The grown-up, taboo puppet musical “Avenue Q” is currently taking the stage in McKenna Theatre. In order to craft the Jim Henson-style Muppets, a SUNY New Paltz alumna was the only one who could make it happen.
Alumna Danielle Jordan ‘12 (Theatre Arts) crafted the intricate puppets for the “Acting with Puppets” class that taught theatre students and led to the smooth opening of the Spring 2018 mainstage production, “Avenue Q.”
“The opportunity arose back in July of 2017,” Jordan said. “Department chair Ken Goldstein contacted me after the original puppet maker for the class fell through. I had just updated my website to advertise that I’d been dabbling in puppet making for the past few years. I think he saw the circumstances as a great opportunity for alumni outreach, and I couldn’t have agreed more.”
Jordan was a perfect fit to construct the puppets due to her expansive knowledge of costume technology, as well as her career in a children’s theatre.
“The skills that seem to have served me well are the ones I’ve gained both through my undergraduate and graduate education as a costume technologist and on the job training I’ve received during my time as the costume craft artisan at First Stage Children’s Theater in Milwaukee, Wisconsin,” Jordan said. “These learned skills combined with my natural aptitude and passion for making things really fueled me during my preparation for and execution of this project.”
When approached with the project, Jordan had only a month to bring the works to life, which felt like an intimidating task.
“At that point I’d assisted my colleague Brandon Kirkham on several puppet builds but had never made this particular type of hand and rod puppet-let alone in this quantity in such a short amount of time,” Jordan said. “I agreed to create 12 puppets in about a month, while also working my regular full-time job. I love a challenge, so even though the task seemed daunting, I was excited to tackle it.”
Although Jordan’s training lies in other places besides puppet-making, she worked hard to learn as much as possible to achieve the best results.
“In my extremely limited build period, I consulted a Stan Winston School of Character Arts course instructed by LA based puppeteer/builder BJ Guyer.” Jordan said. “Studying this 12 hour class saved me countless hours during what ended up being about 120 hours of construction over the course of the month leading up to the Acting With Puppets class.”
Jordan developed two types of puppets for the class curriculum: a traditional foam and fleece construction similar to what the students would be using in “Avenue Q,” and some simple but still very expressive sock puppets.
Jordan has realized puppet-making is a great passion of hers, and believes it to be a part of her calling.
“[Puppeteering] is an incredibly versatile artform, and it almost always comes down to character and storytelling. That’s one of the reasons I love making puppets,” Jordan said. “I am not a performer myself, but throughout all of my years as a theater artist, I’ve always loved creating things that help someone else become a character or tell a story. I know it sounds silly, but I always say that I just like making people’s dreams come true.”
After the puppets’ creation for the “Acting with Puppets” class went off without a hitch, Jordan received another call from Goldstein. The puppet-maker for the “Avenue Q” puppets fell through, and they needed her expertise to teach theatre students how to build the puppets themselves.
“Ideally, I was to come out and teach students for a week long workshop in January, but due to scheduling conflicts we had to settle on a two-day crash course in February,” Jordan said. “I’ve always thought SUNY New Paltz bred talented, hard working theatre artists and this experience only confirmed that. They proceeded to create 20 puppets for the production over the next two months with the help and guidance of costume shop manager Eleanor Wolfe. I’m so proud of all of the work they’ve done.”
With the puppets completed, Tony award-nominated Broadway actress Anika Larsen taught students during the Fall 2017 semester, and helped the cast members of “Avenue Q” better understand puppetry as well.
“Anika taught us basic single-rod puppet techniques, as a majority of the puppets used in the show are single-rodded,” said first-year theatre major and understudy for Princeton, Matthew Moment. “We worked on how to animate the puppets well, whether it be walking, waving, or animating. As an understudy, I tried to make the most of watching the way they work, so I can incorporate good habits into my practice regimen.”
“Avenue Q” opened April 19 at McKenna Theatre, with performances running until April 26-29.