In preparation for the Feb. 17 opening of Shorewood's production of the musical comedy Avenue Q, Bill Trost, Class of '53, and Shorewood High School senior Emily Hoffman have been working tirelessly to create 25 cast members.
"I saw the 'Muppet Movie' last year, and was just really inspired, so I started making puppets on my own," said Hoffman, who was giving puppet Nicky his signature hairstyle with a plain razor blade.
Trost has many years of experience mounting shows at Shorewood. Following graduation, he assisted shows for the high school, Shorewood Players in the 1960's and met drama department Director Barbara Gensler when she started her career at SHS. Even Trost has learned many new things with these whimsical characters, and says he would not have begun this project without Hoffman and her expertise.
"I walked into Barb Gensler's office and she said, 'Meet your Muppet maker.' It's been very smooth, even though I've never done anything like this. We make a really good team," he said.
Why make the puppets by hand?
"Usually, schools can rent them for $500 a week, but this is a hot show, and company that makes them has rented them all out," said Trost. "But, we will actually save the school money by making them, because rentals are for about eight weeks. That said, we have a long way to go."
Trost and Hoffman have been working since Dec. 1 and have completed eight puppets over approximately 325 hours. Working from plans downloaded from the Internet and then modified, they have crafted the heads and bodies by hand using slim sheets of foam pieced together, then sewn, built, dressed and styled each work of art on their own. They are all created in Trost's basement, which has been converted into a large puppet laboratory complete with hand lasts, sewing machines and wooden racks with tennis ball peg tops for the characters.
The two have had help, from parent Jane Earle and Trost's eight-year old granddaughter, Samantha. There is variety in details about the puppets. Some have wire inside the hands and a stick to manipulate them. Others are "live hand" puppets, which require the actor and possibly a second cast member to put a hand inside the hand. Two puppets are "double live handed" puppets, requiring two cast members each to operate the puppet.
When finished, the team will have completed about 25 puppets for the show. Concurrently, Hoffman will be teaching puppetry to the cast as well as operating one of the live hands in the show. They source materials at closeouts, seek donations and get outfits and glasses at Goodwill. Wigs are sourced in many places and then styled by Hoffman, and all of their time is donated.
"There are a lot of puppets. I read that it takes a professional company about 200 hours to create each one. We don't have that kind of time," said Trost, "but we'll get there. It's been very smooth, and fun."
A glimpse at the show and other puppets that have debuted is here. The original Avenue Q on Broadway has been modified for the "High School" edition.