Under the guidance of "Avenue Q" cast member Michelle Lane, a group of University of Arizona theatre students are learning how to make puppets come alive.
Lane, who earned her UA Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in musical theatre in 2000, worked with ease. She was guiding the group of UA School of Theatre, Film & Television students along in preparation for their presentation of "Avenue Q," which previews Oct. 7 at the Marroney Theatre.
"Good job," Lane would say during rehearsals for the musical, lest a puppet's gaze fell too far to the side or to the floor while its human counterpart was in mid-sentence.
"Remember your intention," she would urge, demonstrating with her own puppet that, at all times, the two must remain extensions of the other.
Lane was a member of the Las Vegas and New York casts of "Avenue Q," which is pegged as an adult version of Sesame Street.
With her strong vocal talent, extensive experience and command of the puppet, she made it look easy. But puppetering can be demanding work. It requires a strong upper body, manual dexterity and persistent attentiveness to the self, the puppet and the audience.
When puppeteering is done well, the entities of human and puppet appear to be mirror images of one another. And something so surreal exists in that moment.
"It's not just sticking your hand inside of a puppet. It's so much more. It's really about the eyes and making sure the puppet's mouth is in sync with what you are saying," said Michael Calvoni, a UA musical theatre junior who plays Princeton, the lead role.
"People might have a bit of hesitation, or might question it, and it might take you a little while to get used to right when you sit down to watch," Calvoni said. "But after a while, you get used to it and you don't even see the human anymore. You're just so engaged with the puppet."
That is the master effect the actors strive to create, said Calvoni, the puppet captain in Lane's absence.
The students involved in the production – the actors, costume designers, stage management and crew members, along with others – have been working for weeks in preparation for the opening.
Hannah Meanger, a stage manager for "Avenue Q," said the rehearsals have given her new insight into the processes required to put on a show.
"I get to see the laughter, growth and development daily. There is nothing more rewarding than watching a show move from ideas and one-dimensional draftings into a well-lit, well-built, well-utilized art work," said Meanger, a senior studying theatre production and design who plans to move to New York for work as a stage manager after graduating in May.
With Lane visiting multiple times to train the students, rehearsals were held for seven hours at times, doing wrist and arm exercises and practicing gestures, expressions and connecting with the puppets.
"This is pretty much your job as a student," said Carli Naff, a musical theater sophomore and Honors College student. "What else would you really want to be doing? It's not something you dread doing. You look forward to it."
Like all of the other actors in the production, Naff auditioned for each character, eventually landing the role of Christmas Eve, a Japanese therapist who is out of work. While many in the production have a background in musical theatre, Naff's primary experience has been in vocal performance.
While the acting has been sometimes difficult, Naff said she has been motivated by the challenge, especially as this first main stage role.
"I don't think people realize how difficult it is," she said. "Some might think you just have to have a natural talent, but it takes so much emotional work to be really good and to give your best work."
The production season offers students a chance to experience a wide range of theatre styles by exploring classical and contemporary plays and musicals, said Rob Gretta, an assistant professor of musical theatre in the UA School of Theatre Film & Television.
All the while, they learn new skills and master others, like vocal performance, dancing, stage movements and other techniques, said Gretta, director of "Avenue Q."
"Our training program provides a traditional professional theatre model so that students will be better prepared to enter the profession," said Gretta, noting that "Avenue Q" was chosen by committee of theatre faculty members to be part of the Arizona Repertory Theatre's 2012-13 season.
"'Avenue Q' is providing the students with an opportunity to create characters and perform in a funny, thought-provoking and touching musical with clever lyrics and exciting music as well as learn the skills to be an effective puppeteer, which is a skill set they can use from now and into the future," Gretta said, adding that it has been especially important that the UA students have been able to work with Lane.
In fact, Calvoni is now considering a career working with puppets.
"This is another thing we can put on our resume and, personally, this has opened me up to wanting to do this professionally," Calvoni said.
Having seen "Avenue Q" twice – once in Tempe, Ariz. and on Broadway in New York – Calvoni said he would have never imagined that he would one day play the lead role.
"I just fell in love with Princeton. I didn't have to stray very far from the character because I kind of see myself in him feeling like a college student or graduate and yet having so much to learn in life," Calvoni said.
"I would hope that the audience just enjoys the show and really let the world of 'Avenue Q' envelop them," he said. "I really hope it's a positive experience for the audience. It's a new experience for us as well."