Stephanie D’Abruzzo on playing the loveable Trixie
in The Kennedy Center’s Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Musical
Stephanie D’Abruzzo is one of the most talented performers on this earth. Most theatergoers know her as Kate Monster and Lucy the Slut in Avenue Q. Kids of all ages know her from her many appearances on “Sesame Street”, and now hundreds of children and their parents are laughing their heads off watching her as extremely young and adorable Trixie – the keeper of Knuffle Bunny – at the Kennedy Center Family Theatre. I asked Stephanie to talk about this hare-raising musical and her work in theatre and television.
Joel: Tell us about Knuffle Bunny.
Stephanie: Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Musical is an adaptation of the wildly popular Caldecott Honor book, Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale. In the book, the story is essentially about how a beloved stuffed bunny gets lost during a trip to the laundromat and how a pre-verbal toddler tries to communicate this to her hapless dad, and how he ultimately comes through for his little girl. The musical takes the story a step further into the relationship between Mom and Dad (and how this first daddy-daughter laundry outing came to be) and between Dad and Trixie, who often struggle to understand each other – but who also have “loads” of fun together. And while Knuffle Bunny still does get lost and found in the musical version, there is a lot more fun and fantasy in trying to communicate the loss and trying to find him. It’s a fantastical chore-turned-adventure comedic love story between father and daughter and daughter and bunny, where Mom solves problems and Dad saves the day, brimming with laughter, tears, and giant laundry.
Joel: You play Trixie in the show. Tell us about her.
Stephanie: Trixie is a 16-month old toddler who, like most toddlers her age, is wowed by her newfound mobility and fascinated by the world around her. And while she cannot speak English, per se, she is definitely opinionated. Oh, and she really loves her Knuffle Bunny.
Joel: How do you describe Trixie’s voice and “look”?
Stephanie: Trixie’s look, as well as the look of the show, is very defined by the book, which is why she wears overalls. The costumer put a hoop in the belly of the overalls to give me more of a baby’s shape, because toddlers don’t tend to have a waist like adults do… they mostly go right from belly to legs. I also wear an oversized shirt to make me look chubbier. As for my hair, it was a source of great discussion. Trixie is bald in the book, but a bald adult does not exactly look like a little kid. We tried having me wear a sunhat, which was cute, but it created a shadow on my face, so now I wear pigtails. It’s a leap, I know, for the audience to make, to believe that this grown woman is a toddler, but I try to make up for it with my movement and voice. Vocally, I am doing a variation of a character voice that I have done before for several puppet and animated characters. And I am speaking very carefully scripted gibberish that Mo Willems specifically wrote. I make little improvised noises and coos and giggles during certain moments, but Trixie’s lines are definitely specific, though they don’t seem to have any literal translation.
Joel: You have a great 11 o’clock number called “Aggle Flaggle Klabble”. Please set up the song.
Stephanie: Funny, that in children’s theatre, the 11 o’clock number means 11 AM, not PM. When Trixie realizes that she has lost Knuffle Bunny, she freezes and won’t budge, and ultimately “goes boneless” when Dad tries to carry her home. Dad is clueless as to why Trixie is behaving this way, and “Aggle Flaggle Klabble” is Trixie’s musical explanation, sung entirely in gibberish. And of course, Dad can’t understand any of it.
I don’t really think about the translation of each gibberish word as I am singing it; rather, I am just singing the raw emotions. Not to mention that there really is no literal word-to-word translation. Michael Silversher did initially write the song with temporary English lyrics, but Mo just came up with gibberish words to fit the music, not the English, so the gibberish doesn’t really correspond to actual words, except for maybe “Aggle Flaggle Klabble,” which means “Knuffle Bunny.” So I just had to learn the song phonetically and by rote. Like ABBA did.
Joel: How do you relate to Trixie?
Stephanie: That’s a tough question. I don’t know if I know how to answer it. I think we all can empathize with Trixie’s feeling of heartbreaking loss, and I’ve certainly experienced the maddening frustration when people don’t understand or get me.
Joel: What are some of the lessons kids and their parents can learn from watching Knuffle Bunny?
Stephanie: That throwing laundry is a lot of fun. (Sorry, parents.)
Joel: How did you get involved in the show?
Stephanie: I have known Mo Willems since he was a writer on “Sesame Street,” and then he was nice enough to let me work on his Cartoon Network series, “Sheep in the Big City.” He told me several years ago that if he ever made a musical out of “Knuffle Bunny” that he wanted me to play Trixie, but of course I wasn’t sure that it would actually ever happen. But here we are. The long and the short of it is, he asked me and I said, “Yes!”. You just don’t turn down a friend when he asks you to play his daughter in an adaptation of his award-winning book. It’s a real honor for me.
Joel: What’s it like working with your fellow DC cast members – Michael John Casey, Erika Rose, Matthew McGloin, and Gia Mora?
Stephanie: Don’t forget our understudies, Matthew Anderson and Cyana Cook! I absolutely adore this cast. Not only is everyone extraordinarily talented, but they’ve really welcomed me into the DC theatre community with open arms, and for that I will always be grateful. (Plus, they’ve let me in on the best places to eat!) I am going to miss them so much when this is over. I think we’ve made a pretty good team. It is my sincere hope that I can come back to work with one or more of them in some other production soon.
Joel: How are you enjoying your stay at the Kennedy Center Family Theater?
Stephanie: Everybody, top to toe, has been wonderful, and I’m having such a great time that I’m also doing a reading for their “New Visions/New Voices” festival of new works for young audiences next weekend.
Joel: How are the audiences reacting to the show?
Stephanie: Our audiences seem to be having a great time. It’s amazing to see how many kids come to the show with their Knuffle Bunnies, and I’ve been told by my stage manager that during the show, a lot of the kids in the back mimic what I’m doing onstage with Knuffle Bunny with their own bunnies. It’s hilarious to hear the kids go “eeew” when Mom and Dad share a very small, quick kiss, or when they say “toilet,” or when I wipe my nose on Knuffle Bunny’s ear. The kids instantly recognize the Pigeon when he makes his cameo, go wild when Dad battles the laundry, scream with laughter when they see the giant bra, and applaud when Knuffle Bunny is retrieved. And I hear a lot of parents laugh, too, particularly when they identify with Mom and/or Dad.
Joel: What is your favorite line or song in the show?
Stephanie: I love when Erika Rose as Mom sings “You see, sadly, when it comes to Daddy/Things can go badly/I could have married Bradley…” It’s the best line in the show, hands down, and the adults laugh loudest at that.
Joel: You are so well known for your appearances on “”Sesame Street”. Who are some of your favorite characters?
Stephanie: I’ve been a Muppet Performer on “Sesame Street” since Season 25 in 1993. I became a regular contracted performer in Season 30, in 1998. I loved singing with R.E.M. on “Furry Happy Monsters,” and more recently, doing the “High School Musical” parody: “Preschool Musical.” I’ve played a lot of different walk-on characters over the years, so it’s hard to pick one out of the group. I used to have a recurring character many years ago named Elizabeth (a loud little redhead with pigtails) whom I really had fun with, and I also loved whenever I played one of the guest stars in “Elmo’s World,” especially the little pink jacket.
Joel: Why is it so important for parents to take their children to the theatre, and to support children’s television programming?
Stephanie: I think that any form of entertainment that can bring together parents and their kids is particularly important in a world where we are increasingly isolating ourselves by watching things on our own computers or televisions, or phones. The best children’s television and theatre contains the kind of fun that can be enjoyed by the widest audience possible, because that shared experience and laughter really opens up communication and learning, and creates wonderful lasting memories. It’s really special to look out into the audience and see whole families sharing these moments and parents bonding with their kids.
Joel: We Avenue Q fans will always love you for bringing Kate Monster and Lucy the Slut to life. When did you become interested in being a puppeteer, and where did you study how to “pull the strings”?
Stephanie: I am a self-taught puppeteer who became fascinated by watching the Muppets when I rediscovered the multi-level humor of “Sesame Street” and “The Muppet Show” and the Muppet movies in college at Northwestern University. Doing that wide variety of character comedy really appealed to me, because with puppets there are no limits to the kinds of characters one can play. You can transcend age, gender, height, weight, even species. So, I began building my own horrible-looking puppets and started creating characters and tried to perfect the skill of on-camera puppet manipulation, just so I could work with the Muppets someday.
Of course, there are freedoms and limitations to all styles of performance, and as much as I love television puppetry, I do miss looking my fellow actors in the eye, so I try to find some balance by working both with and without puppets.
Joel: It’s almost Tony Awards time, and this year’s nominations surprised all of us who love NYC theatre by leaving out some obvious choices. When Avenue Q shocked the theatre world by beating Wicked for Best Musical, a hundred of my friends who were attending my annual Tony Awards potluck and we went crazy and screamed at the top of our lungs – because we loved the show so much. What do you remember about that night and the moment when the envelope was opened and it said, “And the Tony Award for Best Musical goes to Avenue Q!”
Stephanie: I was as shocked as anyone, if not more so. And then I thought, “Hey, America gets to see the rest of my dress!”
Joel: I loved your performance as Diana Bingley, the actuary in I Love You Because. I listen to the cast CD all the time. What was that experience like for you?
Stephanie: Thank you for your kind words about that show. It was a brief run, to be sure, but the show is very strong, with an excellent score, and is now enjoying many regional and college productions. As much fun as I had in Avenue Q, it was refreshing to not sing in a character voice and to play a role that was so different than Kate Monster or Lucy the Slut. I am always looking to expand my horizons and I was grateful for the opportunity to do so in I Love You Because.
Joel: What’s next for you after Knuffle Bunny?
Stephanie: I go home to New York City and pound the pavement to seek out my next show and/or voiceover jobs. Hopefully “Sesame Street” will be prepping to tape Season 42 soon-ish, too.
Joel: Why will theatergoers of all ages love Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Musical?
Stephanie: Mo’s writing, be it on “Sesame Street,” “Sheep in the Big City,” or any of his books, has this quality that appeals to adults and kids alike. It’s not that it’s adult, or subversive, or sarcastic… it’s just very true, and very smart, and it really shines onstage. There is so much going on in our little show. There are plenty of visual gags and dual-level comedy, and lots to laugh at, but there is also a great deal of universal, heartfelt truth, like the frustration that parents and children have when they can’t understand each other, and the complicated reality of child-rearing, and the unconditional love of a parent for his or her child, not to mention the unconditional love of a child for his or her favorite stuffed pal.
Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale plays through May 23rd at The Kennedy Center’s Family Theatre, in Washington, DC. Knuffle Bunny’s public performances are sold out, but audiences are encouraged to call the Kennedy Center box office – (202) 467-4600 for last-minute cancellations.