Fuzzy-felt divas tug your heart strings

Prepare to suspend your disbelief from a puppet’s strings as a musical line-up of not-that-cuddly characters takes to the stage under the direction of Amy Copeland.

Amy Copeland has a puppet phobia. The string-manipulated figures freak her out. She is particularly unnerved by wooden or porcelain marionettes.

The 24-year-old is so rattled by puppets that when she had to keep one at home recently she put it in her wardrobe, covered with a blanket so she couldn't see its face. Yet in her latest ambitious amateur theatre project, puppets are the stars of the show.

Copeland is directing the musical Avenue Q, which has nine of the 12 characters played by puppets.

She first saw Avenue Q in an Australian production directed by Jonathan Biggins at Sydney's Theatre Royal in 2009.

Copeland loved it so much that she decided she could work with puppets - the cute and felt Sesame Street-esque types of Avenue Q - and would have a go at staging it in Wollongong for the first time.

"I have finished two degrees that are based around the entertainment industry and then I decided as a graduation present to myself that I really wanted to put everything that I had learnt into practice, and reward myself and challenge myself by putting on a show," she says.

"So I decided to apply for the rights to Avenue Q on a whim to see if I was eligible for them and I somehow succeeded."

Copeland's rendition of the Broadway smash, which has been staged in 11 countries and won several Tony Awards, will be performed at the IPAC from January 10-13.

The musical tells the story of a group of 20-somethings sharing a dilapidated back street apartment strip in New York City. The unusual staging involves some of the actors speaking and singing their parts while operating rod puppets.

The puppets are animated and voiced by the actors/puppeteers, who are visible on stage. It's a presentation and working relationship with puppets in which Copeland feels entirely comfortable.

"I know how these puppets work so I am totally fine with them," she says.

In fact, it was the complexity and challenge of working with puppets who interact as if human that attracted Copeland to the production.

"It's not a really simple show to just go ahead and put on," she says.

"You don't need to just look for the singer/actor/dancer when you are casting.

"You really have to find people who are co-ordinated and who are willing to put in the time to learn the skills that not everybody has. You have to find people who are really good at embracing a character and remembering that they are in charge of this piece of felt and they are portraying their emotions to a puppet, rather than themselves being front-and-centre."

Copeland is being as hands-on as possible in teaching her cast how to work with their puppets.

Two of the puppets are live-hands puppets that require two puppeteers. The speaking puppeteer controls the puppet's left hand and head/mouth, while the second operator controls the right hand.

"It's getting these two people to work as one and have them walk the same time as each other and making sure that the one who is just an arm still portrays the facial expressions on their own face.

"This one character is three bodies you will see on stage - the two puppeteers and the puppet. It's crazy but it's so much fun."

The interactions between the three human characters and the nine puppet characters require a suspension of disbelief from audience members, says Copeland.

"The human characters have to act to the puppet, not to the person standing with their arm inside it, " she says.

"It's a very strange atmosphere to begin with for the audience to see this person walk on stage holding a puppet and you think: 'Can I really sit through a whole show?'

"But after the first scene, the one person and the puppet mesh together and it doesn't seem to be wrong any more. It just works. It's surprising how quick you get used to it and you start seeing the lower half of the puppeteer's body as the actual puppet's lower half of their body.

"And you see their face as the puppet's face, and while you can't make a puppet have facial expressions, if the actor raises their eyebrows and tilts their head slightly you understand that the puppet is confused.

"Or if they smile the puppet is smiling and your brain automatically transfers all these emotions to this inanimate object. I find it to be a really cool psychological thing."

Copeland hired the puppets from Matt Bryne Media, a production company that staged Avenue Q in Adelaide last year. They were made by Sue Dossett from felt and foam, using the original Broadway designs.

Despite their cute and fuzzy appearances, the smart-mouthed puppets sing songs and deliver lines that deal with and poke fun at adult-only themes such as sexuality, dealing with break-ups, and unemployment.

Avenue Q is being produced through So Popera - a theatre company collaboration between Peter Copeland, Danny Condon and Michaal Monk - yet the project has been largely driven by Copeland.

She has had some help from family members. Her brother Peter Copeland is the stage manager and their parents, Mal and Donna, are building the set.

Copeland caught the acting bug at a young age and has been involved in the performing arts most of her life.

"I found that from a very young age if there was a camera around I was in front of it or if there were people sitting around I would start performing for them," she says.

"I did a lot of performance through high school. Drama and music were always the subjects I would choose. I started doing amateur theatre around Wollongong in my last year of high school and I have done shows at Roo Theatre and with the Arcadians Theatre Group."

More recently, Copeland was on stage for MoonGlow Productions' Crazy For You at the IPAC. She was also an assistant stage manager for the Arcadians' The Sound Of Music this year and for MoonGlow's Hot Shoe Shuffle in 2010.

She has worked at the IPAC doing stage lighting and she has been involved in the NSW Department of Education and Communities Southern Stars lighting team.

Copeland formalised her on-the-job skills with a bachelor of creative arts majoring in sound composition and music production at the University Of Wollongong. She then completed a two-year bachelor of entertainment management at the Australian Institute of Music. She added a diploma in stage direction during a six-month exchange program to Canada.

"I've made sure that with everything I've done I've got a level of understanding of each background as well as being a cast member on stage," says Copeland, who works as a Sydney-based marketing co-ordinator for Warner Music.

Copeland says she and her brother Peter, the musical director for 2012 Southern Stars Inspire, are often a double-act in the Illawarra's amateur theatre community.

Once the show opens, Copeland intends to watch it from the audience while her 28-year-old brother will be sitting side-stage with a headset on calling all the cues.

"He will be telling everybody what to do," she says. "He has to go word for word through the script and notify everyone of what cue is coming up, what needs to happen, and who is going on stage. He needs to know the show inside out so if there is ever an issue or a problem or a line is missed he's already two steps ahead and knows what to do to fix it."

Copeland says she implicitly trusts her brother to run the show.

"We're total best friends," she says. "We do everything together. If there was one person with whom I had to trust my life, it would be my brother. We are very much the same person so it's always comforting to know that I have a second 'me' controlling the show when I have to hand it over to someone."

Copeland says they have had lots of fun sourcing costumes for the puppets.

"Thank goodness Kmart is 24 hours," she quips. "Peter and I will say: 'We need this, let's go to Kmart' and we will go at midnight and go shopping for baby clothes."

The Copelands have been stocking up on baby singlets from size 0 to 1 and dresses in a range of toddler sizes for their puppets.

"We had to make a little graduation outfit for one of them," she says.

Copeland says the puppets are "divas" in the show, with all of them having at least one costume change,and some multiple fast changes.

"We have two bodies per puppet so while one body is on stage the second is backstage having its clothes changed," she explains. "Then we take the head out and put it into the new body and switch them over quickly.

"One of the puppets has 11 costume changes in the production, which is great fun." ■

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