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Theatre Student Brings Passion for Puppetry to Alum-Directed Musical Comedy ‘Avenue Q’

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Theatre student Faris Khan will fulfill his teenage dream of creating Muppet-style puppets for the stage when Mt. San Antonio College’s production of the Tony Award-winning musical, “Avenue Q,” opens on May 30. When Khan was in high school, he stumbled upon Jim Henson’s puppetry work in the hit series “The Muppet Show,” which ran on television from 1974-1981 and spawned several movies. He was hooked from the first frame.

Khan noticed that Henson’s Muppets were strikingly different from other types of marionettes and hand puppets. They were more lifelike and able to convey emotion due to their articulated bodies and expressive faces. This newfound affinity inspired Khan to try his hand at creating Muppet replicas, which he said were initially “terrible.” However, he was motivated to further experiment and refine his construction techniques. Khan began working on a replica of Henson’s Oscar the Grouch puppet. In doing so, he noticed a subtle design feature that he worked into his puppet creation, which was Oscar’s ability to raise and lower his brow — a detail that gives Oscar his signature grumpy look.

In “Avenue Q,” the cast of human actors and puppets deliberately blur the line between puppet and human by making its puppeteers wholly visible to the audience. The setting would feel familiar to any fan of “Sesame Street” but the musical highlights adult themes like poverty, racism, homelessness and homosexuality, making it clear this isn’t the same “street” that audiences remember.

“The cast and I have had a lot of fun in exploring the themes of the show and can all identify with one [or more] of the puppets. The characters have goals and dreams just like us, especially the desire to be accepted and loved, which is universal,” said “Avenue Q” director and CSUF almuna Sarah Ripper, who is also a lecturer in the Department of Theatre and Dance.

Khan believes the puppets are key to bringing these themes to the audience in an approachable way. “I think what’s really neat is that despite being on stage with exposed puppeteers, the audience is drawn to the puppets. To them, the puppets are the actors, not the puppet performers,” he said.

When asked how Khan’s puppetry added to her production of “Avenue Q,” Ripper said, “Faris is an excellent puppeteer and puppet maker. His attention to detail is a huge skill that I most appreciate and am in awe of,” and added, “We discussed the characters and story of ‘Avenue Q’ to make sure our visions were on the same page.”

Khan will also educate the cast in the care and operation of his handmade puppets and coach them on how to bring the puppets in the production to life.

Khan isn’t just busy with coursework and “Avenue Q.” He will soon begin working on an independent short film called “Walt’s World” and has big plans for his future. “If I’m good enough, I would ultimately like to work for Jim Henson’s Creature Shop in New York [where] they specialize in the Muppet-style puppets [you see on] ‘Sesame Street.’ Who knows, maybe I’ll make it doing what I love someday.”

“Avenue Q” will be performed at Mt. San Antonio College’s Clark Theater from May 30 through June 9. For more information, visit the Mt. San Antonio College website.

Heather Richards-Siddons