Steven Anderson, the CATCO artistic director who is directing the company's production of Avenue Q, said the rehearsal process for the show, which combines live actors and puppeteers (and some who do both), has been like a directorial GPS system.
Anderson chuckled at the learning process that has taken place during his "first time with the puppet thing," but said the process has been tremendous and that it's been helped by assembling a group of the "best people in central Ohio."
Among them is puppet master Beth Kattelman, a professor at Ohio State University and a veteran puppet builder and actor.
"There is an art to bringing an inanimate object to life," Kattelman said. "These actors are doing great."
One of the tips she has for the actors is to "never let the puppet go static. You need to learn what the physical capabilities of the puppets are, what gestures are possible. At first you kind of think, 'What am I doing with this thing?' but it becomes second nature."
Actors working puppets deal with more than just the physical manipulation of their new appendage, Anderson said.
For example, "Puppet voices are different than human voices," he said. "They create a sort of hyper-reality."
"You have to make sure the puppeteer is acting 'past' the puppet," Kattelman added. "You have to ask, 'Where is the puppet looking versus where am I looking?' "
Anderson said it's the actors' job to create focus for the audience. "The staging must direct the audience's attention," he said.
"The actor is the voice and they're visible, but I had to catch myself not to make eye contact with the person, but the puppet," said cast member Patty Winbush, who plays Gary Coleman.
Winbush, whose character does not require a puppet ("I'm one of the fleshies") is, however, a veteran puppeteer, working in her church's puppet ministry.
"I have to tell people it's not like that," she said with a laugh. "I tell people it's like Sesame Street meets South Park."
Indeed, with songs titled If You Were Gay, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist and The Internet is for Porn, the show is an envelope-pushing comic romp. Avenue Q is a coming-of-age story for a slightly confused modern society.
"(The show) skewers just about everything," Anderson said, "but it's also a very real kind of humorous look at modern life."
"Of course, it's an adult show," Kattelman said, adding there is a certain beauty in that "you can get away with saying things with puppets that you might not otherwise."
"This is the very best example of a new kind of musical that's being produced now," Anderson said of his company's 2012-13 season-opening production. "It's a huge undertaking, but we look at it as a way to broaden our audience."
"If the audience has half the amount of fun I'm having, we're winning," Winbush said.