The puppets stand at attention. Their orange and red, purple and blue limbs rest on the table. Shaggy hair falls over a cartoon eye. Rows deep, they wait for one of the three nights per week they’ll be picked up and put through the motions by Timberline Secondary musical theatre students as they prepare for their upcoming musical production: Avenue Q – School Edition.
You’d be hard pressed to find the difference between the puppets and their Broadway counterparts. The puppets, all 16 of them, were designed and created by Timberline 2019 graduate Ben Bellosillo.
It’ll be the program’s first time using puppets, says teacher and musical director Celine Ouellette.
“It’s a different show, very different,” she says.
Avenue Q first opened off Broadway in March 2003. By July, it had a spot on Broadway and won three Tony awards in 2004: Best Score, Best Book and Best Musical. The musical was also the first-ever Broadway cast album to be released with a parental advisory label. The puppets are foul-mouthed to say the least.
But Timberline won’t be putting on that version of the show. Instead, they’ll be doing the School Edition. According to Music Theatre International (MTI), the language has been “cleaned-up” (“Think of the show being rated PG-13 now rather than rated R”), the song, “Internet is For Porn” was replaced with “My Social Life is Online”, the songs “My Girl Friend Who Lives in Canada” and “Loud As The Hell You Want” have been cut and a few character names were changed.
Ouellette says it’s a toned-down version, but the story is still intact and the themes are very similar.
“The principle, the essence of what they want to say through the show is there,” she says. “The struggle of someone who is out of university with BA in English and has no idea what to do with it and all the trials around him and so on. It’s all there. it’s just that now it’s a lot toned down.”
The music featured heavily in Bellosillo’s life as he worked on the puppets last year. The 18-year-old had the album on repeat as he made them.
His favourite song is “There’s Life Outside Your Apartment.”
“It’s a very happy and yet not happy song, so I quite like its tone,” he says.
Bellosillo started thinking about the design of the puppets in April and May. He started with a prototype first and brought it in to show Ouellette. By June, he was in puppet production mode.
Bellosillo comes from a crafty family. He’s also a long-time tap dancer and artist.
“I just like to experiment everywhere and the puppets were a very hands-on project that allowed me to kind of experiment with a lot of different things: metal work, wood work, sewing, which is one thing I hadn’t done much of beforehand,” he says.
He found a generic puppet pattern online and started with that. He cut out the foam for the heads and glued them together, then applied the fleece that acts as their skin. There are wood plates in their mouths and the majority of the puppets have wire in their fingers and their arms are controlled by sticks. Just two of the main puppets have “live hands” and require two actors, or puppeteers to control them.
Bellosillo says that since the bodies are made out of foam, the characters are “squishy and pillow-like.”
Most of them have fur for hair and their tiny clothes are second-hand store finds.
“They all have their idiocyncrasies,” says Ouellette. “They’re all quite cute.”
There are two versions of each puppet: a rehearsal copy and a show copy.
It means that the actors have a chance to practice with them before the show and they won’t look “tired” come showtime, says Ouellette.
The puppets were a serious time investment for Bellosillo.
“I didn’t realize how much work it was going to be,” he says. “And I made the first puppet and I just thought about it. I had to do this at least 16 times more and it dawned on me how much of a task it would be. But it was a fun task.”
By the end of the month, he had a couch-full of puppets and he presented them to Ouellette in September.
As he was creating them, he’d try them out and keep an eye out for design flaws, or things to improve.
“I started acting out with him and starting to do some basic movements, seeing where he was tight, whether his mouth was too gummy, that it was making my hands sore, whether it his arms were too short, stuff like that,” he says.
“See why we wanted him to do it?” says Ouellette. “He thinks of everything.”
Bellosillo has been involved with the musical theatre department for the last few years. In his first year in stagecraft, he helped out backstage and worked on a few props. His next year he moved to full-time prop work and in his third year, he took on stage manager and props.
He’s worked on a few big prop projects, like a firepit and the giant lollipops in The Wizard of Oz, but the puppets for Avenue Q were the largest commitment.
“He is a great prop master,” says Ouellette. “I ask him [to do] anything, he’ll come back with it and really nicely done.”
Since he was graduating last spring, Ouellete says it was “now or never” to have him work on the puppets for this year’s production.
They use the money made during the run of the previous year’s production to help fund what they’re working on. Last year was Mamma Mia and Ouellette said the program is doing just fine.
But not all high school theatre productions have their own Bellosillo. They could have rented the puppets out, but at a hefty price, and they would have only had them for six weeks.
With Bellosillo’s puppets, the cast started practising with them in mid-November. They meet three times a week.
The performances start on Feb. 28 and will continue Feb. 29, March 5, 6, and 7 at 7 p.m. in the Timberline Theatre. Tickets are available online at Timberline Secondary’s website. Tickets for seniors and students are $12, while adult tickets are $15.