Theater Interview: Back on the Street With Lisa Helmi Johanson of ‘Avenue Q’

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CHICAGO – The puppets are back in town. Those R-rated, sexually-inclined, potty-mouthed denizens of Avenue Q have once again taken over the neighborhood where they are appearing at Broadway in Chicago’s Bank of America Theater. Now in its seventh year Off-Broadway (where the production recently transferred from its previous home on the Great White Way), the Tony Award-winning musical by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx continues to tempt and tickle its Sesame Street fanbase on the road.

Lisa Helmi Johanson, currently starring as apartment renter (and failed therapist) Christmas Eve, recently sat down with to discuss the success of the musical, her fresh approach to the piece, and why Trekkie Monster would make a perfect date on a Saturday night.

The touring cast of “Avenue Q”
The touring cast of “Avenue Q””.
Photo credit: John Daughtry Let’s start at the beginning. How did you first come to “Avenue Q”?

Lisa Helmi Johanson (LHJ): I was in New York and I actually went to an audition for the Broadway production and through that received a callback for the tour. So I’ve been involved with it since the beginning of the rehearsal process for this tour which was last August, and we hit the road in September.

HC: Tell me about the development and rehearsal process for “Avenue Q”. It’s a rare musical production in that it joins traditional stage performers with puppeteers.

LHJ: It was very intensive, specifically for the puppeteers. I’m a human character so mine wasn’t quite as intense since I wasn’t learning about how to maneuver a puppet along with the lines and choreography. It was a lot of fun, we rehearsed for about three weeks in New York and did technical rehearsals for about a week in South Carolina. Then we just set up and started the tour proper.

HC: The show has been on Broadway- and now Off-Broadway- for about seven years. How has the musical developed with the current tour? What can audiences come to expect with this new limb of “Avenue Q”?

LHJ:During the rehearsal process our director always said that we were free to make our own choices. We were never constrained to recreate or imitate what had already been done on Broadway. It was a rare opportunity. In that sense, we were all able to bring our personal acting choices into our roles which is great.

HC: Besides the obvious puppet nudity, why do you think “Avenue Q” continues to resonate and connect with such an array of audiences?

LHJ: Well you identified a very important aspect, which is the novelty of the show. You know, the puppets and the risqué subject material that must go along with puppets [laughs]. The show lasted on Broadway for seven years and it won several Tony Awards which, in my opinion, you can’t just get with novelty alone. It has a lot of great messages that people really relate to even though it feels odd to be relating to a puppet. You can really connect to many of the stories in the play and it has a surprising amount of heart in it. I think that has really helped it to sustain that connection. If it were only puppet nudity and jokes, that sort of stuff wears off quickly. It’s all of the human aspects to it that really help people get in touch with it.

HC: I recall audiences members walking out of the theatre when “Avenue Q” first opened on Broadway commenting on how surprised they were to be relating so intensely with furry puppets.

LHJ: Yes exactly. I saw it for the first time the day before rehearsals started. I knew of the show of course and its reputation, so I knew it was something that I wanted to be involved with. I got to go through puppet school which was really neat. When I saw the show though, I laughed my face off. There were a couple of scenes though where really profound, beautiful things were happening between humans and puppets that you could relate to. I felt a tear in my eye at one point during the scene between Christmas Eve and Rod, which was really remarkable because I kept thinking, ‘I am relating to this puppet!’ The show is just brilliant that way.

HC: In that vein, your character Christmas Eve must balance between scenes of surreal comedy and more sincere emotion. How do you as a performer approach these different styles in the same piece?

LHJ: It all boils down to having it come from a place of truth and honesty. I think that’s really the most important thing to most comedy,that it comes from truth. I think a lot of times people only associate that with “serious” acting if you will, but it is vital to comedic acting. It’s the difference between watching someone do schtick comedy and watching someone do something very real and truthful to life, but it just happens to be funny to the bystander. I think the important thing is to find the motivations for Christmas Eve to do the things she does and say what she does. Inevitably the humor comes through that. All we have to do is maintain the integrity of the piece. It needs no extra “schmacting” [laughs]. It stands on its own, it always has.

HC:Now we have a few fun, puppet-submitted questions for you and Christmas Eve. Who is your favorite puppet to go to the Around-the-Clock café with?

LHJ:Let’s see. I would probably take Trekkie Monster because in the end he winds up being surprisingly loaded, so I’d probably have a really fun time. I’d just have to keep him from making advances. Because, you know, I am an engaged woman [laughs]. But if I’m going to have a fun time, I might as well go with Trekkie Monster.

HC:What can you really do with two Masters Degrees- in social work no less- on Avenue Q?

LHJ:Oh my goodness, not much [laughs]. Really this just leads to a lot of Christmas Eve’s frustration. But in the end it’s clear that she was meant to be there for Rod. That’s an interesting question, I’ve never really thought about all of the activities she must do to occupy her time. But she does try to meet with clients, the problem is that they never come back [laughs]. So I think she is attempting to build that clientele base, it’s just not going well.

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HC:Whose company do you prefer more, Kate Monster or Lucy the Slut?

LHJ:Well I have to be a little bit sappy and say Kate Monster, because you know I interact with her so much more in the show. Christmas Eve and Kate Monster are really good friends, which I think is a very cute thing. I love what we have, that it’s a little bit deeper than just being neighbors and living in the same building. And she’s so cute![laughs]

HC:How would you spend an evening with the Bad Idea Bears?

LHJ:Well one, very carefully [laughs]. I think that I would take them to a very contained, awesome playground so we could go nuts and have fun but it would be contained so they wouldn’t be able to hurt anyone or have an influence on other people too much [laughs].

“Avenue Q” runs through May 9, 2010 at the Bank of America Theater at 18 W. Monroe in Chicago. To purchase tickets and for more information, visit here.

For half-price Chicago theater tickets, visit our partner Goldstar. staff writer Alissa Norby

Staff Writer

© 2010 Alissa Norby,

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