The upcoming Mercury Theater Chicago production of Avenue Q, a revival of the Tony-winning musical that broke box office records for the theater in 2014, features an exciting addition this time around. Joining the team is veteran puppeteer and designer Rick Lyon.
A leader in puppet training for the cast of Mercury, Lyon draws on his extensive puppet experience, spanning 15 seasons of sesame street as well as the original Broadway production of Avenue Q and his run to Las Vegas.
“Addicted” to the puppet
Like most children, Lyon’s first exposure to the world of puppetry was through the television he watched growing up. While shows like “Captain Kangaroo” and “Kukla, Fran and Ollie” introduced him to puppets, his first experience with live puppets came at the age of 6, while attending the 1964 World’s Fair in New York.
“I saw a live Punch and Judy show at the British Pavilion and was mesmerized,” Lyon recalled. “I was so impressed that all of these characters – Punch, Judy, the alligator, the dog, the policeman, the devil – were all played by one man, the puppeteer, who also did all the sound effects in He was kind enough to show me behind the scenes and I found out that he also makes all his puppets, and it was quite a transformative experience for me.
Years later, Lyon witnessed Jim Henson’s unique Muppet-style puppets on variety shows like “EdSullivanand describes becoming “addicted to Jim’s style of puppetry”. These experiences informed his hobbies growing up; he created his own puppets until college, where he had an epiphany majoring in theater.
“It occurred to me that what I had always done as a hobby was actually a very intense theatrical form – one in which practitioners generally design, make, write and perform all of their own material” , he said. “You’re like your own little theater company!”
These accomplishments quickly become career goals, and Lyon attends a program at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center where he can meet puppeteers from Jim Henson’s workshop. These connections led him to visit the New York workshop, where he tried out some of the sesame street Muppets and was encouraged by the head of the workshop to audition for Henson. Lyon responded well to this invitation and began to work on “Sesame Street” a few months later, a position he held for 15 years while working on other television and film projects.
Reflecting on his stint on “sesame streetLyon remembers with emotion his interactions with Henson before his death: “Imagine being a theoretical physicist and working with Einstein!
“Jim had this kind of groundbreaking impact on his field and, in many ways, on entertainment in general. He was simply amazing – brilliant, innovative, committed – he embraced the chaotic joy of creating the way the most inspiring, and was the most generous and kind person I will probably ever meet.
Since sesame street on broadway
When asked how he made the leap from “Sesame Street” on Broadway and Avenue QLyon replies: “It might be more accurate to ask how Avenue Q got involved with me.
Lyon first encountered Avenue Q creators Bobby Lopez and Jeff Marx as students at the MTI Musical Theater Workshop in New York. A 10 minute musical they were working on, Kermit, Prince of Denmark, asked someone to demo the song they wrote for Kermit. Lopez and Marx were introduced to Lyon by a mutual acquaintance, and Lyon brought down the house with his handmade Kermit imitation.
Their instructor was so enthusiastic about the piece that he encouraged Marx and Lopez to create a complete piece, which was presented to the Henson Company. Although they turned down the job, Lyon recalls that each was “determined to create their own project with quirky puppet characters, and so it was. Avenue Q was born.”
On Avenue Q, Lyon finds itself in a unique situation. Normally, finding work as a puppeteer is a challenge. “Puppetry is a niche area,” he says. “Even in high-level television or film work, producers often just don’t get it.” With Avenue Q, however, he designed the puppets and starred in the show. “It’s a very unusual situation to wear all these hats,” Lyon explained. “It was incredibly difficult, but ultimately quite an amazing experience to be involved in so many different capacities.”
From “Q” to Shining “Q”
Since starring in the original Broadway series Avenue Q, Lyon consulted on subsequent productions around the world. “Every production is different,” he reflects on his work with different bands. Some actors are more comfortable with puppets than others. “The important thing is to bring the truth to the characters. I feel like an acting coach as much as a puppet coach in many ways.
He also warns against productions that attempt to reinvent the wheel:Avenue Q was developed over many years, and it’s a great show the way it is.
That’s not to say innovation can’t happen; it just has to serve the intent of the script. “The productions that try too hard to own the production…for no other reason than to be different, are the ones that don’t stay open,” Lyon says.
When it comes to his work on the next Mercury production, Lyon makes it clear that Broadway production was a rarefied process. “All original cast members who performed puppet characters in Avenue Q were career puppeteers. We had all been television puppeteers for years together, but we also had a background in acting. No other casting has been like this.
In many cases, producers first choose artists with musical and acting abilities; no puppets. “When we started having to replace puppeteers with non-puppeteer actors on Broadway, and when we opened the show in Vegas, I spent a lot of time training these new cast members in puppetry, as I do for other productions of the show, like at Mercury”, explains Lyon. “It’s a very particular style of puppetry. This is the style of puppetry that Jim Henson codified for television, but adapted for live performance on stage, with the puppeteer in full view of the audience as he performs.
While his own challenge, finally bringing Avenue Q to new performers and audiences is a reward in itself. “Proving to audiences that puppetry can be taken seriously and that an audience can engage with a puppet character’s story when a show is done well and the performance is compelling…has been a great legacy. in which to get involved”, shares Lyon. “It’s a great show that touched a lot of people.”
To learn more about Rick Lyon and his company The Lyon Puppets, go to www.facebook.com/ricklyonpuppets.
Avenue Q opened this week at the Mercury Theater Chicago and will run through September 9. The schedule of performances is Wednesday, Thursday and Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 5 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. Sunday evening performances at 7:30 p.m. will be added on July 22.
Avenue Q may not be suitable for young children as it addresses issues such as sex, alcohol, and browsing the web for porn. Parents should use their discretion based on the maturity level of their children.
Individual tickets range from $35 to $65 and are available online at www.MercuryTheaterChicago.com, by phone at 773.325.1700 or in person at 3745 N. Southport Ave. Audience members add an exclusive backstage experience after the show, including a brief behind-the-scenes tour, puppet demonstration and Avenue Q souvenir for an additional $25 per person.