Harry Potter fans can always agree on one thing – that they want more Harry Potter, and Matt Cox, playwright of Puffs, or: Seven Increasingly Eventful Years at a Certain School of Magic & Magic, has found a way to temporarily subdue their insatiable appetites. After the success of his first show, Kapow-i GoGo, described by Cox as a “nerdy” show, Puffs was created as a way to give the least glorified of the four Hogwarts houses, Hufflepuff, its chance to shine.
The play began with a potential of only five shows downtown at the People’s Improv Theatre but has climbed its way up to Times Square, now playing Off-Broadway at the Elektra Theatre through July 30. Cox shares his inspiration for the show, how Puffs found its success, and what it is like to carve a place into one of the biggest franchises of all time.
First, perhaps obvious question: are you a Puff yourself?
Growing up I always, borrowing from the show, would’ve said I was a Snake. However, when I started working on the show and I started re-delving into the world, I found that I am a Puff, certainly.
What of the Puff elements to do associate with the most?
There’s something about the element of hard work for sure, which doesn’t sound like much on paper, but anything in your life that is going to happen is because you’ve worked for it. I think that is a valuable asset that you don’t always consider, especially as a child when you’re comparing being bravest human being in the world or just the most hard working.
Since you didn’t grow up always identifying as a Puff, what made you want to write their story?
The show originated at the People’s Improv Theatre, while we, my creative team and I, were doing a show called Kapow-i GoGo which was four and a half hour long nerdy show and we hit the “what’s next” point. I was sitting on the train and had the thought of doing something within this magical world. It started off as the thought of how any other student who was also at Hogwarts during the same time that Harry was, would’ve had a miserable experience. They would be forced into these adventures with hardly any information about what is happening. So that was the original thought and then it was a quick jump to a focus on the Puffs because of the pop culture view, which, while the last few years have been much kinder, but for a while the view was always that they were the not so cool house at the school. They’re the underdogs, the “losers” of this magical school, they’re the ones that many people identify with from an outsider point of view. And they also get the least amount of face time, other than Cedric, they only get a couple of throwaway lines here and there, so they seemed like the right group of people.
What was the process like from conception to the stage, how hands on were you able to be?
Very! I came up with the idea and pitched it to Steven Stout who is one of the original producers, who also played Ernie and the potions teacher and the second headmaster. He, along with Colin Waitt, another producer and Kristen McCarthy Parker, the director, and I all started chatting about it. Then there was a time slot that randomly opened at the PIT one night and Steve suggested we do a mock-up of the show so I wrote the first half of the play in a week and I cast it with friends, people I wanted to work with, and people who had been in Kapow-i, and everyone who was in that reading is still in the show.
A month later we did a second reading of the entirety of the play and brought in Nick Carrillo who plays J. Finch and it’s been them since then- so I pretty much did cast it among friends.
In the rehearsal process, for both at the PIT and Off-Broadway at the Elecktra, I was there nearly every day. I like to be hands on with the script and I like to play and do every possible version of a joke until we land on a version that feels just right and then playing with it a little more until we’ve found the silliest option.
I’m an actor as well, so I like to make things that are fun for actors to do, things that I would think are fun.
It seems to go without saying that you’re a lifelong Harry Potter fan, but how familiar are you with other Harry Potter productions? – Obviously, Wizard Rock has had a role in this show as you’ve had artists perform afterwards, but what about the Off- Broadway production of Potted Potter or the cult favorite A Very Potter Musical trilogy? Were any of those inspirational to you? Or were you more intent to ensure that your idea was easily distinguishable?
That was at the forefront of our mind. I didn’t see Potted, I watched a decent amount of A Very Potter Musical to make sure I wasn’t making any of the same jokes or bits. We didn’t want to do something that had already been done before, we wanted to keep it within our artistic voice and tone- that very silly and stupid vibe, but also surprisingly having a lot of heart. I think that was the route that we followed because some of the things are very in-your-face and very fun and takes on are the books themselves, while we wanted to inject it with its own heart and its own spirit. This version isn’t about Harry and everyone else, it is about a different group of people and we wanted to follow that spirit and energy. We also wanted to make it feel like an actual play, something that we felt would be very different from the other two productions.
When I first came up with the idea, I thought, “Oh, someone must’ve already done this”. However, once it became clear that someone hadn’t I realized that I had to do it.
One of my favorite compliments that I’ve gotten about the show that I think puts us in another world from the other two came from John Rosenthal the head of the big Harry Potter meet-up group in New York, “The Group That Shall Not Be Named”. He said that one of the things that they like about the show so much is that it is all the things that an adult who grew up with the series would sit in a bar and poke fun over and joke about with a beer. And that’s our energy.
Something I personally admired about the show was the way that you took your low-budget set and props and ran with it, as opposed to trying to hide the low-budget aspect. How did that decision to highlight that aspect come to be?
The Kapow-i GoGo show was done the same way, partially because we don’t have a lot of money but also there is the whole huge world that if you try to realistically portray it, you’re never going to do it unless you have millions upon millions of dollars. The alternative, putting as much sincerity and belief that you can into something simple, makes it magical in its own way. And this is our style, silly and stupid, simple props, it’s a mantra of ours. It’s a lot of fun.
Madeline Bundy and Liz Blessing who made a lot of the props do an amazing job with those things- on both productions of the show, the PIT and Off-Broadway show, they’ve done incredible things with very little money.
Was the original idea to have three main characters and have the rest of the actors play multiple characters? Or did you realize that you would have too big of a cast if you have an individual actor play each character?
It was the idea from the onset- to have the three main characters to just be themselves the whole time and we have a large cast, which I wanted because there needed to be enough bodies for it to be believable that they were at a school, so yes, it was always the plan to have two people play all of the adults and the remaining cast to play the various children – but the end goal was to have everyone ultimately play a Puff and we would branch out from there as much as we could. Madeline Bundy, who plays Harry, was the lead in the Kapow-i GoGo and we thought it’d be funny to have her play the “hero” of this play, and from there we thought it’d be funny to have Hermione as a wig and Ron as a mop.
Puffs started at the PIT before it moved to Off- Broadway, was that your intention, to transition to Off-Broadway eventually?
Oh no, not at all. We just announced an extension through June and every weekend I am still amazed, surprised and happily delighted that it is still happening. We started in December of 2015 with five shows scheduled and that was it. We had the hopes that it would extend and then John Pinckard, who is one of the new producers from Tilted Windmills with David Carpenter, came to the show. He saw one of the first performances and started to dream a little bit bigger for us. So there was an inkling early into the run, and we kept performing and it kept being amazing. We did a production at the University of Florida last May to do some testing of some new ideas, the show was very different when it started at the PIT plot wise, it has gone through a lot of changes. The core has always been there, but there’s been new jokes and such throughout.
What is your hope, or plan, for where Puffs could go next?
There are a lot of neat things in the works, I think. Keeping it running here for as long as possible is always the goal, getting people to continue to see the show. There is definitely some fun stuff that can potentially happen.