For one UC Davis graduate, going to work means operating angst-ridden, singing puppets in packed theaters around the country. And yes, that is exactly as fun as it sounds.
Laura Yumi Snell, who graduated from UC Davis in 2007 with a bachelor’s degree in dramatic art, has been cast in the national tour of one of the most successful Broadway shows – the R-rated puppet musical Avenue Q.
Avenue Q, which debuted on Broadway in 2003, has been described as a grown-up version of Sesame Street. The 2010-11 national tour will stop at San Francisco’s Orpheum Theater from Feb. 15 to 28 before continuing on to Los Angeles, Montana, Illinois, Pennsylvania, and others.
Snell has the role of swing in the show, who fills in for someone in case they get sick. Snell said she is understudying the roles of Christmas Eve, Girl Bear of the Bad Idea Bears duo, and Mrs. T, a crabby old kindergarten teacher, among others. Girl Bear and Mrs. T, however, are tricky puppet characters to maneuver, which are handled by the Second-Hander.
“[The Second-Hander] is the supporting puppeteer for the puppets that require two actors to operate, and she is in charge of moving certain puppets while the actor providing the puppet’s voice is on the other side of the stage,” Snell said. “They’re both really fun characters to play.”
Theatre and dance department chairman David Grenke saw her potential at the beginning when she worked hard to get into his modern dance class.
“She asked me if she could take my class and, being familiar with her in previous lower level classes, I said no, you can’t. Because of the tempo with which the class moves, I was concerned for her safety,” Grenke said. “She pleaded her case with me and made convincing arguments so I gave her one chance: she could come in for one day and if I felt that she was not at risk and could keep up, then she could stay in the class; she made her way in one class and that’s all she did.”
Philip Daley, who had worked with Laura in musical and theatrical performances, said that she excelled at both music and acting.
“Laura was easy to work with,” Daley said. “She really wanted to be there and she knew she could bring something to the performance, and that’s half the challenge right there.”
Snell’s days at UC Davis were productive ones. She performed in Oklahoma! and worked with various Granada artists. Grenke said that her experiences were helpful for her career path in professional theater.
“She was there all the time, always there taking direction, pretty much always there before everyone else and after everyone else left. She’s pretty much the poster child of students here who come in and want to be in the profession,” Grenke said. “It’s not about form; the skills obtained in theatre and dance are about critical thinking.”
Daley said that he is very proud of Snell for making it into the international tour of Avenue Q.
“Avenue Q is a brilliant musical; the use of puppetry to tell a relevant and fun story is ingenious, and the lyrics are extremely funny, the music extremely catchy,” Daley said. “[Broadway] has a long history, sure, but it represents a familiar place in our minds where new productions can be performed, with widespread success, and that’s not something you often get in, say, opera or classical music.”
Daley also said that it’s important for actors, writers and composers alike to have something to aspire.
When it comes to aspirations, Broadway is often viewed by many as a star just out of reach. But for Snell, Broadway was obtainable through persistence and practice.
“Persistence is key in this business, and if you feel that your life’s calling is to act, you just have to do it,” Snell said. “Study with teachers you trust and audition, audition, audition. Ask lots of questions. Just remember that the expert at anything was once a beginner.”
Grenke was once in Laura’s shoes, having experienced what he describes as a very small window of opportunity.
“I picked up and moved to New York when I was 23 with a one-way ticket, all of my earthly belongings and $200 in my pocket; there’s no logic to that, it doesn’t make sense, but the logic was I knew what my objectives were,” Grenke said. “I wanted to pursue the only thing in my life at that point that I was deeply passionate about because I wanted information, and I knew that window would close very soon.”
Snell agreed, and said a positive attitude is key for getting through the difficult times.
“One of the easiest ways is to go to school in the market that you want to work in and make sure you invest in good headshots that showcase your personality and your type,” Snell said. “My acting teacher always said that you will only be as good an actor as you are a liver of life, so please live life to the fullest and enjoy every moment of this exciting journey.”
LEA MURILLO can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.