#109. A Conversation with Stephanie D'Abruzzo

Jason Anders:  What are your earliest memories of auditioning for Avenue Q?

Stephanie D'Abruzzo:  I never formally auditioned.  Originally it was meant to be a television show, Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx had their first idea for it in 1999 and they really wanted the show to be very much in the vein of South Park-  I believe the original title for the show was Avenue Q: Children's Television for Twentysomethings.  Instead of doing a pilot they did a reading, very much in the same way you'd do a presentational reading of a stage show.  The first reading was in May of 2000.
I came onboard after Rick Lyon, who they met from BMI, he'd already performed for them with a puppet he had built.  Bobby and Jeff had won the Kleban Award for Kermit, Prince of Denmark which was basically a Muppet version of Hamlet that Rick had performed for them.  They tried selling that concept to Henson, where my husband was working at the time, to see if it could be used as an online show.  They played some songs from Avenue Q and said they were looking for a female puppeteer, to which he said "my wife is a puppeteer."  Rick Lyon recommended me, but he thought I might be too busy.  It was nice to be asked because I hadn't sang or danced on a stage in years.  It was a great opportunity to do that, I didn't care that I wasn't getting paid.

We went into doing casual rehearsals and I remember hearing the songs for the first time.  At that time the only songs that existed were the main theme, "If You Were Gay", "There is Life Outside Your Apartment", and "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist" in the very first reading.  We presented it like it would be a television show, and Kate Monster sang "Like It Was" from Merrily We Roll Along.  The song "Special" had a different name and lyrics, it was called "Two Lips" and was more educational- Instead of "I can make you feel special" the lyrics went "everybody's got two lips, count 'em one, count 'em two".  It was really meant as a pre-pilot for audience feedback, and a few of us from that reading ended up in the Broadway production.  
What's interesting about doing a reading is that you have performers at music stands with books in hand and you're doing very minimal staging, it's really just about getting the material across, so we didn't try and hide the puppeteers the way you would on Sesame Street or a television show, because it was so casual... we were just out there with the puppets.  It was only about the material, characters and songs and not about the staging.  After this first reading the response was overwhelming, people would come up and say "what a brilliant choice to show the puppeteers do their work, it was just so unique and different and groundbreaking!"  It was a total accident.  We never meant for that to be a creative choice, it was just the nature of the reading situation.

It was very obvious after the early readings that this should be a stage show.  Keeping the puppeteers visible became much more practical, safer, and cheaper because you didn't have to dig pits into the stage, you could have a much wider range of movement, you could see where you were going, there were no holes to fall into... it made sense.  To not have the puppeteer's face obscured with puppets that didn't have legs had not been done before.  We made no bones about the fact that these were television-style puppets, it was all very serendipitous.
JA:  Were you always meant to play multiple roles?

SD:  It started that way because they didn't want to have a big group of people, and it was maintained that way because it's much cheaper to have four puppeteers rather than eight.  Plus we'd been doing multiple roles on Sesame Street all the time.  That goes way back to Jim Henson doing Kermit, Ernie, Rowlf the Dog, and Dr. Teeth.  Frank Oz and Jerry Nelson certainly did dozens and dozens of characters at a time.  The nature of puppetry is such that you're not limited by your one face and what that face presents to the audience, when you're a Muppet performer you're accustomed to double-duty.  It's one of the reasons I wanted to be a Muppet performer, and it came in very handy in this situation.  It was a happy side-effect.
JA:  Do you remember what originally got you interested in puppetry?

SD:  I was born in 1971 so I came of age during the Golden Era of Sesame Street when it was really hitting its stride.  I learned to read at a very young age thanks to Sesame Street and The Electric Company.  I was definitely a PBS kid growing up.  I was also a fan of The Muppet Show and their movies, then you hit that phase in high school where it's not cool anymore.  I rediscovered them in college not only as a fan but also looking at what they were doing as puppeteers with a performer's eye.    You never think of who is performing them as a kid, you just believe those characters are real.  I don't know if you remember Dynamite Magazine, but they did an issue about The Muppet Movie and I remember this kid in our class saying "oh my God!  Miss Piggy is played by a man?!"
JA:  For me it was "Miss Piggy is the guy who directed What About Bob??!"

SD:  (laughs) Well when I was a kid What About Bob? was many years from being in the can.  With the exception of the occasional article, there hadn't been much written about the behind-the-scenes life of the Muppets.  There was a British documentary, Of Muppets and Men, that came out when The Muppet Show exploded in popularity, but I didn't come across that until I was in college.  In college I was sort of running away from being a performer, but still drawn to it and not knowing how to combine all of these things I loved about performing.  I was a Radio/ TV/ Film major in college, not wanting to throw my life away being a Theater major, and seeing the Muppets made me really begin to pursue puppetry as a career by building horrible looking puppets and doing an independent study project, just to see if I could do it.

Muppets work off of a television monitor so that they can see their entire performance, but it's the opposite of working in a mirror- So when you move to your right it's camera-left.  That takes some time to learn, but I did it in college when the stakes were low just to see if I had any raw ability to do it.  I worked at it and enjoyed it, and began taking it much more seriously and seeing it as a possibility.  I was really narrow in my thinking.  I'm grateful that things transpired to get me in the door with Henson.
JA:  Did you have any idea in mind of where your degree might take you before that happened?

SD:  Interestingly enough, when I first started I was thinking about children's television.  I went back to watching Sesame Street because I was working in day camps and babysitting in high school... it was a combination of the nostalgic blanket you wrap yourself in when you're in college, but also thinking writing and producing children's television is something I'd want to do.  As much as I wanted to run away from performing, I really couldn't shake it.  Everyone around me in college wanted to direct, so I knew I didn't want to do that... just to avoid being like everyone else.  Calling yourself a writer meant that you were going to write screenplays and nothing else, and everyone who didn't want to direct wanted to do that.  It was a matter of trying to do something different.
JA:  Who is your favorite Muppet?

SD:  There's so many elements of all the characters that I absolutely love that it's impossible to pick just one!  I love Rowlf the Dog, Fozzie Bear, and Sam the Eagle.  Grover was a favorite when I was younger, Bert and Ernie are fantastic... any bit between a Jim character and a Frank character are brilliant pairings.  Kermit and Fozzie.  There's a great pairing between Rowlf the Dog and Sam the Eagle on The Muppet Show singing "Tit Willow".  It's so dry and perfect.  My husband is the President of The Jim Henson Legacy, and he said that if you meld all the Muppets together they create one normal person.

JA:  I was just listening to Kevin Pollak's Chat Show and John Landis was his guest talking about being in the pit for the final scene of The Muppet Movie playing Grover, and how he found out years later that Tim Burton was next to him playing a character pointing to and talking about him being the director of Animal House.

SD:  That's true!  A wonderful piece of trivia that most people have never heard.
JA:  So what was it like joining the cast of Sesame Street and working with the live performers you grew up with?

SD:  To meet them was really incredible!  Jim Henson and Richard Hunt both passed while I was in college so I never got to meet either of them.  It would almost be five years before I met Dave Goelz, and a few years before I got to really work with Frank Oz as a performer.  To meet Jerry Nelson, Caroll Spinney, Martin Robinson, and Kevin Clash was glorious stuff... but the real thrill was the first time meeting Roscoe Orman, Bob McGrath, Emilio Delgado and Sonia Manzano.  I remember the first time hearing them say my name I felt like I was three again.

I have a question for you.  Have you seen Willie Dynamite?
JA:  I don't think I have.

SD:  It's a blaxploitation film starring Roscoe Orman, you must see that movie!  He made it right before he came on Sesame Street.  It was around 1998 and the film had been out of print for many years and someone brought in a VHS copy that they taped off of Cinemax in like 1981, so we ordered lunch and they played it over the feed and we sat in the arbor of Sesame Street and watched it on the monitors with the cast and crew.  Roscoe was touched and thrilled by this.  What we didn't know is that the feed was playing the film in the Sesame Workshop offices in Manhattan, where they were probably wondering why Gordon was slapping a hooker.

I saw Bob McGrath in concert when I was three.  I remember meeting him and I was very shy.  That's one of my earliest memories.  He's very supportive and has come to see many of the things I've done, including my cabaret debut at Birdland.  And of course he also came to Avenue Q... most of the live cast did, actually.  That whole live cast is just something.  I think Sesame Street is such an anomaly in that it's one of the few scripted, non-soap opera shows that has been on the air this long.  What the show does is so specialized, and once you're there you don't wanna leave.  It's a special place.

It's a very specific kind of work, and it is "work".  It's challenging work, which is why we embrace the fun.  Television can be pretty grueling.  With HD, every little thing that goes wrong is amplified.  You have to embrace the fun where you can find it.
JA:  Are you excited that Jason Segel is involved in writing the new Muppet movie?

SD:  People are very excited about it coming out, and I'm excited that there's this whole new generation of kids who are going to get to see the characters in this big way.  Jason seems to be a huge Muppet fan and it's clearly been done with a great deal of admiration for the characters.  I'm very curious to see it when it comes out.

JA:  Do you ever get tired of being asked about Avenue Q?

SD:  I'm not sick of it.  I'm thrilled and surprised and very glad to know that it's as relevant today to people as it was when we opened the show more than eight years ago.  It's staggering how much time has passed.  I love the fact that it's something that has made a difference to many people and that I was involved with it at all.  My only problem is when it's the only thing people want to talk to you about, or when you're defined as that and nothing else.  As an actor and someone who wants to do so many other things, that can get frustrating.  Someone as brilliant as Mark Hamill, who has had such a fantastic voiceover career doesn't want your first question to be about Luke Skywalker unless your second question is about the Joker.  The work he's done in voiceovers is as good as anything he's ever done in the Star Wars franchise.
JA:  Did you see him in Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back playing Cock-Knocker?

SD:  Oh absolutely!  In 1997, when they re-released the original Star Wars trilogy, a bunch of us who were working on The Wubbulous World of Dr. Seuss at the time were lined up at the Ziegfeld Theater, and some of us had our Muppet jackets on.  This guy walks by and says to us "Hey, is this the line for Jedi?"  He was halfway down the block before we realized it was Mark Hamill! He was in town to do Saturday Night Live that week.  I love that he had that sense of humor about it.

JA:  What goal do you see yourself working towards right now?

SD:  I've been keeping my feet wet with off-Broadway while still doing Sesame Street and really going wherever the work is.  It gets harder as one gets older, and if there is a Mt. Everest it's to not leave Earth having only done this one thing, as far as Broadway is concerned.  I would love to do more theater, television and film.  It's easy to have big dreams, but the pragmatic side of it is to simply just make a living as a performer.  That's already easier said than done.  Keeping an open mind and heart about things is how Avenue Q came along.  If I had any inkling that what happened with Avenue Q was going to happen in those first readings I wouldn't have believed it, and if the powers that be had known then I probably wouldn't have been asked to continue.  They would have called in Kristin Chenoweth.
Photo courtesy of StephanieDabruzzo.com
Sometimes there are happy accidents that we stumble into, and you never know where the next happy accident is going to come from.  I've been lucky enough to keep doing fun projects.  The York Theatre here in Manhattan, which interestingly enough is the place where we had our first Avenue Q readings, has a series called Musicals in Mufti where it's a little bit like Encores! but not nearly as big of a budget, where they put on productions of lesser known and lesser performed musicals.  They're done book-in-hand with typically one weekend of performances.

I was lucky enough to do The Mad Show, which is based on Mad Magazine, and in a couple of weeks I am going to be doing Tomfoolery which is the musical revue of Tom Lehrer's music.  I've been a fan of Tom Lehrer ever since he wrote "Silent E" for The Electric Company.  If going where the work takes me means that I'm not a big star, well then that's the way it is.  There are so many amazing performers out there who are not household names, but it certainly does not diminish the power of their performance or the level of their talent.
Looking at the Muppet performers, someone like Jerry Nelson who played The Count and was the Veterinarian's Hospital and Pigs In Space announcer... most wouldn't know his face if he walked down the street, but it doesn't make him any less endearing to those who do know who he is and who do love him.  Performers can have a lot more impact than they think without necessarily being well known.  We live in a fame-driven society and when people say they want to be a star they don't always want to be an actor, they just want to be well-known.  I think fame is a horrible thing.  If you want to perform, fame can certainly help you.  I want to be well-known enough to get work easily.  I want to be just famous enough to not have to hustle.

A lot of people don't understand that there are many ways to make a living as a performer. Commercials, voice-overs, regional theater... you're not going to make a good living doing it, but anyone who goes into acting for the money is going to be sorely disappointed anyway.  The work is few and far between.  There are so many contracts where you can make more on unemployment than you can make doing certain Equity shows.  I don't do it because I have some greater goal to humanity in mind, I do it because I love doing it more than anything else.  I also really don't have a lot of other marketable skills.  If only I'd taken that bartending mini-course in college.
JA:  What do you think is the best piece of advice you've ever received when it comes to pursuing acting or a career in general?

SD:  There's no real good "how-to", the path is different for everyone.  It's very difficult to give a definitive answer to that.  The most important things to remember are to show up on time, be prepared, be a decent person, treat your cast and crew with respect and integrity, and in general it is far more important to be a better person than it is to be a good actor.  There are a lot of great actors out there who you don't want to spend five minutes with.  The best people I've met are the people who don't just have talent, but they have integrity, kindness, and grace.  These are the people I am honored to have crossed paths with, even for the shortest periods of time.  When it's all said and done, it doesn't matter how high you can belt, where you went to school, or what kind of training you have... it's really about living a good life and doing collaborative work.

I think a lot of people forget that acting is collaborative.  We don't forget that at Muppets because we're working together in a pit all the time.  Often there's two or three puppeteers on one character, it's constantly collaborative.  A lot of kids who go into acting think it's a solitary thing because they're not seeing an ensemble of people on the cover of a magazine, they're seeing a celebrity.  An actor cannot be an island if they want to be successful... or at least successful in life.  Now, if you wanna be a bastard that's a whole other kettle of fish and I can't help you there.
The first time Avenue Q was up and running, my mother was absolutely shocked that we'd do shows on a Sunday.  "You're doing a show on Easter Sunday?!"  There's no such thing as holidays or a sacred day.  I've missed weddings, funerals, and family obligations because you get tied to your work.  You can't be reliable in life when the show must go on.  You have to be willing to sacrifice those things and know why you're doing it.  I'm lucky that the people in my life have grown to understand the crazy life that I lead, you never know when the work is going to come or not come.

Fame can't be your motivation to do something.  Frank Oz said something great once, that he had the best of both worlds because he "got to do really great work with really great people to do really high profile stuff... but if you've gotta go to the store to get a can of beans, you go to the store to get a can of beans."  There's something to be said for the ability to go to the store to get a can of beans.

The best part about getting to do the stuff that I've done has really been to work, meet, and chat with the people that I have a very deep respect for.  When you find out that that person is also a decent person to boot, that's just gravy.