Russ Borski sounds like a modern-day Geppetto as he talks about the aggravating simplicity of craft-store doll eyes and dyeing Antron fleece to his exact color specifications.
The Cain Park artistic director, along with resident designer Terry Pieritz, is making all the puppets featured in this summer's production of Avenue Q, which runs June 14 through July 1.
"Figuring out how to fabricate these puppets — make them actor-friendly, make them have personality, make them true to the character and yet personalized — has been a huge journey," he says.
It's a task that at times seems to grow like Pinocchio's nose. More than 40 of the Muppet-like creations are required to stage the smash Broadway musical comedy — a sort of irreverent Sesame Street for grown-ups that takes on the challenges and vices of young adulthood.
Borski says Avenue Q was an ambitious project for a small professional theater to undertake, even without the challenges of puppet making. Borski, who is also directing the show, had to find actors who could manipulate hand and rod puppets in full view of the audience and perform as those characters at the same time. The casting call drew professionals from New York, Chicago and Florida. "It's a very specialized skill," Borski says.
Cain Park had planned to rent duplicates of the puppets used in the original Broadway show, only to discover they were no longer available. But Borski was undaunted. He had made four versions of Audrey, the man-eating plant in Little Shop of Horrors, when the theater was in the same situation a dozen or so years ago.
"It ended up being a very personalized view of Audrey and that particular production," he says of the result. "We came up with the same solution for Avenue Q."
The project has taken days of research on a range of topics, from embellishing the puppets' eyes with felt cutouts, colored stones and eyelashes to constructing a durable, spring-loaded mouth that serves as the weight-bearing core of a 25-pound, 24-inch creature.
"We don't have a sample of one," he explains. "And there's so little literature out there that tells you how these things are made."
Although Borski and Pieritz cut the workload by making character heads that can be used on multiple costumed bodies, each complete puppet — head and torso with arms — takes the duo 80 to 100 hours to complete. But even during marathon puppet-making weekends at his home, Borski says he doesn't regret his decision not to seek out another theater company that had already constructed Avenue Q stars of their own.
"We've come up with a look that is ours," he says.