Live theatre plays an important role in our lives. It provides reflection and distraction, comfort and escape, risk and reward. It’s whatever we need it to be when we need it the most.
Founding partner and artistic director of the Slow Burn Theatre, Patrick Fitzwater, took a risk six years ago with a fledgling company hoping to fill the void in regional theatre in south Florida. With executive director Matthew Korinko, Slow Burn turned up the heat, presenting material that was both thought provoking and entertaining.
Slow Burn Theatre makes its northeast Florida debut with “Avenue Q” Dec. 3 at the Thrasher Horne Center. Fitzwater spoke with EU Jacksonville about finding balance and promoting healing through laughter.
The winner of the Tony Award Triple Crown for Best Musical, Best Score and Best Book, Avenue Q is a musical for millennials. It tells the story of a recent college graduate named Princeton who moves into a shabby New York apartment on Avenue Q. Among his colorful neighbors are Kate, the girl next door, Rod the Republican, Trekkie the internet sexpert and Lucy the slut who help Princeton discover his purpose. Avenue Q contains adult language and content that is not suitable for children.
The talented Nicole Piro takes on dual roles as Kate Monster and Lucy the Slut. Piro serves as a conduit for the emotions and personalities in the script in a thoughtful and engaging way without distracting from the puppet.
“It’s trying to make my emotions come through the puppet,” she says. “You don’t want the audience to be focusing on the actor. You want the focus to be on the puppet but getting all of the emotions and feelings from the actor. There is a very fine line.”
It’s all about bending to the piece and giving the characters the space they need to share their story. It’s critical to that the audience understands that it’s the puppet that is emoting The puppeteers’ face is really just a reflection of what the puppet is doing.
“It really takes a disciplined actor. They are putting their heart and soul into an extension of their arm and that’s putting their own ego aside to let an inanimate object be the star.”
“It really takes a disciplined actor. They are putting their heart and soul into an extension of their arm and that’s putting their own ego aside to let an inanimate object be the star,” says Fitzwater, who is directing the musical. “We have a blessing with the script. The actors really don’t have to polish the book. It’s really good and it speaks to millennials. Really, these actors that are portraying them are already millennials so that already have a connection to the character. So the actors are taking their own fears and anxieties about being millennials and they can put that out through the extension of their arm.”
Fitzwater and Korinko are always seeking new ways to create a buzz. They launched at a time when the regional theatre scene was lacking in diversity. Since then, the area has developed a reputation as a culturally varied community but Slow Burn wasn’t without its detractors.
“There are a lot of regional theatres down here that are producing quality work. When we started six years ago, we started in a high school in West Boca and our mission was to produce titles that weren’t over-saturated,” says Fitzwater. “We wanted to bring something to the table that was completely different. There wasn’t really anybody who was doing anything that you’d see off-Broadway or even a risk on Broadway. They were all performing commercial titles so we wanted to get in there and shake things up a little bit. People told us with the titles we were doing we were never going to make it.”
Now partnered with the Broward Center, Slow Burn Theatre is fulfilling its mission to produce shows like “Avenue Q” and returns to Thrasher Horne Feb 1 with “Xanadu”, a musical staged on roller skates. They just closed their first Disney title with a dark interpretation of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” and had a successful run with “Heathers: The Musical.”
“We try to keep our fingers on the pulse on what’s happening because theatre is such a great tool to talk about difficult times. Since the world is a little shook up right now, we couldn’t have picked two better titles to get people laughing again.”
“We saw record attendance in the dead of summer. We try to keep our fingers on the pulse on what’s happening because theatre is such a great tool to talk about difficult times. Since the world is a little shook up right now, we couldn’t have picked two better titles to get people laughing again,” Fitzwater says.
Opening “Avenue Q” two days after the election, Fitzwater addressed the cast about the expectations of an audience who is still reeling in shock. “I told them half of the country is celebrating and half is hurting. What we have to do is realize that the material is good but the temperature of the room is like performing “Avenue Q” at a funeral,” he says.
“It took a minute for people to laugh. By Friday, people started to laugh a little bit more and by Saturday, you could see people finally relaxed and laughing because “Avenue Q” brings out so many issues that are relevant right now with racism and elections and the state of the world. When you put it out in front of people, I didn’t know if America was ready to laugh at themselves yet. But we’ve been here before. Things are bad right at the moment but laughter is such a great light in the darkness.”