Curtain Rises: Clair Freeman a natural to direct ‘Avenue Q’ at Pennsylvania Playhouse
“Avenue Q” might not be your grandfather’s or grandmother’s musical. It could be your millennialist’s musical, though.
“Maybe it’s because I’m a professor at two colleges, I talk to a lot of young people,” says Clair M. Freeman, an adjunct faculty member in the Cedar Crest College performing arts department and the Northampton Community College theater department.
“This generation now has a new set of musicals. I grew up with ‘Oklahoma!’ The ones that excite them and the ones they want to perform are from the late 1980s and on,” says Freeman, director of “Avenue Q,” through Aug. 11, The Pennsylvania Playhouse, Bethlehem.
“Avenue Q” is a mash-up of puppets and people performing onstage together without anyone blinking an eye. A few winks, yes.
“‘Avenue Q’ is a particularly appropriate show for me,” Freeman says. “I do have a very substantial background in children’s theater.”
For the past three years, Freeman has directed the children’s show at Northampton Community College Summer Theatre, including “How I Became a Pirate,” “A Year with Frog and Toad” and for 2019, “The Perfect Dog.” Freeman also directed “Charlotte’s Web” at Cedar Crest College.
“I’ll finally have two shows running, one at The Playhouse, “Avenue Q,’ and one at NCC, ‘The Perfect Dog.’ That’s a first for me. It’s kind of neat,” says Freeman, who likes to attend performances during the run of a show he’s directed.
“I live, at the most, 15 minutes away. It’s relatively easy for me to drop into both theaters [Pennsylvania Playhouse, Northampton Community College],” Freeman says. “I tend to attend the bulk of the performances. Especially when you’re in community theater, it’s a support thing.”
“Avenue Q” may have puppets, but it’s not a children’s musical. The show is recommended for mature audiences. Actors in Pennsylvania Playhouse’s “Avenue Q” range in age from 22 to 32.
“The whole premise of the show [‘Avenue Q’] is that when you get out of college, you suddenly have to grow up. ‘What do you do with a BA in English?,’“ says Freeman, quoting the title of a song in “Avenue Q.”
“It’s about these people coming to terms with who they want to be and what they want to do with their lives,” says Freeman, who can relate, having received a BA in theater and communication and a BA in English from Susquehanna University.
“Which is funny because the opening song is ‘What do you with BA in English?’” says Freeman, who received an MA in humanities from The Pennsylvania State University.
“I really have used my BA in English. I think it has this reputation that it’s a useless degree. I do think it’s pretty funny that I sit there and direct and every night I hear somebody sing, ‘What do you do with a degree in English?’” Freeman laughs.
Of “Avenue Q,” Freeman says, “It’s an homage to ‘Sesame Street.’ In the same way that you have a mix of humans and puppets in ‘Sesame Street,’ you have the same mix in ‘Avenue Q.’
“I haven’t worked with puppetry since I was back in college. The more you work on it [‘Avenue Q’], the more you see how beautifully-constructed it is.
“I knew I wanted to do ‘Avenue Q’ and I’m actually thrilled to be doing it. But once you get into the production, you realize it’s actually a difficult show to do.”
Freeman praises the “Avenue Q” score, with music and lyrics by Robert Lopez (“The Book of Mormon” Broadway musical and Disney animated feature movies, “Frozen” and “Coco”) and Jeff Marx, with book by Jeff Whitty. “Avenue Q” received Musical, Book and Score Tony Awards in 2004.
“They’re great songs,” says Freeman. “They’re written in the same style of the music as ‘Sesame Street.’ The melodies are a lot simpler. They’re the kind of music you’d find in children’s television.”
“Avenue Q” includes three human actors and nine puppets with nine puppeteers.
“You’re not required to rent the puppets. However, we did rent the puppets,” Freeman says.
“One of the puppets has seven changes.” There’s a puppet dresser backstage, and “there are several cast members who help to dress the puppets,” says Freeman.
The puppeteers wear black and are onstage working the puppets in the tradition of Japanese puppet craft. “In puppetry in Japan, when someone is onstage wearing black, they’re not visible,” Freeman explains.
“The puppets change everything. You have an actor. They are creating a character and giving a performance.
“These puppets are big. There’s the literal physicality of holding your arm in the air this long. When I first had my meeting with the actors, I said, ‘Please get your shoulders in shape.’
“To make it look convincing, you have to move the bottom jaw [of the puppet]. All the motion is done with the thumb in the jaw, not the entire hand.
“There are two different sets of puppets. You get the puppets you use in the show. But you also get rehearsal puppets. It saves on the wear and tear of the puppets. Two weeks ago, we got the performance puppets,” Freeman says at the time of the July 17 interview for this column.
“We did have rehearsals, where it’s just about the puppets. You have to have the puppet make eye contact. Human actors have to make sure they’re acting to the puppet, not the puppeteer. The puppet must react to the human or other puppets.”
Freeman says none of the actors in the Pennsylvania Playhouse “Avenue Q” production had experience as puppeteers.
“It’s a musical. It’s not a puppet show. I was looking for really solid actors and really solid singers.”
The adult subject matter of “Avenue Q” is not a first for Pennsylvania Playhouse.
“The Playhouse has done adult material before. The Playhouse has done plays by David Mamet. It may be unusual that a puppet is saying certain things.
“The show does have puppets saying four-letter words. It does deal with some adult situations. But that’s not what the show is. The show is, at its heart [about] that we have to let go of our childhood to become adults in the world.
“In addition to which,” Freeman continues, “there are several characters who live on Avenue Q who live outside the norms of society and they find a place to live on the street, too, and not only be accepted, but considered valuable.
“I think people are going to be surprised how warm this show is. It’s a really, really wonderful experience. It deals with issues of all different ages and issues we’ve all gone through.”
Freeman has been a participant in the Lehigh Valley theater scene since 1999 when he was a guest artist at Cedar Crest College.
“It’s different now than when I first arrived. It used to be that there are several theater companies that dominate the scene. But there are smaller companies that are doing solid interesting work.
“One of the things that I’m excited about it we have new actors involved in “Avenue Q.’ We have two people who have been on stage with us at Pennsylvania Playhouse before. The other 10 are all-new. Some of them are local actors. I also have students from colleges and universities. I think it’s exciting that we’re seeing new people.”
“Curtain Rises” is a column about the theater, stage shows, the actors in them and the directors and others who make them possible. Email: Paul Willistein, Focus editor, email@example.com