Best known for her role in the Tony Award winning musical Avenue Q, "Call Me Adam" chats with Jennifer Barnhart about starring in 2014 NYMF production of Rescue Rue from July 8-20. We also discuss the art of puppetry, her time in Avenue Q, and what it means to be part working on a brand new musical like Resuce Rue. Resuce Rue has book and lyrics by Stacey Weingarten and music and lyrics by Kate Steinberg and Joshua Zecher-Ross.
Rescue Rue will play at Ford Foundation Studio (480 West 42nd Street). Click here for tickets!
1. You are going to be starring in NYMF's production of Rescue Rue from July 8-20. What made want you want to be part of this production? Rescue Rue has terrific songs, great characters, adorable puppets, and dogs! What's not to love?! Seriously, I have wanted to collaborate with Stacey Weingarten for quite a while--we first worked together on Johnny and the Sprites for John Tartaglia and The Disney Channel, and I admired Stacey's passion, talent, and drive. She's constantly writing, directing, and producing new work, and it's incredibly inspiring. I'm delighted to be a part of something Stacey has created, that is so near and dear to her heart. And have you met Stacey's real-life dog, Rue? Cutest chiweenie ever!
2. What do you hope audiences come away with after seeing Rescue Rue? Rescue Rue shows that families come in all shapes and sizes. Friends are the family you choose, and none of us could get along in life without them. I also love that it promotes animal rescue! I'm hoping that this show inspires audience members to visit Brooklyn Badass Rescue, and North Shore Animal League, and many other adoption shelters throughout the city and either make a donation or take home a furry friend.
3. What excites you about being part of a new musical and in NYMF Festival? In general, I find it so creatively satisfying to be part of any new piece of theatre. I've spent three years as part of the Southern Writers Project at Alabama Shakespeare Festival and worked with some wonderful playwrights, including Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder and Brian Mori, and I was lucky enough to headline in a new musical at the Fringe Festival a few years back (The Legend Of Julie Taymor). New works change and grow so quickly, you have to come to the rehearsal hall with all of your creative faculties open to any possibilities that may arise in the room. It challenges everyone on the creative team to bring the best of themselves to the process, and to collaborate to find the clearest way of telling the story the writer is trying to tell.
This is actually my first time performing at NYMF, and I'm thrilled. I've seen many shows at NYMF over the years, and it's invigorating to be immersed in a festival that promotes and furthers the art of the musical. So many commercially produced musicals are adaptations of films and books, and NYMF provides a rich environment for new work to be seen. I feel very fortunate to be celebrating the 10th Anniversary of NYMF by being part of it in Rescue Rue!
4. Since this show is about self-discovery and finding where you belong, what you have you discovered about yourself along your journey in this career? What a great question, and beautifully phrased. I have always walked through the open door in my life and career. Whenever anyone has asked me, "What's next?" my answer has generally been "I'll find out when I get there!" That philosophy means I have not always taken the most direct route to the path I'm currently walking -- I started making a living as a performer much later than many of my colleagues -- but I've gotten there in my own time and found myself better prepared as a consequence to take the next steps.
As a corollary to that, I'm learning that things tend to work out better when I'm not getting in my own way. I'm trying to be better about quieting the voices of self-doubt. All artists suffer from being our own worst critics, which is double-edged -- at its best, those inner voices can sometimes push us to do better work; at its worst, those same voices can disable and paralyze us. When presented with a new challenge, I'm trying more these days to put myself in the place of Beginner's Mind, where anything is possible.
I've also learned that being a warm, fun, and friendly human being who is easy to work with is just as important as talent. Sometimes even more so.
5. Rescue Rue is also about finding your happy beginnings. What have been some of your happy beginnings? One of my happiest beginnings was discovering and embracing the art of puppetry. Puppetry has changed my life in ways I could never have predicted when I first started exploring it. Because of my work as a puppeteer, I have performed on two of the most famous streets in the world: Sesame Street and Broadway. I was part of a show that taught a generation to read (Between the Lions). I have had opportunities as a performer that I would never have had otherwise, and it has made all the difference.
Another, even earlier happy beginning was the gift of my family. I have always felt loved and supported in my choices by my family (even when they raised the occasional eyebrow), and I was encouraged as a child to explore the arts. It helped that my big brother, Jeff, paved the way by becoming a musician (Check him out @ www.jeffbarnhart.com).
6. Like Avenue Q, Rescue Rue involves puppets and actors. What do you enjoy most about puppetry and why did you initially want to study this performance style? What challenges do you face when working with puppets that you might not otherwise have in a show? Puppetry enables you to tell so many different kinds of stories, and there is generally no such thing as typecasting. Since I've always been tall, but not willowy, and I've always had a deep voice, there are only just so many human roles I can play. As actors we are bound by our physicality. As puppeteers, we can do anything, be anything. It doesn't so much matter how you look, it's all about what you can do.
Some of the challenges of working with puppets include coordinating puppeteer bodies in relation to each other, and in relation to the puppets themselves. And while I describe the seemingly limitless possibilities of what puppets can do as storytellers, there are physical limitations to each puppet, and those have to be considered during staging.
7. From Off-Broadway to its Tony Award-winning Broadway run you were a part of Avenue Q. Looking back, what did you enjoy most about being part of this cast and show? It is so difficult to pick just one thing. Avenue Q opened up so many doors for me, and it allowed me to work with an array of astonishingly talented people, and to experience and explore so many things, creatively and personally. But to me, Avenue Q will always be that Little Show That Could. It started out as a small group of us, putting it together, asking questions, collaborating, challenging, problem-solving, arguing, laughing, figuring it out... and then it became this huge, incredible, life-changing thing, and everyone who saw it responded to the show's giant heart.
I got to direct Avenue Q for the first time last year at Adirondack Theatre Festival, and I tried to bring back that sense of intimacy, of being that small show at its core. It was my first time directing, and I got to team up with the show's original Music Director, the brilliant Gary Adler. I had a great cast who brought some wonderful new ideas to the table, and I learned new things about the show through that process. After being with a show for ten years, it's wonderful to still be able to discover things, and I think it's a huge testament how good the show really is.
I continue to be amazed by the audience responses; they relate to the journey "Princeton" is on, they adore the characters, they laugh so hard and are moved to tears. There's just so much love for the show. It's humbling and overwhelming at times.
Oh, and winning the Tony for Best Musical was pretty incredible, too.
8. Who or what inspired you to become a performer? It seems like there were several influences that pointed me in that direction--my Mom took me to see my first Broadway show (Annie), and I was absolutely transported. The theatre felt like the most magical place in the world to me. As a kid, I would walk around the house singing songs from Chicago and The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, without knowing what the heck they were about, just that I loved the songs. And then there was my brother Jeff, who started playing piano professionally when he was 14 and I was 9, so I grew up bopping around to all his gigs. I also had some incredible music and theatre teachers who encouraged me along the way when I was in school.
As far as puppetry is concerned, of course Jim Henson was a huge influence. I loved The Muppet Show as a kid. But I also remember seeing the film The Dark Crystal when it first came out and being so swept up in the magic of it--I dragged my Dad to the movie theatre six times to watch it. I noted that a female puppeteer, Kathy Mullen, played "Kira," one of the lead characters. She inspired me to want to become a puppeteer. And astonishingly enough, Kathy hired me twenty years later for my first television series, Between the Lions.
9. Who haven't you worked with that you would like to? Oh, so many folks spring to mind -- I'd love to work with writers Paula Vogel, Sarah Ruhl, with Jeanine Tesori, to act alongside Bryan Cranston, Neil Patrick Harris (who incidentally loves puppets), Angela Lansbury (one of my inspirations to become an actor), Dames Judi and Maggie, brilliant ladies of the theatre. I'd like to be directed by Alex Timbers, too -- I think he's brilliant at staging and directing incredibly engaging pieces, I love the work of his that I've seen, and he's extremely smart. And I'd love to do something at the Public someday. It's still one of the most vibrant places for new work, they gather phenomenally talented people, and I've always wanted to be part of that legacy.
10. What's the best advice you've ever received? Some advice I was given when I was just starting out as an actor: "Figure out what type you are, and just be it." I think it applies to one's personal life as well. When I was younger, I spent so much energy trying to be someone else, personally and professionally. Now I feel more comfortable in my own skin. I try to keep in mind a piece of advice from my Grandma: "Everything looks better in the morning, after a good night's sleep." And from my adopted dog, Bea Lillie: "Wag more, bark less."
11. If you could have any super power, which one would you choose? The ability to be in several places at once, with the ability to teleport as a close second, and the ability to breathe underwater without apparatus as a not-too-distant third.
Jennifer is best known for being part of the Original Broadway Company of the Tony Award-winning musical Avenue Q, for which she and her fellow castmates won an Outer Critics Circle Award for outstanding ensemble work. She remained with the show for its entire six-year run on Broadway, and can still occasionally be seen joining the company in its current home at New World Stages. In recent years, she has been exploring her 'human' (non-puppet) side doing regional theatre at Goodspeed Opera House, the Arden Theatre (Superior Donuts), and two rep seasons at Alabama Shakespeare Festival, where some favorite roles included "Lady Macbeth," "Veronica" in God of Carnage and "Mistress Quickly" in The Merry Wives of Windsor (for which she also designed puppets).
Jennifer played the title role in The Legend of Julie Taymor, or The Musical That Killed Everybody at the NYC Fringe Festival in 2011, for which she won an Overall Excellence Award for Performance. In a cabaret setting, Jennifer and Rick Lyon took up their old personas of "The Bad Idea Bears" to heckle John Tartaglia at 54 Below, and to sing alongside Jamie deRoy & Friends at the Metropolitan Room, where "The Bad Idea Bears" singing "Barcelona" was very well received.
TV credits include Sesame Street, Between the Lions, As The World Turns, and Law & Order: SVU (for which she once played a puppeteer, another time a detective). Jennifer also does voiceover work for educational series and apps. She graduated as a University Scholar with a BFA in Acting/Concentration in Puppetry from the University of Connecticut and was dubbed one of the university's Outstanding 40 Under 40 alumni. She sits on the board of the Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry. Jennifer is a proud member of Actor's Equity.