Pittsburgh puppet maker brings talents to ‘Avenue Q’
These puppets have real-life inspirations.
They are reflective of the actors and actresses who will play them in the Alumni Theater Company’s presentation of the Tony-award winning musical production of “Avenue Q,” which runs July 28 to 30 at the New Hazlett Theater on Pittsburgh’s North Side
This laugh-out-loud musical tells the story of a bright-eyed college grad named Princeton, who arrives in New York City with big dreams and a tiny bank account. He has to move into a shabby apartment all the way out on Avenue Q. Still, the neighbors seem nice.
There, he meets Kate (the girl next door), the promiscuous Lucy, Rod (the Republican), Trekkie (the Internet entrepreneur), superintendent Gary Coleman (yes, that Gary Coleman) and other new friends. Together, they struggle to find jobs, dates and their ever-elusive purpose in life.
The musical, which debuted in 2003 on Broadway, is most known for its usage of hand-operated puppets alongside human actors, as well as its satire of the popular children’s cartoon “Sesame Street.” But it’s not be appropriate for young children, because it addresses issues like sex, drinking, and surfing the web for porn.
The performance here will feature 11 one-of-a-kind puppets, created by artist Cheryl Capezzuti of Brighton Heights. These hand-held puppets were made from scratch using silicone and polyfoam fabrication. Although Capezzuti is well-known for her puppets, she has not used this medium before. She attended a silicone and polyfoam workshop at a puppetry festival with Tom McLaughlin, an expert in rubber and foam puppets, who was latex foam supervisor on “The Dark Crystal,” a 1982 movie about alien puppets directed by Jim Henson and Frank Oz.
Capezzuti says McLaughlin taught her the technique and his expertise in this work is one-of-a-kind. It helped her to explore and develop a new dimension to her work.
Actors and actresses from the Alumni Theater Company’s presentation of the Tony-award winning musical production of “Avenue Q” and the puppets created by Cheryl Capezzuti and inspired by each individual who will portray them.
Photo by Alumni Theater Company
“It is truly delightful to create puppets inspired by this young, high-energy cast and to challenge myself as an artist with a new fabrication method at the same time,” says Capezzuti, who is known as Pittsburgh’s go-to puppet maker.
“Avenue Q” is definitely a puppet show for adults, Capezzuti says. It’s part live cast and part puppet cast.
The theater company was originally going to buy puppets and then make changes to them, but Capezzuti suggested fashioning each from scratch, which is her passion.
She is used to making larger-than-life paper mache puppets, like those seen at Pittsburgh’s annual First Night Parade and last year’s Bicentennial celebration. When working on the “Avenue Q” puppets, Capezzuti says she looked for details that stood out with each individual — from the shape of the face to the hair style to any distinguishing marks or characteristics.
Princeton has floppy hair, a wider face and a pierced eyebrow. Others had particular outfits to showcase their style and personalities — Capezzuti shopped for children’s clothing in thrift stores. On one puppet she put a pair of her own big hoop earrings from the 1980s.
She worked three weeks on the puppets, including logging several 6 a.m. to midnight shifts. There is a lot of drying time needed for these types of puppets.
The theater company reviewed the puppets and suggested a few changes before the looks were finalized. The Alumni Theater Company is known for creating bold theatrical works that give fresh voice to the experience of young, urban artists and highlight their rich contribution to the community. The company presents five productions a year, many of them showcasing original material produced by its members. The theater company has presented 42 productions and is in its ninth season.
With each production, the mission is to offer the audience a positive, moving and constructive experience with black urban teens. Currently, there are 24 members in grades 6-12 attending 13 different schools. Additionally, the theater company has 24 graduates attending 11 universities throughout the country, and working on both the East and the West Coasts.
When the cast of “Avenue Q: first saw the puppets, they were amazed at how Capezzuti captured the likeness of each, says Hallie Donner, director of Alumni Theater Company.
“The puppets seemed so alive that they brought a new energy to the show,” Donner says. “Cheryl is a wonderful collaborator. She has tremendous enthusiasm and fantastic ideas, but is also a very good listener.”
The puppets will remain with the theater company despite the cast members campaigning to keep their own puppets.
“We will keep the puppets safe for reprise performances,” Donner says.
The Alumni Theater Company is opening its own black box theater this fall at 6601 Hamilton Ave. in Homewood.
JoAnne Klimovich Harrop is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-853-5062 or [email protected] or via Twitter @Jharrop_Trib.