(Image Source: Avenue Q)
Written By: Mark Armstrong
Avenue Q hits the Liverpool Empire on Monday February 22. On the surface, it seems like your typical family-friendly puppet show, but as Paul Jomain, puppet designer for the show, explains in this exclusive interview, Avenue Q is far more unique and a very different production than the puppet shows that your mum and dad might remember …
First of all, tell us about Avenue Q.
Basically, it’s a parody of Sesame Street, and it takes things one step further. You’ve got the characters who grow up, whereas in Sesame Street a lot of the characters are quite youthful, so this show turns it on its head. It shows you what the characters would be like when they’ve grown up, gone to university and gone out on the jobs market. There’s a mixture of relationships, careers, sexuality and stuff, so it takes things one step further (than Sesame Street).
What is your role with Avenue Q, and what was your background prior to Avenue Q?
Well, I used to look after the puppets in the show when it was in the West End, which is going back ten years now. Then, I took over building puppet characters for the UK West End Macintosh show and the UK tours, so I trained with a Muppet builder; I worked at the Jim Henson company, which was in Camden Town. That was where I learned how to make puppets. So now I deal with the maintenance of the puppets. I’ve got about 5 different characters in the show, but there are about 35 puppets that you don’t see at once (due to costume changes), so we’ve got quite a lot of characters backstage that are looked after, and actors who are coming on and off with a new puppet after a costume change for the next scene.
How have you found your time working on the Avenue Q team?
It’s very enjoyable. It’s a bit of a bizarre job; if someone says to you “What do you do for a living?”, saying that I work with puppets is very interesting. I’ve had other jobs involving puppets, for example working on the Monkey for PG Tips. When you go out and you find materials for a character, it’s funny that you have no idea who you’ve got in your bag; you might have a character that becomes quite famous as the Monkey has done. But I really like my job.
How has Avenue Q grown over the years, and how do you see it growing in future?
Well, it’s certainly expanded all over the world. We’ve got so many different production companies that are doing the show. It’s so accessible as well, even if it’s to a different culture or to a different country, because you can do quite a lot with a puppet character than you can’t do with an actor, for example with dialogue. And we sometimes look at some rather racy subject matters, which I think softens the edge on topics that people maybe don’t want to talk about, which I think is a good thing. But hopefully the show will just progress and progress, and there’ll be more countries around the world doing it because it’s such a great show.
It’s certainly very uplifting, and I’m 44 myself, so I’m of the generation that used to watch The Muppets Show. But I’ve noticed when I’ve worked with clients, or whoever is my workshop, that when I show them puppets, you can’t fail to get somebody’s face to light up. Sometimes the most hardened people that you meet, including very business-like people, you can actually see them regressing in their faces; they almost turn into children.
Finally, what can the Liverpool audience expect from Avenue Q?
I think they’re gonna have a lot of fun. I’m sure there’ll be a lot of people there who will have already seen the show before, but it’s quite funny seeing new punters that go in to see the show. There was one time where a footballer came, and I can’t remember his name, but there were hardly any seats left in the theatre, so the staff put them in one of the boxes at the side of the stage. Now, they hadn’t seen the show, so we had great fun watching their body language as they were watching the show. A couple of times, they turned around in laughter and said “Oh my goodness, you can’t do that with puppets!” But it’s a great laugh; the Liverpool audience will enjoy it, they really will.