What Do You Do After Puppet School? Avenue Q

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Chris Kauffmann, Libby Letlow and Mark Whitten in "Avenue Q"

Two and a half years ago, I had never even heard of Avenue Q.  I hadn’t considered puppetry as an occupation, or even as a specialty inside the acting community.  Yet within the past year, both of these things became an integral part of my life.

Most of my students tell me about their obsession with the Muppets and all things Jim Henson from an early age. But even though I, too, was a huge Jim Henson fan, that’s not what sparked my love of puppetry.

Libby Letlow

It all started with something you wouldn’t normally hear from an actor: “I want a role with no lines; puppeteering the plant sounds interesting.”  I had just come off a production of A Streetcar Named Desire with the Glendale Theatre Guild as Blanche, and I was actually tired of talking.  When I found out the next production was Little Shop of Horrors, I knew I wanted to be involved, but I wasn’t sure in what capacity.

Then I realized this Little Shop needed a puppeteer. I saw the perfect opportunity to try something different and develop a new skill I could throw on the ol’ resume.  It turns out I absolutely loved it.  Apparently the quirky nerd in me got great enjoyment out of dancing around in a giant, 100-pound foam rubber suit.

As soon as the production was over, I immediately contacted Paul Pistore, a great puppeteer whom I had worked with on the set of Saban’s Masked Rider in 1995.  I told him I was pretty sure I needed to find out what this whole puppetry business was about.  Well, I guess I wasn’t the only one who had puppet mania, because one of the people he put me in touch with was Emmy-winning Michael Earl from Sesame Street. He had just started a whole school for puppetry right here in Los Angeles.

Libby Letlow, Janelle Dote, Mark Whitten, Benai Boyd (center), Chris Kerrigan and Chris Kauffmann

When I began my training with Michael, his school offered classes only in TV Puppetry.  I won’t say I was awful when I started, but something wasn’t clicking.  It wasn’t until Christian Anderson, from the touring company of Avenue Q, came in to teach Theatrical Puppetry that I began to grasp the concept of really bringing life to these goofy, cloth characters.

I made a special trip up to San Francisco to see my first production of Avenue Q at the Orpheum Theatre, and I was hooked on the show; I saw puppetry in a whole new light.  I thrived, and my family and friends began to see a real enjoyment in my craft that had been missing for a while. Puppetry just made sense.  After 18 weeks of training, I graduated Puppet School and was left with the big question, “now what”?

That question was answered for me just a few weeks later, when I moved back to my hometown of Bakersfield.  The very day I moved into my apartment, a friend from a local theater informed me the company had just put Avenue Q on its season and was looking for people to work on it.  I jumped at the opportunity.

The director was a friend of mine from college. He told me he already had a puppetry coach, but that I was welcome to assist — and that he’d love to have me in the role of Lucy.  As the schedule progressed, our puppetry coach got busy with other projects, and I took over the position.  While all of this was going on, Puppet School called . Would I be interested in teaching the Theatrical Puppetry classes?  So while I was in rehearsals, I was also commuting every weekend to LA to teach puppetry to whole new batch of students.  Puppets were ruling my life and I was thrilled.

Libby Letlow and Mark Whitten

Two weeks after Avenue Q closed in Bakersfield, I packed up and moved right back down to LA to continue teaching.  The co-owner of Puppet School put me in touch with Mike Abramson at DOMA Theatre Company, who needed a puppet coach for DOMA’s upcoming production.  There was no way anything could have kept me from being a part of this show.  As soon as I met the director, Richard Israel, I knew the production was in great hands and felt right at home.

This has been one of the most fulfilling theatrical experiences I’ve ever had.  I am so proud of how far this cast has come and incredibly grateful to be part of something as beloved as Avenue Q.  This past year has been a whirlwind of fleece, felt, and foam, and I’m the luckiest gal in the world to be caught right in the middle of it.

Avenue Q, presented by DOMA Theatre Company, MET Theatre, 1089 N. Oxford Ave., Los Angeles 90029. Opens Friday. Fri-Sat 8 pm; Sun 3 pm and 7:30 pm. No Sunday evening performances on Nov. 11 or 18). Through Dec. 16.
Tickets: $30″“$34.99. www.domatheatre.com. 323-802-4990.

***All Avenue Q production photos by Michael Lamont

Libby Letlow is the puppet master, in addition to playing the roles of Thistletwat and Bad Idea Bear, in DOMA Theatre Company’s Avenue Q at the MET Theatre.  A theatrical actress all her life, Libby began to work in film and television 16 years ago on the Fox children’s show, Masked Rider. She soon moved behind the camera and into the position of producer and writer on a few independent projects.

Libby Letlow

Libby Letlow