By Jeff Walsh
After seeing some Broadway shows over the holidays, one of the truly breakout performers I got to see was Howie Michael Smith in Avenue Q. In the dual role of Princeton and Rod, Smith is a flurry of activity. You can see his pure joy of being up onstage and bringing two distinct personalities and voices to his characters in the show.
Princeton is the character that moves to Avenue Q at the start of the show, wondering what he can do now with his B.A. in English. He started apartment hunting on Avenue A, but couldn't afford any of the rents until he got way out until Avenue Q. He falls in love with Kate Monster, and even has a sex scene during the show.
Rod is the older, closeted character that sits home and reads books about Broadway musicals. He seems to be fashioned after Bert, with a hidden crush on Nicky, his Ernie. (Not that Bert and Ernie are gay or anything!).
I recently got the chance to chat with Smith about my fear of puppets, Avenue Q, having sex in front of an audience, guidance counselors, and (of course) his own coming out process:
So, I finally saw the show over the holidays. It's been way too long. And I'll admit up front that whenever I was in New York before, I was always like "Everyone says that's so good… but the other shows have people in them."
Right. I was skeptical, too, when I heard about the show. I was working at a theater in D.C., and somebody was running around backstage singing "The Internet Is For Porn," and I was like, "What is that? What are you singing? It's funny." And they said it's a new Broadway show with puppets, and I said, "No, it's not. How is that even going to work?" But… I'm glad it works.
I finally came around, and I'm not puppet-phobic anymore.
And you actually hit me up. I was the aisle person you relentless hit up for money during that show.
Oh, really? Good, so you got the full experience.
I don't know if you switch it up, but just would... not… leave, and I knew I had nothing under a $20 on me, so there was no way in hell. Because I don't know where the money goes, but I know it ain't coming back.
It all goes to Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS.
Oh, I like them. I would have given you $20 for that.
I don't know why we don't say that beforehand. We'd get a lot more money.
Everyone's just throwing in quarters and whatever.
Yeah, they think it's our booze fund backstage.
So, are you Howie Michael Smith because there's already a Howie Smith in Equity or something?
My real name is Howard Michael Smith, but the actor's union name is Howie Michael Smith.
There's another Howie Smith?
I don't think so. There's a saxophone player named Howie Smith, but I don't think he acts.
Oh, OK. I know a lot of actors have to add middle names and middle initials because of other people. So yours wasn't taken, that was just your preference.
There's not too many Howie Smiths running around.
So, how long have you been with the show?
Let's see, I started out… my God… I was understudying Princeton/Rod first for 18 months and then for the past six going on seven months, I've been playing the role full-time. So, I've been around for a while.
And your background is as an actor, not a puppeteer?
Singer first, then got into the acting, and yeah, the puppeteering. When I was little, I… well, who didn't love the Muppet Show and Sesame Street, so I was obsessed with that. And I used to pretend that I was on there. I think that kind of helped me in my audition, remembering how to make the mouth go and how to move the head around.
And it took me a while, when I first saw the show, because there's people onstage but all the eye lines have nothing to do with the people. The human actors onstage interact with the puppets. The puppets are interacting with the puppets. And then sometimes the person moving the puppet isn't even the person voicing the puppet, so you have to watch it from the perspective of it being a puppet show. How is that to deal with as an actor?
We call it acting for two, because it's one thing to just stand there and say the lines and move the mouth of the puppet, and make that look fine. But it's another thing to do all the little in-between-the-lines stuff, like as an actor, a take to the crowd, or look down as you're thinking. You have to always remember you've got to make your hand do that at the same time. You can't just do a double take. You have to have the puppet do a double take, too. It all has to be connected. Everything has to be thought out. Every single moment.
And there's never a moment where you as an actor do a knowing glance to the crowd. There was never a moment where you broke out of being Princeton or Rod.
Right. No, we always keep in character. Although some nights it's hard, if something goes wrong, you know?