are really no more than what you see in everyday life, and if you are able to look past the initial shock factor, you’ll learn so many wonderful and amazing life lessons, and you can certainly glean a lot from this show.
Do you have a favorite moment in the show?
I think my favorite moment changes based on what’s going on in my own life. “There’s a Fine, Fine Line (Between Love & a Waste of Your Time)” was my break-up song. And then I graduated from college and my favorite became “I Wish I Could Go Back to College.” Now, “Fantasies Come True” is the one that I continually find myself coming back to. It’s just so romantic and beautiful and hopeful, and that always resonates with me.
What have you learned from your first national tour?
I’ve learned so much, I don’t even know where to start. The main thing I’ve learned is to enjoy every part of your experience no matter what. We are spending so much time together as a company and even though we’re having a lot of fun along the way, things can get hectic and stressful sometimes. It’s about learning time management in a place where there is no set schedule. It’s about enjoying the little things in each city we come through. It’s about experiencing life to its fullest. (Laughs) I know it sounds cheesy but it’s true.
Are you single or in a relationship? How does being on tour affect that?
I have a wonderful boyfriend in New York and we talk together on the phone or on Skype every day. We make it work; it’s hard because you don’t get to see them all the time, but it forces you to think about what’s most important in your relationship. We’ve had a lot of time for self-reflection, and we now know that long-distance is an obstacle that we can overcome.
Which character in the show do you relate to most? Can be man, woman or puppet.
I would have to say Christmas Eve, because I am Japanese-American and English is also my second language. I understand the struggles you go through as a person of a different background trying to fit in. Part of the reason I love Avenue Q so much is because it addresses racial stereotypes in a funny and loving way. Yes, Christmas Eve has this huge language barrier but she is also the most intelligent person on the block, with two masters’ degrees and a successful therapy business…sort of.
Have you ever made someone a mix tape?
(Laughs) I don’t think so. I used to only listen to Classical music & show tunes, so it wouldn’t have been that cool of a mix anyway. My best friend in high school set out to fix that by making a lot of mix tapes for me with pop music and classics that he thought I should know. Mix tapes are awesome.