One of the most surprising offerings in this DC theater season comes from Constellation Theatre, who are deviating from their usual epic fare with blockbuster Tony Award-winning show Avenue Q, a musical about people and puppets trying to make their way in New York City, famously crass (and definitely not for kids).
I couldn’t help but sit down with Allison Stockman, Artistic Director of Constellation, to ask her about their choice and how they plan on executing it. I got those answers, but I also got a more intimate look into the evolution of her life as an Artistic Director with some important lessons for young theater artists.
Alan Katz: You’re the Founding Artistic Director, so you’ve been with Constellation through its whole journey. What kind of theater did you found Constellation to do?
Allison Stockman: I love big ensemble casts. I love the collective energy of collaborators. The idea is larger than life action that’s inherently theatrical. Stories that would not be well served by any other medium, stories that invite the audience to use their imagination. Live music is a big part of that. We’ve got a special collaboration with Tom Teasley who does world music and will be in Journey to the West, based on the classical Chinese novel, later this year. But we also love comedies and we try to do at least one a year.
AK: And Avenue Q fits that slot this year?
AS: Yes! We start previews October 22nd!
AK: Does Avenue Q represent a new evolution in programming at Constellation?
AS: It’s a new direction for us, but there are familiar elements, too. I mentioned live music as important for our theater, and we finally felt like we’re in a position to afford a 6 person orchestra. We’ve been excited to do a musical, too. Avenue Q was a great choice not only because of the music and the comedy, but also because of the puppets. Inherently, they’re larger than life and require an elevated style of acting. Plus the characters themselves are exaggerated (One of them is Gary Coleman! Yes, that Gary Coleman).
Another reason Avenue Q is a good fit has to do with our location [Constellation is in residence at the Source Theater on the 14th St Corridor in Northwest DC]. This neighborhood is full of Millennials, just out of college, and while we welcome everyone (16 and up!) to see the show, we especially wanted to reach out to our new neighbors. We want to nurture the next generation of theater lovers, and Avenue Q seems like a good gateway drug for that.
Let me tell you something: I’ve never seen this play, except for our production. When I first was listening to the soundtrack and I got to the finale “For Now,” and I was surprised by that as the concluding song. It’s a little bit nostalgic; it’s a little bittersweet. The idea that life is changing all the time, that life is ephemeral. I think those of us in the theater can relate to that because we put our whole lives into this thing that lasts only five weeks and when it closes, it was only “For Now.” But it’s also about living in the moment and celebrating what you have, because that’s all you really have. That moves me.
Though it’s so silly, Avenue Q is about important questions: What is friendship? What is my purpose? What makes me different? What are my goals? We think about those things, no matter what our age. While it’s hilarious and naughty, it’s got a heart.
KATE MONSTER: Everyone’s a little bit unsatisfied.
BRIAN: Everyone goes ’round a little empty inside.
GARY COLEMAN: Take a breath, Look around,
BRIAN: Swallow your pride,
KATE MONSTER: For now…
BRIAN, KATE, GARY, CHRISTMAS EVE: For now… (Lyrics to “For Now” from Avenue Q)
AK: If someone who knows the DC theater scene fairly well is looking at our Season at Glance page, when they see Avenue Q, they might expect to see it at the National or the Warner. But when they see your theater’s name, Constellation, next to Avenue Q, there’s shock and surprise. What would you say to that person?
AS: One of the things that our patrons love about Constellation is that even though they are coming to a small venue, they can expect high production values. There’s all the action, and spectacle and music, but it’s so close you can touch it. Our patrons can feel like they’re a part of the show, and that’s something we can bring to Avenue Q that other venues might not be able to bring.
AK: You’re not only the Founding Artistic Director of Constellation, you’re also the director of Avenue Q. What’s your directorial approach to the show?
AS: The overall goal is the same as for every show: tell a clear story. Even though some of the characters are puppets, we want to keep it heartfelt. We want the audience to invest in the puppets as characters as much as we invest in the humans as characters.
There are big challenges fitting this play into our space. From my research, most versions of Avenue Q are done with a Sesame Street-type facade with all the action happening downstage. AJ [the set designer] and I have been excited about making the set less realistic, making it something that the characters can interact with.
One thing that people who have just listened to the soundtrack might not know is that there are quite a few videos and projections built into the script. The moments that were projected in the original will be done by actors in our version. The other technical challenge we have is with the puppets themselves. Acting is one skill, but acting with and through a puppet is a whole other set of skills. But, we’re lucky to have Matthew McGee (who won the 2013 James MacArthur Award for Outstanding Supporting Actor in Constellation’s Taking Steps) as assistant director, puppet coach and props designer. His father is a ventriloquist and puppeteer, so Matt says he was “raised by puppets,” and it’s great to have his expertise there from the beginning.
October 22 – November 22
1835 14th Street, NW
Washington, DC 20009
Tickets: $30 – $55
Wednesdays thru Sundays
Details and Tickets
AK: Avenue Q is a pretty raunchy show, which is one of the things that attracts Millennials to it. Are you expecting, or have you experienced, any pushback from non-Millennials?
AS: We haven’t so far. Currently it’s our best selling show ever, before it even opens. There are more tickets to be had, but, we’re about 70% sold. I would have been a little worried about the content before my parents (who are sweet, but a little bit conservative) went to see Book of Mormon, and loved it and went back. And I know that the content of that show is worse than Avenue Q. I mean, the word “fuck” is in the first song of the show “It Sucks to Be Me.” There’s a little bit of mean-spiritedness, but that’s comedy right? We laugh when someone slips on a banana peel or gets walloped or whatever, but in Avenue Q, no one gets hurt. We’ve recommended it for 16 and up; I feel like anyone who has been in high school can handle it. I’m sure they’ve heard, and maybe said, worse. The nice thing about Avenue Q is that there’s no violence, so it’s already doing better than most TV shows.
AK: So, this is a new direction for Constellation: taking on musicals, getting a new audience, lots of changes. Take me back to the first show you ever did with Constellation, Caryl Churchill’s version of Strindberg’s A Dream Play. Can you talk about the evolution of Constellation from that play to this one?
AS: Actually one of the leads in that show, Katy Carkuff, plays Kate Monster in Avenue Q. Back then, we had a stage manager who was barely trained as a stage manager, we had no production manager, and my brother made a one page website for us that was just a link to buy tickets. I outsourced the postcard design and chose an image that revealed that I knew nothing about marketing. Opening night was comped out because there were enough people who were excited about a new theater company. The next day, we had a matinee, and there were 2 people in the audience, plus my parents and I. And there were 11 people in the show. My parents asked “Are you still going to do the show?” and I said, “Of course, we need the rehearsal!”
So, everything has grown: the organization, the budgets, the staff, the level of experience of the artists, we pay them more, too! We’ve gotten better. It’s been 26 shows, so you hope you get better. Make new mistakes and not old ones. So much has changed, but it has been gradual.
AK: What about for you?
AS: It’s way easier. To have so much more support. For that first show, I felt like everything was on my shoulders. Now, I feel like, if I needed to step away from the company, it could keep going. Which is gratifying and less scary. The personal thing that’s not great is that theater can be all consuming. As I’ve gotten older, I haven’t done as much as I need to, to not just maintain, but to strengthen the relationships I have outside the theater world. I’m working on it though. I have a dog now, Penny the Pug, and she’s a responsibility I have outside of theater. But it’s still hard.
AK: It’s a hungry beast.
AS: Yeah, I always joke that Dionysus is an insatiable lover.
AK: If you could get a time machine, and go back to that younger Allison Stockman who directed A Dream Play on a shoestring and tell her one thing, what would it be?
AS: I think it might be…don’t be afraid. Don’t be afraid of failure. Don’t be afraid of making someone upset. Be direct. At the end of the day, it’s just theater. I’m not a doctor. If something goes wrong, it’s not the end of the world. So, don’t be afraid.