Rick Lyon is a long-time professional puppeteer and creator of the lovable characters that populate the streets of the New York-set and Tony Award-winning musical which recently entered its second year on Broadway. As the first cast member of the troupe, he brings his "Sesame Street" experiences and theatre background together nightly to perform as the emerald-skinned Nicky, the salacious Trekkie Monster and part of the show's own Miss Saigon helicopter moment.
Playbill On-Line: When did your interest in puppetry begin?
Rick Lyon: I've always been interested in puppets ever since I was a little kid. It was this magical thing that seemed alive that clearly wasn't human, but seemed to have its own existence, just like kids like cartoons. But being a creative person, I wasn't satisfied in just watching, I wanted to participate in that. My parents saw my interest and got me a little cat hand puppet and I started just goofing around with it as a hobby. It wasn't long before I started making my own puppets out of whatever was in the house a cardboard box or a sock or a t-shirt, whatever I could find.
PBOL: Were "The Muppets" and "Sesame Street" an influence?
RL: You have to understand that before "Sesame Street," the Muppets were visible, but they weren't on everyday. You'd catch them on a talk show appearance, but they really weren't out there all the time. Then when "Sesame Street" came on the air, you could get a daily dose of the Muppets and that affirmed my interest in puppets. It was also the first time my parents bought a color TV, so the advent of color TV and being able to see the Muppets everyday was a big moment.
PBOL: Had you been involved with theatre before or was puppetry your main focus?
RL: I started doing public [puppet] performances right into high school, where I was very involved in theatre. So I always had this dichotomy going. When I went to college, I schlepped some puppets with me just for yucks because I'm a freak and I continued to do that and it occurred to me that what I was doing was quite an intense form of theatre: I'm writing my own material, I'm designing my characters and sets and costumes, making them, and performing it. So I'm really my own little repertory company, I'm doing everything.
RL: When I was done with school and was really just working full-time as a puppeteer, I thought "I have to find out more about this." So I went to a 14-week puppetry program — affiliated with the Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center up in Waterford [Connecticut] — that no longer exists. Before the puppetry conference that is there now. So through connections with the director of this [program], he arranged with this guy who worked in the Muppet workshop for me to tour the workshop. When I went [there], "Sesame Street" had just wrapped for the season and everybody's kind of giddy and tired and burned out and that's when I caught them. The head of the workshop at the time said I ought to audition for them. Long story short, I almost immediately started working with them.
PBOL: You became involved with Avenue Q creators Jeff Marx and Robert Lopez on their previous collaboration Kermit, Prince of Denmark.
RL: Jeff and Bobby were workshopping and creating this Kermit, Prince of Denmark piece for the BMI [Lehman Engel Musical Theatre] Workshop where they met. They had written a couple of songs and had already demo'd them in class. But they were writing them for puppets and thought: Wouldn't it be cool to have somebody with a puppet perform this in class? Jeff had been an intern who had been fired from the music department of "Sesame Street" and knew one of the wranglers who is a friend of mine and contacted me. So I went and we did it in class just the way that Avenue Q is performed [with puppeteer in full view]. I sat on a stool with a puppet on my knee and sang the song, and the class went bananas. Jeff and Bobby did pitch the Kermit, Prince of Denmark thing to the Henson people and they turned it down. And from that experience, "let's write for our own puppet characters and create our own show."
PBOL: Tell me a bit about the making of the puppets.
RL: I would like to dispel a very common myth. I can't tell you how disturbed I get when people talk about the puppets being fur and felt, there's no felt in the puppets. The way you have to think about it is creating a human being; if you think of the puppeteers hand as being the skeleton, then you create the musculature which is made out of foam rubber, then the skin which is made out of fleece or fabric or fur. Then all the eyes are custom vacu-formed plastic shapes that I make in my shop. Kate has human hair wigs, which always strikes me as being slightly ironic. Some of the characters just have fake fur for hair that's styled and cut. And obviously with Rod, he has a lot of product in his hair.
PBOL: How was it decided which puppets would be handled by two people instead of one?
RL: That wasn't as arbitrary as it may seem. A rod-hands puppet just seems more uptight, they're sort of more limited with what they can do. They're not as facile, they can't do little gestures [like a live-hands puppet could] and that's what's going on with [live-hands] Nicky and [rod-hands] Rod. Nicky is the looser one and Rod is more uptight. Same goes for Trekkie Monster, he's just this big, uninhibited, out-there character and I thought he really needed the gestural capability. Mrs. Thistletwat is also live-hands because she isn't mobile, I wanted to give her as much that she could do as possible. It was important that [rod-hands] Princeton and Kate had a large sense of independence, they're the leads, the romantic interests.
PBOL: How does the giant Kate Monster puppet work?
RL: That's something that came about when we designed the Off-Broadway show. Jason [Moore, director of Avenue Q] wanted to have this apparition in the nightmare that was sort of our helicopter from Miss Saigon — a big spectacular image. One of the things that I love about giant Kate, of course, is that she just ends at the top of her upper lip and her hands only just go down to her wrist, but because by that time you're so familiar with the character, you imagination allows you to fill in the blanks and you can just see this huge thing terrorizing the city and crawling up, we call her Kate-zilla. I love that, it's such a pure piece of puppetry, it's just some struts and a couple of punks of fur and some lace for her veil. And it's just being muscled around by sheer force, it's not being flown in or on a crane or anything like that, it's just people hauling this stuff around. I actually do the head myself.
PBOL: You told me there are 42 puppets on the backstage rack being manipulated by six puppeteers, what is the traffic like behind the curtains?
RL: The traffic pattern was probably harder to work out than staging the rest of the show was because all the puppeteers play multiple characters, the way the script worked a lot of the characters collide with each other and inhabit the stage at the same time. Or have really, really quick exits and entrances on top another and so figuring out who was handing what puppet to who and how you got from one place to another just became this huge piece of the puzzle to figure out. Backstage the choreography is much more complicated than anything that's on the stage. I wish we that we had a DVD of the show and we could show all the stuff on a bonus track because you would not believe it. There are actually changes that occurred in the script to cover things. There were times when we'd just have to go, "Jason, I can't make it. Can you add another ring to the phone?"