Wednesday, January 6, 2016

A conversation with Chris Hamby, the director of Desert Foothills Theater's production of AVENUE Q: SCHOOL EDITION

Chris Hamby
by Gil Benbrook

The Tony winning, hit musical Avenue Q is beloved by many in how it effectively created a humorous, "adult" version of Sesame Street, with colorful puppets and comical adults talking about life lessons that resonate with anyone, regardless of age. But the show doesn't teach about the ABC's and how to count, instead covering such topics as finding ones purpose in life and navigating your way through the dating scene while also touching upon such hot button topics like racism and homophobia.

Desert Foothills Theater in North Scottsdale opens their production of the show on Friday, but the production they're presenting is the “school edition” of the show. Unlike many other "Junior" or "Youth" productions of classic musicals, that simply eliminate several songs and cut down the dialogue to create a shorter version of the show, the original creators of Avenue Q kept the entire story intact. They simply rewrote a few of the more "adult" songs, eliminated the R rated language and cut two shorter songs. The end result, which is approved by the original creators since they oversaw the changes, still delivers the charming, comical characters and situations that fans of the show have come to love, just now in a PG-13 context.

Director Chris Hamby, who serves as the Director of Education and Outreach for Theater Works/YouthWorks in Peoria, sat down to answer some questions about this version of the show, the young DFT cast and his experience with directing the musical.

What can you tell us about the differences between the two versions of this show?

"Musically very little has changed. The original writing team did omit the songs, 'Be As Loud As the Hell you Want' and 'My Girlfriend Who Lives in Canada' and rewrote 'The Internet is for Porn'. Otherwise the songs are all there with the omission of some swear words."

This play features both people and puppets. How it is working with younger actors who may not have puppetry skills? 

"Working with anyone without puppetry skills can be a challenge whether we are talking teens or adults. We built additional time into our rehearsal process to just work on the puppetry. It's not an inherent skill. The cast has risen to the occasion. As with most things some fell into it easier than other but I think the puppetry is quite good in the production."

Originally on Broadway the show had a small cast, with several actors playing more than one part. Did you specifically decide to feature a larger cast for a reason? 

"I think that we still have a small cast in terms of youth productions. However, unlike on Broadway we did not double cast any of the puppet roles. This was to allow for additional opportunities for performers but also it's a lot easier to direct that way. Also in the original there were lots of video sequences and cartoons that were used, the script now calls for an ensemble of actors to create these vignettes and therefore we needed to cast additional performers to bring those moments to life on stage."

the cast of Avenue Q: School Edition
at Desert Foothills Theater
photo: Wade Moran
Do you have a favorite moment in the show? 

"I love the song, 'If I Could Go Back to College.' I think our cast nails it vocally but it's something that resonates with me. It's a thought I have at least once a week."

You're not the only one! You’ve directed this show before. What did you take from that experience that you’re using to direct the show this time?

"I think that my puppetry vocabulary has definitely grown since the first time I directed the piece. I have more tools this time around to help the puppeteers acquire this new skill."

Have you learned anything during rehearsals, or working with this cast, that made you change your original ideas of how to direct it? 

"I don't think my ideas on how to direct the piece have changed any. However, I think that for as many similarities to my original production there are as many differences. I definitely did not set out to copy my first production. This cast has certainly found their own nuances and have found their own comedy. But sometimes entering stage left is just what makes sense whether it was in the first production or here again in this second production."

Avenue Q focuses on a group of young adults who are just starting their professional lives. It also teaches relevant life lessons. What messages from the show do you think will resonate with older and younger audience members and what do you hope they take away from the show? 

"The School Edition of Avenue Q has eliminated some of the shock factor of the original and has created an actually touching story. My hope is that the audience will leave with a message of acceptance. The characters experience a lot of growth and change throughout the show and I certainly know that my cast has as well. We are all different but really the same. Avenue Q uses characters made of felt and fur to help show us that."

CLICK HERE for more information about Avenue Q which runs January 8th to January 17th.

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