GUTHRIE — Minutes before rehearsal begins, cast members of “Avenue Q” crowd around their puppets, as giddy as children opening a new toy.
The puppets just arrived from Dallas, and it's time to start rehearsing with the real thing. On Friday, the troupe will open its run of the award-winning play known for its puppetry and crude humor.
The mood is light at Guthrie's Pollard Theatre. Even the director, W. Jerome Stevenson, can't help but crack up when one of the actors improvises with his puppet.
But make no mistake: This is a serious production. Although most of the actors have no puppetry experience, Stevenson said, cast members have spent hours and hours of their own time working to make the puppets come to life.
The show will wrap up the 26th season at The Pollard, which has become known for exceptional talent in an unusual setting.
Actor Jared Blount lived in Guthrie for seven years without knowing the theater existed until he saw “Legally Blonde: The Musical” last year.
“I was really impressed and went to their next auditions,” he said.
The Pollard is no amateur theater, but it's not Broadway, either. Stevenson said it exists somewhere in between.
Unlike other professional theaters, he said, The Pollard isn't a place where local people just play in the background while professionals take the spotlight.
“That kind of enforces the idea that all the talented people are from somewhere else … and our people just aren't up to the challenge, and that's just not true,” he said. “We have a myriad of talented people from Oklahoma who are doing things on Broadway and beyond, and there are plenty of them who haven't gone to New York and like doing theater near home.”
Fan of puppets
One of those performers, Crystal Ecker, has been at The Pollard since 2006 and is just now getting to showcase one of her favorite aspects of acting.
Ecker has had a love affair with puppetry since she was a little girl. She began working with puppets when she was about 8 and continued through college at the University of Oklahoma. She was on a competitive team in middle school.
“They actually have puppet competitions and tournaments,” she said. “Most people don't believe me that they exist, but they do.”
Ecker said she is a big fan of “Avenue Q” and has wanted to perform in it for years.
“I saw the play on Broadway in 2008 or 2009, and ever since, it has been my dream show,” she said. “As soon as I heard they got the rights, I pulled out my puppets at home and started practicing.”
She performs with all 32 puppets during the course of the show, a feat that has earned her the title of “puppet captain” from the cast.
Stevenson said everyone has been learning from Ecker, including him.
The puppets in “Avenue Q” might look like Bert and Ernie, but this is no show for kids.
“If a show can offend you, this one will,” Stevenson said. “But if suggestive situations don't bother you and language doesn't bother you, then you're going to have a great time.”
The story focuses on 20-somethings living in New York City, and throughout the show the characters sing their way through the topics of racism, sexuality and pornography.
“There are many moments where the audience will say, ‘I can't believe the puppets are saying that or doing that,'” Stevenson said. “But at its core, shock value will never be enough.”
What the show does, he said, is try to connect with experiences most adults have, such as tough breakups, finding a job after college and wishing one could be a kid again.
“At its heart, that's what good storytelling is. It's being able to put a mirror up and say, ‘Remember this?'” he said.