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Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Q+A, Part 2: ‘Puppet Up! Uncensored’


From the Las Vegas Sun

Robin Leach's Q&A with Brian Henson, Patrick Bristow and Vincent Marini continues about “Puppet Up! Uncensored”.


The men behind “Puppet Up!” are aware that the Tony Award-winning “Avenue Q” was unable to sustain a long residency run in Las Vegas:

Brian: What we’re doing here is a freewheeling, high-comedy variety show. It just happens to be that they’re puppets. Other than that, you wouldn’t really compare them to “Avenue Q.” If at some point during the show you haven’t laughed so hard that you’re hurting and really wished that they would stop, then we didn’t do what we were meant to do.

This is really one of those shows where you walk out feeling like you had a good laugh, you’re feeling buoyant at life, and more than anything you’re really impressed by the six people who you’ve just been watching onstage.

Patrick: I’d seen a few live tapings of “Whose Line Is It Anyway?,” and this is funnier than that because you have really the two shows happening at once. At times what the puppets are doing and what the puppeteers are doing are a little bit different, and seeing the puppeteer trying not to break up while the puppet is completely in character is really a funny moment for the audience. I find myself totally engrossed in them.

Brian: Also due to the later time slot in Las Vegas, we’re not going to have a problem with a quiet crowd because they’re all pretty liquored up by then. This is way more in the Las Vegas vein than the “Avenue Q” vein.

Vincent: One of the things Base Entertainment has been focused on especially over the last year is identifying and developing content that is unique for Las Vegas. Not something that is being imported from New York necessarily, but things that can feel indigenous to Las Vegas.

While the show certainly had incarnations, this will be really the first truly resident, long-term, permanent production. I think you’ll even see from just the production value standpoint what we’re going to be doing in Las Vegas to make it feel like a permanent show is very different than what we’ve done before.

What we have now is deconstructed. You see all the cables and plugs. We hide nothing, which is the way we started when we decided not to hide the puppeteers. It’s director’s chairs, it’s pipe and draped black cloth for masking. But when we are in Sands Showroom, it isn’t going to be that at all.

Brian: You will not recognize any of the puppets. The reason why is because part of the fun is the puppeteers run and grab a puppet, give it a new personality, give it a new voice, even in one show you may end up seeing one puppet used two, maybe three times by different puppeteers with completely different voices. It’s important that there are no puppets who have existing personalities because they’re going to change on a nightly basis.

Patrick: Some of them might have been built for earlier Henson shows that you wouldn’t necessarily remember now, or they were background puppets.

How long is a puppet’s life?

Brian: It depends on the type of construction. It will be anywhere from 10 to 30 years depending on how they were built. I say 10 to 30 years, but actually “The Dark Crystal” and “Labyrinth” puppets will only last five years. A lot of them have foam on the inside and that breaks down over the years with oils and sweat from the hands.

We are training people for this show all the time year round. We’ll go out and do a two-week tour. We’ll do a two- or three-week commitment two or three times a year, but now with Las Vegas, we won’t do that so much. With Las Vegas, and it’s an improv troop dynamic, we will periodically be changing a performer out of Las Vegas to refresh and refresh and refresh the dynamic. When we open Las Vegas, it will be the only place you will be able to see the show or a variation of it when it opens.

Patrick: In Las Vegas, we will be six performers, myself as host, and a musical director. Then the 60 or so puppets. Some of them will be in the new feature film. We have done the show with more performers, and six works great.

We’ve tried it with 10, 11 performers, and it’s a visual feast, but it gets to be that you’re not relating to the individual performers. We tried five, but it was a little too small. Six is perfect. You really get to know our performers that way. You get to know who is the bad boy and who is the smart one.

You talked about the journey from training here to Aspen, then to Edinburgh, but in truth the journey of coming to Las Vegas has been three years. Why did it take so long?

Brian: This has been our training technique in the company for nine years. I was talking about the first times we performed it where it was this experimental improv show. What we did in Aspen is now a distant relative to the show that we have now. Mostly we’re a television and film company; that’s what we’ve always done.

I didn’t imagine that I would be doing a live theater show. It never happened by design; it just organically happened. The plan was to find a new tone of comedy that we really love, then start writing to it, then start producing television in that vein, but what we found is that this crucible, this venue and energy that is within “Puppet Up!” is still the most exciting.

Vincent: Fortunately last year when we came out to see the show, I went back to the staff and said, “We need to do this in Las Vegas.” Fortunately, we had a willing partner in the Venetian, and we had the folks at SPI Entertainment interested. It just felt like the right time, and because again our focus has shifted over the past couple of years to focus on unique content after seeing the show, I said, “This is the most unique comedy show I’ve seen in a decade.”

Patrick: I see what you mean now by taking three years. We experimented with the idea of opening in Las Vegas three years ago, and in the end it wasn’t a perfect fit with the partners and venues that we were talking to, and we realized we weren’t all connecting. Then when Vincent and the Venetian folks came, it just felt like, “Wow, these guys really, really get our show.”

Brian: It was important for me, too, to find the right room. I felt very strongly that Sands Showroom was the right room for the show because it’s intimate and the audience feels very connected to the performers. It’s one of those difficult sizes to find in Las Vegas where it’s not too big, it’s not too small. We couldn’t be more excited about it.

Vincent: If we played in big venues or if the audience is too far away from you, that whole party atmosphere starts to fail for the upper balconies.

What time will the curtain go up, and how long is the show?

Brian: It’s 85 minutes, six shows a week, and it will be advertised as a 9 p.m. show. Our goal is to run the show forever with the idea that we would be switching out performers periodically for various reasons — adding a new voice and a new talent to the show keeps it fresh and different and interesting. It’s an open-ended run, and we’ll be cycling through performers.

Patrick: We’ll usually cycle probably about one a week. If you change one out, the dynamic among the other five gets shifted in a really positive way. It’s really good to keep shuffling the group.

I jokingly asked if this was the new accountants’ economy of Las Vegas: You don’t have to feed or house the puppets. They can never step out of line and demand extra perks. There can be no divas demanding contract extras.Is this an expensive show to put together?

Brian: It’s really quite middle of the road because the talent that is required for this show is very unique. Generally, aside from advertising and marketing, our biggest expense is always people. The reality is that we can’t just go to a casting agent and cast an improv puppeteer in the Henson technique who can sing.

Patrick: Even our newer members have been doing it eight years. You will generally not see a performer who’s been training and performing for less than five years, so they’re really top end.

Brian: And there are a variety of costs attached to that like the maintenance of the puppets. There’s a specialized video system that’s used in the show to help what you’ll see become a reality.

Vincent: We brought some sort of TV trickery, video trickery to a live stage show. It’s really cool. Some people can’t figure out how we do it. Music is a big part of the show, so there is a music component to it that’s live and performed on the spot. In addition to that, you have the challenge of even something as simple as a stage manager to call the show is not simple because it’s not like calling a traditional show.

Fortunately, we have a resident stage manager who’s coming to us from Henson who will then train a stage manager to take over. When you add all of that up, plus you add the level of production that we’re going to bring to the show and the advertising to be able to break through in the market, it’s not an inexpensive proposition.

As the host, Patrick, how do you police it so that the puppeteers don’t cross over from Rated R to X?

Patrick: Well, sometimes they do. I would say that R is the average. Sometimes there will be some X moments. They do happen. Generally, the cast is very good at being self-directed. They hear the tone of the room when I get the suggestion.

They hear what the audience’s resistance might be, and they know very well how to tease that line to make us feel the danger, maybe cross the line and pull back, but we’ve never had to have one of the puppeteers do an apology to the audience in the form of a song. Well, not in a long time.

We’re saying it’s recommended for ages 16 and up, but it’s up to parents when you go below that. It really will genuinely be inappropriate for 10-year-olds. We’re more like Rated R. When we first started doing this show, we had a box office policy that if somebody came in the theater and was under 17, we wouldn’t let them in, but then what we found is once we start talking about the show and explaining the show, there isn’t a misunderstanding.

We were really concerned that we’d have people who bought six tickets and traveled to come see the show and show up outside the theater with their four kids. We really thought that was going to happen, but it’s never happened. We managed to get the word out clearly so that the audience knows, “Oh, the Henson company is doing something that’s adult.”

Is the show adlibbed from start to finish?

Patrick: No. We have an opening number, we have these re-creation sketches basically peppered throughout, we have some template things like song improvs where we know it’s going to be a James Bond theme. The cast knows that, but they improvise the lyrics. They improvise a lot of the movement.

I would say about 40 percent of the show, and I’m just pulling that number out of the air, is improv where I say make up a title, shout out an object, where’s the worst place to have a date, and I say go and they make up something on the spot completely original.

Brian: The show is a series of about three- to five-minute sketches that are sometimes musical numbers, sometimes they’re set pieces that are re-creations of things that my dad created a long time ago.

Because it’s puppets, does everybody in the audience get into it? Is that the magic of puppetry?

Brian:
I think so. I think one of the great things of puppetry, and I’m sure it’s true with animation, as well, is everybody in the audience becomes objective. They stop taking it personally. With puppets, you’re forced to be objective. It forces the audience back into a more innocent place when they’re watching because they’re not going to relate to the weasel that’s lip-syncing me.

Instead, they’re going to be open. We can go places with the puppets in order to make the scene dynamic work that you really couldn’t comfortably go to with actors without offending the audience. It’s cool the way the puppets force the audience into a more objective place where they can know we’re making fun of all of us, and basically that’s what the show is, making fun of the way we all interact with each other and how absurd and wonderful that is.

Patrick: The show is structured so that they do a very good job of having your moments of laugh-out-loud, falling-over comedy, then some very endearing moments.

Since this is unlike any other show that’s come to Las Vegas before, is it safe to say it’s a gamble as to whether it will work because some people might not necessarily relate to this? What are you doing to Vegas-ize it?

Patrick: On one hand, we’re focusing very heavily on the marketing and PR campaign. The marketing of the show is important, as it’s not the easiest show to explain.

Brian: Every person in the audience has a slightly different thought about what the show is, then when you go watch it, in five minutes you’ll all get it. … It’s going to be really hard for you to describe it to somebody else and for them to really get it. It really is one of those shows that is wonderfully unique, and once you’re there watching, you go, “This is so great.”

Vincent: I think the two things that we’re focusing on are obviously the marketing and creating a unique marketing plan in Las Vegas that gets through the noise in the market and does something really unique with the puppets and puppeteers. Secondarily, I think that in our financial plan, we’re prepared to let this show run.

We’re trying to create a scenario financially where more so than a lot of our other shows, we’re anticipating that we’re going to need to build up the audience. We believe that once it gets to that point where enough people have seen it, it’s going to start taking care of itself. Best case is three months, but usually it’s about six.

We’re going to focus really heavily on the influencers in town and all the groups we normally go to, but even more so on this show. I also feel like the Venetian has been a very willing and strong partner with us on this. They believe in the show, they’ve got 7,000 rooms right there on property, so I think that there’s going to be a lot of focus.

I think that we’re also counting heavily on working with the Venetian to really make it a special thing on property. We’re very excited. We’re still finalizing the pricing, but it will be very reasonably and affordably priced, so that’s another way to move a lot of tickets.

2016 is a political year — do those characters get in the show? Could we see the space alien pretending to be Donald Trump going up against Hillary Clinton?

Patrick: Onstage, absolutely. The great thing about the show is we often bring in whatever is going on. The audience brings it in with their suggestions.

Do you look at Cirque du Soleil as your competition?

Patrick: I think we’re offering a unique option for people who want to laugh their asses off. People who want to come to town and have a great time. They’re going to see a level of artistry and comedy that they’re probably not expecting, and I think they’re going to walk out of there having had the time of their lives.

Check back often to Vegas DeLuxe as we post updates before “Puppet Up! Uncensored” opens at the Venetian this spring. 

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