Wednesday, July 8, 2009

“Avenue Q” Vet Jennifer Barnhart on Puppets, Dislocated Pupils and Potty Mouths

“Avenue Q,” the raunchy puppet show that explores sex, drinking and finding one’s purpose in life, announced last week that it will close after six years on Broadway. The show, whose numbers include “If You Were Gay” and “The Internet Is For Porn,” provided one of the biggest upsets in the history of the Tony Awards in 2004 by beating out “Wicked” for best musical. Only one cast member has been there from the beginning: Jennifer Barnhart. The Brooklyn-based actress plays a cranky kindergarten teacher with an unprintable name best known as Mrs. T, as well as a cuddly bad influence called Bad Idea Bear and other supporting roles. We spoke with Ms. Barnhart—and Mrs. T—about their feelings as they approach their final performance on Sept. 13.

Wall Street Journal: What will you do once the show is over?

Barnhart: I’m going to pursue some other human types of performing. There’s a couple of puppet series on television. I’ll be more available for “Sesame Street” shooting this fall. I’m just going to sort of hit the pavement and get back to it, you know?

What’s going to happen to the puppets?

I’d love to call dibs on my little Bad Idea Bear. I think they’re probably going to keep them in stock and rent them and lease them to regional companies once we’re retired.

You feel close to Bad Idea Bear?

My little Bad Idea Bear has become a little bit of an alter ego of mine, and of course, Mrs. T. For a character that you create in a show without puppets, as a human, once you stop doing it there’s no vestige of that character left around. But these guys are physical embodiments of these characters we’ve created, and so you look at them and I know exactly what this character ate for breakfast this morning. They become their own entities. They’re sort of larger than the performers who’ve created them.

“Avenue Q” isn’t for little kids. Have you ever seen scandalized mothers in the audience who came thinking this was a children’s show?

Oh Good God, yes. That’s a bit of theater for us, which is something I don’t think the audience ever realizes. They’re so close to our stage. We can see the first four rows of people, and periodically there’s a toddler and a horrified mother and we’ll go, “Wow, I wonder what’ll be the point when this person snaps and says, OK, time to go.” “Loud as the Hell You Want” (a musical number that features nude puppet sex) can be a little traumatic. It’s like, “Oh, they’re playing. They’re wrestling. They’re roughhousing.”

Can you share any favorite onstage screw-ups?

We had a puppet’s eye fall off, which is traumatizing. It’s very disturbing. The pupil fell off so there was one milky, white, huge, blank, staring eye and audiences find it very disturbing. It’s kind of a testament to how much they buy into the reality of the characters.

What celebrity in the audience gave you the biggest thrill?

I didn’t know it until after the fact, but Angela Lansbury had come to see the show. [Ms. Barnhart was filling in for a lead character that night.] She came backstage to say hello to us and she said in her very sweet little Angela Lansbury way, she said, “You were extraordinary.” I pretty much melted inside.

Has doing this show given you more of a potty mouth?

I can’t say more of one because I have worked in children’s television for so long. Part of the reason this show rings as true as it does is that most people who have to work with children—and I’ve encountered this in friends of mine who are teachers and performers who do children’s entertainment—there has to be a pressure-release valve or you’ll just go crazy.

So most people who work with kids have potty mouths?

I would say yes. That’s a fair assessment. Not all, but a fairly good amount. Or at least a twisted sense of humor.

You studied puppetry at the University of Connecticut and you’ve worked steadily. Maybe more kids should study puppetry in college.

The lesson for me there was to find your point of difference and to focus on that, because I am a tall, blonde, deep-voiced actress—I’m one of 200,000 of me in New York City. But I have one thing that makes me different, and that’s the puppet. If anyone would’ve said to me doing this kind of puppetry would take you to Broadway, I’d have laughed in their face.

This question is for Mrs. T. Whose fault is it that the show is closing?

MRS. T: I blame the economy.

Should President Obama have given you a bailout?

MRS T.: It wouldn’t have hurt. He’s very good about looking out for everyone, and I wouldn’t mind if he included people of foam or fur in that distinction.

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