Avenue Q star Ben Durocher Discusses Puppetry, Performance, and Purpose

 

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Ben Durocher has found his purpose.

After a lifetime of studying puppetry, he gets to live out his life’s dream by portraying Princeton/Rod eight times a week at the New World Stages production of Avenue Q – and his performance shows his passion. With a smile that extends across his entire face, he performs like it is his first show ever, the energy and excitement that he radiates is palpable.

But can Durocher answer the big question that Avenue Q asks? What do you do with a B.A. in English?

Were you a big Sesame Street fan growing up?

Definitely. I loved puppets, Henson especially, but was obsessed with any show that had puppets. My dad did commercial production for a grocery store, and they did a video shoot that used puppets, and he happened to bring a couple home. I was around 6, and I was fascinated with them. My dad got me hooked up with the local puppeteer, who had made the puppets for this shoot, and she became a mentor for me. I took classes from her on how to make puppets and soaked up as much as I could from her. The woman’s name was Noreen Young, and her biggest hit was a show called Under the Umbrella Tree, which was shot in Ottawa, where I’m from. I definitely feel like meeting her and seeing her work was hugely influential and sent me on the path I’m on now. The internet was coming out when I was around 14 or 15, and that’s how I heard about Avenue Q. I actually wrote emails to people who were in the show at the time.

What was the audition process like for it?

I had worked with John Tartaglia, who originated Princeton, in his blacklight puppet show called Imaginocean. I did that for about two years. In there, I did a regional production of Avenue Q that John came to coach the puppetry for, so he’d seen my work. I got a call out of the blue when they needed to fill a spot. I’m very lucky.

How long have you been in this role?

About eight and a half months. I found out about the role last May.

Were you in New York already?

Yes. I went to college in Ohio, so I was already in the States.

How did you react to getting your dream role?

Honestly, it took months for it to really sink in, and I always think they’re about to tell me this was a big mistake.

You have so much energy the entire show.

The show is so well crafted and well written, especially when there’s a really energized and responsive audience, it’s hard not to have a lot of energy. The show is structured in such a way that is has a natural, energetic flow to it. I do my best to stay energized, but sometimes it’s hard to keep that up for eight shows a week.

Do you relate at all to Princeton or Rod?

They both have aspects of me in them, for sure. There’s a certain quality in Princeton, where he’s always searching for satisfaction. He’s looking for one answer that will solve his problem, and that’s something every human being can relate to in some way. I’m lucky that I had a real ambition to be an actor as a kid, and that was the path I was able to follow, but sometimes as an actor when you’re unemployed, you think ‘Maybe this wasn’t my purpose, where can I turn for an answer?’ Rod is similar to that. He’s a very private person, but he’s struggling his identity, where someone like him belongs in the world, and how to cope with his expectations of who he is not matching who he actually is.

Avenue Q has every controversial issue ever, but it was written over ten years ago. If it was written now, what do you think would be added?

We actually did a sketch for Gypsy of the Year, and that was our concept. We do have a Donald Trump moment now, which gets such a great reaction, and I feel a lot of pride getting to say that. In our sketch, we changed ‘If You Were Gay’ to ‘If You Were Transgender’, we changed ‘Mixtape’ to ‘Dick Pic’. ‘Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist’ still has a lot of sensitivity to it, but we changed it to ‘Everyone’s a Little Bit Basic’. We closed it with ‘I Wish I Could Go Back to Broadway’ instead of ‘I Wish I Could Go Back to College’.

Do you ever think about what roles you’d like to play in the future? You seem like you could play Elder Price in The Book of Mormon.

Call Casey Nicholaw, tell him you know this actor who would be great. I love The Book of Mormon, I think it’s such a funny show, and it’s written by our composer Bobby Lopez.

 

Were you always a theatrical kid, or did you start with the puppetry and go from there?

They always went together. When I was young, I would create my own puppet shows and show them to day cares and summer camps around Ottawa. I was very theatrical minded, and I was building puppets and performing shows. They came hand in hand. In terms of performing without puppets versus with puppets, they’re kind of the same. Puppetry is just another way to tell a story. That’s what I love about puppetry, you’re not limited by what you look like. You can play any character. You can play a talking vegetable if you wanted, and there’s no consideration about what the actor themselves look like.

Is everyone in the cast a puppeteer?

People come from both worlds. Normally they pick people from musical theatre and then train them in puppetry, but that’s mostly because a puppeteer who also has musical theatre chops is a rarity.

What would a Ben puppet look like?

The thing I love about puppetry is that I can play something totally different from me. I don’t think I’d find much use for a Ben puppet.

Even after being in the show for so long, is there ever a moment where it’s hard not to break?

I’ve never done a show this long before. I’m probably past 200 performances at this point. There are definitely days where you zone out a little bit, even though you try really hard not to, you’re on autopilot. There’s also a certain playfulness that comes with being in the show for a long time, especially with the veteran performers. There’s a lot of practical joking, and people will definitely try to crack you up on stage. We go into the hats in ‘The Money Song’, and sometimes people put weird stuff in the hats, like stuffed animals and condoms. People will sometimes get defensive when you go up to them.

Did you see Hand to God?

I did, I loved it. It’s almost worse than Avenue Q, it’s much more vulgar. That show is so fantastic. Tyrone made a little appearance at our World Puppetry Day event.

You’re in Princeton’s age range, and you’re in such a famous show. Do you ever have the same feeling that he does about wanting to make a difference to the human race?

I do feel a great amount of responsibility, being a longtime fan of the show and getting to step into the production. I feel responsibility to serve the material as best I can, but I don’t know if I’m making a difference in the world. As an actor, telling a story like this to an audience and make someone laugh is hugely gratifying. There might be a little Ben sitting in the audience. I think Chita Rivera has a bit in her Dancer’s Life show where she talks about a rainy Wednesday matinee where your body aches and you don’t want to do it, but you still go out on stage and give 150% for that one person whose life is about to be changed. That’s what I think about on those days. Now, being 13 years into the run of the show, a lot of the audience is a casual theatergoer who may have heard a few songs from the CD, which is so fun. You feel sometimes that people are like ‘Why is this guy carrying a puppet around? What is this thing?’ And by ‘Purpose’, ‘Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist’, and ‘The Internet is for Porn’, you have them howling with laughter.

About Nicole N.

"Say yes. Show up afraid, show up prepared, but say yes." - Renee Elise Goldsberry

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