Taken from the Pink Paper - Issue 902 - 15|6|06
Avenue Q is the smash hit Broadway musical dubbed Sesame Street for adults. As it gets ready to open in the West End Steve Bustin meets Rod, one of its puppet stars who is gay, blue and has a massive crush on Tony Blair. Portrait by Gordon Rainsford.
OK, this is weird. I’m talking to a blue puppet called Rod, who appears to be talking back to me.
Except he’s not. It’s actually the man sitting next to him, holding the puppet, who is talking to me.
So I look at him instead of the puppet. But I’m asking the puppet questions, so go back to holding his (admittedly slightly fixed) eyeline. What am I doing? It’s a puppet for god sake!
I’m confused, and I’m not the only one, according to Jon Robyns, Rod’s puppeteer and voice.
“I’m developing a split personality with Rod,” admits Jon. “Schizophrenia here I come!”
Rod and his human alter-ago, Jon, are among the stars of Avenue Q, one of the most talked about musicals to arrive in London for some time, and word of mouth like this is quite an achievement in a summer full of big musical openings.
Such a big West End event belies the show’s humble origins, however, with a start in life in a 200 seat off-Broadway theatre, to winning three Tony’s and continuing a highly successful Broadway run to this day.
Sometimes described as Sesame Street for adults, Avenue Q presents the unlikely scenario of a show using puppets, but very much for adults.
Avenue Q itself is a scummy street in New York, home to some wild and wacky characters. Princeton is a college graduate negotiating life in a new city, surrounded by new friends and neighbours, including Rod, an up-tight, initially closeted, Republican and, er, blue, gay man. I mean gay puppet.
When I met Rod in his dressing room (should that be Jon’s dressing room?) at the newly renamed Noel Coward theatre, he was relaxing before taking the stage for that evening’s preview performance. I started by asking Rod about the show.
“Oh it’s great. It’s about me and my friends, and where I live. It’s about our lives. There’s my roommate Nicky, Brian, my friend Christmas Eve, and Trekkie Monster upstairs, who makes a lot of noise. Avenue Q is the place to be. It’s got lots of lovely..er..bus stops, and a few trees. Hey, it’s home!”
“The story is about the discovery of who I really am. I’m a gay Republican, and I’m proud of it! It comes and goes,but most the time I’m proud! I would say I’m a Log Cabin Republican [the association for gay Republicans], although my log cabin is, er…under repair at the moment. But we do have conventions which are lots of fun: whoever makes the best cakes wins!”
How does Rod feel he fits in, as a gay Republican? Republican America is hardly the gay friendliest of places, after all.
“I have more trouble about being blue than gay, to be perfectly honest. You stick to places you know and the friends you love, and you get by – just like any place, really.”
With the Republicans appalling record on gay rights, where does Rod stand on gay marriage?
“Oh well...you know, I’d like to fall in love. Do I have a type? I used to have such a thing for Donald Rumsfeld, but oh my god – have you seen Tony Blair? Wow! But that Cherie is such a bitch! Blair is my ideal man – power, looks and good suits.”
So if he’s into his politics, what does Rod make of Bush? He looks confused.
“Oh, ok…well, I’m a Republican, so I have to say that I go with what he says, but we all make mistakes I suppose.”
So as an openly gay, Republican and blue American, what does Rod make of London?
“Oh it’s great, I love it. Londoners are so much fun. British audiences have been great too. The show is about life, and everyone’s lives are generally the same, but we get different laughs here or there, different cries, but generally more applause – it’s great!
“I haven’t yet been out and about in London that much, apart from a few glamorous parties and opening galas. I’d like to go to Ascot – it’s an opportunity to buy a hat! I did go to that piano bar, Too2Much – I love that place, I was able to belt out a couple of Judy numbers!”
As Rod comes out of the closet during the show, does he have any advice for other people coming out?
“Just make sure you tell the right people, when you’re ready. If you’ve got friends that love you, it’s great. Support is important. My roommate helps to nudge me out the closet and lets me discover it by myself.”
As we pose for a photo, I ask Rod what he wants audiences to take away from the show.
“I’d like them to take away that life is hard, but that as long as you have a positive attitude, everything should be OK. Oh, and catchy tunes, especially the ones I sing!”
With Rod safely stowed back on his puppet stand, I can talk properly to actor and virgin puppeteer Jon Robyns, who makes his West End debut in Avenue Q. What is Rod like to operate and play, I wonder?
“Rod generally is a character who is very uptight, regardless of being straight or gay, and it’s actually easier to play him as closeted rather than out,” laughs Jon. “He’s a lot more interesting when he’s out, however. It gives him a wider spectrum to play. He does come screaming out the closet, although it’s a long process. It’s funny though, he’s getting rounds of applause when he finally comes out, because everyone’s so pleased and relieved he’s finally done it! It’s great for me as an actor to get that kind of response.”
“In terms of getting my head round the characters and mechanics of how the drama works, this is definitely the hardest job I’ve ever done. Having to think about things from not one perspective but two, and then putting all the puppetry on top of it has been really hard. In terms of the coming out stuff, the show has been so well written that it makes it very easy for the character to find that journey and the audience to accept it.”
Audience acceptance of a dramatic conceit like puppetry is key to making a show like this work, but it’s been easier than Jon feared.
“It has surprised me, the audience accept the puppets straight away. I have the first couple of lines of the show, with Princeton, and you get a couple of titters, when they realise this isn’t about ventriloquism, but it only takes a split second for people to get the convention, and once the audience see the puppets and humans interacting, they just accept it.”
And putting words into the mouths of puppets, usually seen as childish and innocent, means you can get away with so much more:
“The show is a bit like South Park; it’s the childish medium that is so disarming and liberating, you can say pretty much whatever you like. Puppetry affords you the opportunity to get away with a lot more, as the expletives and profanities are coming out the mouth of a puppet, so it’s funnier and far more disarming.
“If and when I finally come to leave the show, I’ll miss Rod and what he allows me to get away with!”
Some of the other characters on Avenue Q:
Kate Monster: A Kindergarten teaching assistant who is obsessed with romance, but pleads “don’t pass me by just because I’m covered in fur”.
Mrs Thistletwat: Kate’s boss, a self-confessed “crabby old bitch”. Loves working with children.
Trekkie Monster: Looks like Animal from the Muppets’ hairier cousin. Obsessed with internet porn and sex.
Christmas Eve: One of Avenue Q’s human inhabitants, she’s a feisty therapist, with no clients, who constantly gives her boyfriend a hard time.
Lucy the Slut: A born hell-raiser, Lucy has shacked up with every man she can, except Trekkie Monster. She spends her life avoiding angry wives and girlfriends, and firmly believes that “guilt is for amateurs”.
Princeton: A recent graduate, Princeton is trying to find his true vocation, but in the meantime worries “Please don’t let me end up working at Starbucks”.
© Jon Robyns 2010 All Rights Reserved