BY SARAH VASSELLO I The Daily Tar Heel
Canvas is following UNC Pauper Players’s production of “Avenue Q” from the beginning to the end in its series“The Avenue Ahead” throughout the semester.
In the third installment of the series, staff writer Sarah Vassello profiled the show’s music director, Alex Thompson.
After four years of piano lessons, senior Alex Thompson almost gave up on music.
But then he then discovered something that would change the course of his life — the Broadway musical “Wicked.”
“Broadway kind of reinvigorated the (music) bug,” Thompson, a communication studies major, said. “I don’t know how to explain it, because where I am now, I’m just so passionate about it that it’s hard to go back to where I was in my head then.”
Passionate is an apt description of Thompson who has been a performer and director in multiple venues throughout his time at UNC. Thompson’s involvement ranges from being the musical director of the UNC Walk-Ons a capella group to acting in Pauper Player’s “Rocky Horror Picture Show” to a keyboard player for the Company Carolina’s “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.”
Currently, he is focusing on his next big project as musical director for “Avenue Q.”
“I’d first heard the soundtrack a long time ago and the songs on their own are very funny — you don’t know that they’re puppets from just the music,” Thompson said. “I thought that it was a strange, but very endearing, thing considering how crude the humor is.”
Thompson got involved with Pauper Players as a freshman, and he has been involved in at least one show per semester with the group since then. It was in Company Carolina where he met the director of the show, senior Clare Shaffer, who he has since worked with at least 15 times and who shared his dream of seeing “Avenue Q” brought to life on campus.
“She’s one of my favorite people to collaborate with,” he said. “‘Avenue Q’s been her dream show and it’s one of my dream shows, as well, to music direct so this worked out for us.”
As the music director, Thompson is doing something unique: by March 5, a month before the show opens, the cast and the orchestra will know all of the music in the show.
“This is my first time music directing a full scale (show), so I approached it in a way that ensured that the level of productivity would be as high as possible,” he said.
“I’ve worked on so many shows in college and this is the only one that I have been a part of where 100 percent of the music was completely learned and memorized by the cast over a month before the show goes up.”
Thompson, along with the rest of the cast, has appreciated this approach.
“He plays it once for you and you have to do it and learn it and he doesn’t want to do it again, which can be jarring for a lot of people, but it’s really efficient and we get it done very quickly,” said sophomore Kyle Conroy, who plays Princeton. “It’s nice. I’ve never been on a show so streamlined.”
Sophomore Brooke Wilson, who plays Kate Monster, mirrors Conroy’s respect for Thompson.
“Alex is a really, really cool guy. I just can’t emphasise how talented he is,” she said.
“He can pick up an instrument and play it amazingly, but he’s also got a great voice. He’s an asset wherever he’s working in a show.”
Above all else, Thompson hopes that the hard work pays off in order for the audience to truly appreciate the show, just as he does.
“When it’s done right, the show is just endlessly unpredictable, and just moves and moves; it’s one of the most entertaining scripts that I’ve read and one of the most musically diverse groups of songs just in terms of the show,” he said.
“I hope that the audience — I just want them to have as much fun as possible.”
BY MADISON FLAGER I The Daily Tar Heel
Throughout the spring semester, Canvas will follow UNC Pauper Players’s production of “Avenue Q” from the beginning to the end in its series “The Avenue Ahead.”
In the second installment of the series, staff writer Madison Flager profiled senior Will Hawkins, who plays Rod in the production.
The first time senior Will Hawkins auditioned for a show, he wasn’t nervous at all. In fact, he didn’t even know he had an audition until 10 minutes before go-time.
A passing comment to his mother about how fun the movie “High School Musical” looked had led her to sign Hawkins up for a teen production of “Les Miserables.” He got the part, marking the first of many performances to come.
Fast forward about six and a half years, and Hawkins is on his seventh and final UNC production, this time as Rod in Pauper Players’s upcoming “Avenue Q.” Hawkins describes the character as a closeted Republican investment banker puppet who must come to terms with both his sexuality and his unrequited love for his straight roommate, Nicky.
Hawkins, a music major, said he had his eyes set on Rod long before he even knew Pauper Players would be producing “Avenue Q.” This summer, he auditioned for the role in his hometown of Alexandria, Va. Though he didn’t receive the part, he got a second chance to play the character this semester.
“Rod takes himself very seriously and the stuff that happens to him is very important to him. In a comedy, that really drew me to the part,” Hawkins said.
“It kind of meshed the nice balance between a dramatic plot and a comedic plot at the same time.”
Hawkins is no stranger to auditions, but this one had an unusual element to it. Because of the nature of the show – seven of the 10 characters are puppets – Hawkins had to use a sock puppet.
“I’m generally prepared for auditions but this was a different experience,” he said. “It was a little strange and a little frightening.”
Puppetry makes rehearsals different, too. The actors had to memorize their lines much faster than usual, so they could begin practicing with the puppets.
Hawkins said it’s difficult to translate natural mannerisms, like hand gestures, into the body of a puppet. There is more choreography in this show than he is used to, he said, and less improvisation with his body movements.
Despite these challenges, Hawkins said he thinks Rod will be his favorite UNC performance. He credits that in part to the cast, several of whom he has worked with before.
Most of the shows Hawkins has done at UNC have had small casts, and he said he enjoys the camaraderie and support that forms in that environment.
“It’s especially important when you’re doing something like puppetry onstage — there’s an element of ‘OK, I’m getting up and doing something completely new that I have no real training in,’ and it’s nice to have people there that you feel comfortable around.”
Freshman Annie Keller, who plays Christmas Eve — the only female human role in the show — echoed this sentiment, and said she feels honored to be working with Hawkins.
“He is so enthusiastic and very inviting,” she said. “During auditions, Will made an effort to get to know me and introduce himself and it made me feel so much more welcome.”
Keller said she feels like she has learned a lot from Hawkins by watching the way he commits to his character.
“He really puts his whole heart and soul into what he’s doing and it really reflects onstage,” she said.
Hawkins, who will graduate in May, said he is happy to end with this show, calling the experience bittersweet. He will miss the excitement of guessing what next semester’s show will be and getting to work with familiar faces like director Clare Shaffer, who is also a review writer for The Daily Tar Heel, and roommate and castmate Blayne Telling, he said.
Though he’ll no longer be performing in venues like Historic Playmakers Theater, Hawkins plans on continuing to act and sing after graduation.
“Staying involved in arts for me is the big thing,” he said. “There’s a great theater scene in D.C. that’s growing right now, so I’m going to move back to the D.C. area and audition.”
His dream role is George in Steven Sondheim’s “Sunday in the Park with George.” But, for now, he just has to worry about getting through one last semester of balancing school and rehearsals.
Reviews, previews, and other coverage of Shaffer shows.