Mercury Theater Chicago’s upcoming production of Avenue Q, a remount of the Tony award-winning musical that shattered box office records for the theater in 2014, features an exciting addition this time around. Veteran puppeteer and designer Rick Lyon is joining the team.
Leading puppetry training for Mercury’s cast, Lyon draws upon his extensive background in puppetry, which has spanned 15 seasons of Sesame Street as well as the original Broadway production of Avenue Q and its run in Las Vegas.
“Hooked” on Puppetry
Like most kids, 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 when he was 6 years old, attending New York’s 1964 World’s Fair.
“I saw a live Punch and Judy show at the British pavilion, and I was mesmerized,” Lyon recalls. “I was so impressed that all these characters—Punch, Judy, the alligator, the dog, the policeman, the devil—were all performed by one man, the puppeteer, who also did all the sound effects live. He was gracious enough to show me around backstage, and I found out that he made all his own puppets, too. That was a pretty transformative experience for me.”
Years later, Lyon witnessed Jim Henson’s unique Muppet-style puppets on variety shows like “Ed Sullivan,” and he describes getting “hooked on Jim’s style of puppetry.” These experiences informed his hobbies growing up; he created his own puppets well into college, where he had an epiphany majoring in theater.
“It occurred to me that what I had always been doing as a hobby was actually a very intense theatrical form—one in which the practitioners typically design, craft, write and perform all their own material,” he says. “You’re like your own little stock theater company!”
These realizations quickly became career goals, and Lyon attended a program at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center where he was able to meet puppeteers from Jim Henson’s workshop. These connections lead him to visit the workshop in New York, where he tried on some of the Sesame Street Muppets and was encouraged by the head of the workshop to audition for Henson. Lyon made well on that invitation and started work on “Sesame Street” just a few months later—a position he held for 15 years while also working on other TV and film projects.
Reflecting on his time on “Sesame Street,” Lyon fondly remembers his interactions with Henson before his death: “Imagine being a theoretical physicist and getting to work with Einstein!”
“Jim had that kind of ground-breaking impact on his field, and in many ways entertainment in general. He was simply amazing—brilliant, innovative, committed—he embraced the chaotic joy of creating in the most inspiring way, and was the most personally generous and kind person I’ll probably ever meet.”
From Sesame Street to Broadway
When asked how he made the leap from “Sesame Street” to Broadway and Avenue Q, Lyon replies, “It may be more accurate to ask how Avenue Q got involved with me.”
Lyon initially met Avenue Q creators Bobby Lopez and Jeff Marx as students at New York’s MTI Musical Theatre Workshop. A 10-minute musical they were working on, Kermit, Prince of Denmark, required someone to demo the song that they’d written for Kermit. Lopez and Marx were introduced to Lyon through a mutual acquaintance, and Lyon brought the house down with his handmade, imitation Kermit.
Their instructor was so enthusiastic about the piece that he encouraged Marx and Lopez to create a full-length piece, which was pitched to the Henson company. Although they turned the work down, Lyon recalls that everyone was “determined to create their own project with original puppet characters, and that’s how Avenue Q was born.”
On Avenue Q, Lyon found himself in a unique situation. Normally, finding work as a puppeteer is challenging. “Puppetry is a niche field,” he says. “Even in high profile TV or film work, producers often just don’t get it.” With Avenue Q, however, he was designing the puppets as well as performing in the show. “That’s a very unusual situation—to wear all those hats,” Lyon explains. “It was incredibly hard, but ultimately quite an amazing experience to be involved in so many different capacities.”
From “Q” to Shining “Q”
Since performing in the original Broadway run of Avenue Q, Lyon has consulted on subsequent productions across the world. “Every production is different,” he reflects on his work with different groups. Some actors are more comfortable performing with puppets than others. “The important thing is to bring truth to the characters. I feel like I’m an acting coach as much as a puppetry coach in many ways.”
He also cautions about productions that try to re-invent the wheel: “Avenue Q was developed over many years, and it’s a really good show the way it is.”
That’s not to say that innovation can’t happen; it just has to be in service to the intent of the script. “Productions that try too hard to make the production ‘their own’… 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 Mercury’s upcoming production, Lyon makes it clear that the Broadway production was a rarefied process. “All the original cast members who performed puppet characters in Avenue Q were career puppeteers. We’d all been puppeteering for TV for years together, but we also had theater backgrounds. No other cast has been like that.”
In many cases, producers are picking performers with musical and acting abilities first; not puppetry. “When we first started having to replace puppet performers with non-puppeteer actors on Broadway, and when we opened the show in Vegas, I spent a lot of time training those new cast members in puppetry just the way I do for other productions of the show, like at Mercury,” Lyon explains. “It’s a very specific style of puppetry. It’s the style of puppetry that Jim Henson codified for TV, but adapted for live performance on stage, with the puppeteer in full view of the audience while they’re puppeteering.”
While its own challenge, ultimately bringing Avenue Q to new performers and audiences is a reward unto itself. “Proving to audiences that puppetry can be taken seriously, and that an audience can get involved in a puppet character’s story when a show is done well and the performance is compelling…has been a lovely legacy to be involved with,” Lyon shares. “It’s a great show that’s touched a lot of people.”
To find out more about Rick Lyon and his company The Lyon Puppets, check out www.facebook.com/ricklyonpuppets.
Avenue Q opened this week at Mercury Theater Chicago and runs to September 9. The performance schedule is Wednesday, Thursday and Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 5pm and 8:30pm and Sundays at 3pm. Sunday evening performances at 7:30pm will be added on July 22.
Avenue Q may not be appropriate for young children because it addresses issues like sex, drinking, and surfing the web for porn. Parents should use their discretion based on the maturity level of their children.
Individual tickets range from $35-$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 post-show backstage experience, including a brief backstage tour, puppetry demonstration and Avenue Q souvenir for an additional $25 per person.