BEHIND every puppet is a great actor. And behind them is someone like Nigel Plaskitt.
Nigel is a puppeteer and coach, something he has been doing most of his adult life after starting out as an actor.
During his long career he has worked on his fair share of exciting projects, most notably TV shows such as Spitting Image, films such as The Muppet Christmas Carol and the stage musical of Doctor Dolittle.
His current project is one he has been involved with for about 10 years, that of the hit stage show Avenue Q.
A smash hit on Broadway and in the West End this multi award-winning comedy musical is currently on a UK tour and coming to the New Wimbledon Theatre for a week from Monday March 14.
The show features a host of puppets brought to life by an ensemble cast of 11 performers – all of whom have been trained by Nigel.
"It’s a great show, very funny but definitely not for children,” he laughs. "It’s an adult take on Sesame Street, featuring characters who might have been in that show, and what happens to them when they grow up and leave home to go to university.
"During the show they find themselves in situations that most people can identify with at some point in their lives. It’s funny, rude and a lot of fun to be involved in.”
The story is about a group of characters who inhabit a New York neighbourhood of Avenue Q. Amongst them is Brian and his fiancée Christmas Eve, Nicky and his closet gay Republican roommate Rod, Trekkie Monster and the cute kindergarten teacher Kate Monster. Into their world comes Princeton, a bright eyed graduate with big dreams and a tiny bank account and it his arrival that heralds adventure and fun.
To make the characters come alive, the puppeteers have to act, sing, do all the voices and learn how to move the puppets so that the audience looks at the puppets rather than the actors.
It has been Nigel's job for the past 10 years to train all those involved. But if you think it looks easy he says you should think again.
"It’s actually extremely difficult and not everyone can do it,” he says. "The actors make it look easy but it takes a lot of practice and co-ordination.
"There is a huge amount to think about and that’s where I come in by teaching them how to use the puppets.”
He says the puppets themselves are not heavy and indeed are made to be really light as they have to be easy to move around. But he says for the actors it’s learning how to move in a totally new and unnatural way that is the tricky bit.
"It’s just off being comfortable," he explains. "I always tell them that if they feel comfortable they are doing it wrong.
"They have to get the puppet's faces and expressions right, learn how to lip sync correctly and make sure their hands are in the right position.
"They also have to learn their lines, the songs and move in the right way so there is a huge amount of stuff to take on board.
"I get involved in the casting process of the show, lead workshops and stay with them all throughout the rehearsal process, keeping an eye on them and then I see the show every three to four weeks.
"Half way through the rehearsal process you can see real panic set in,” he chuckles. "However it begins to feel more like second nature fairly quickly and they master it totally and then it becomes great fun."
So what made Nigel become a puppeteer I ask.
"I wanted to be an actor so that’s how I started out,” he says. “I didn’t get any careers advice on being a puppeteer when I was at school! However, pretty early on in my career I was approached to do a voice for a children’s TV show called Pipkins which ran from 1973 to 1981. When I auditioned they asked me to do the puppets, so I learned the craft on the job and by trial and error as I had no formal training.”
From there Nigel went on to star in Spitting Image and worked for Jim Henson Productions plus numerous TV shows, films and adverts including the PG Tips Monkey.
“I have been very lucky and realised I filled a niche that not many people were filling and I could do it and do it well,” he says.
“It’s a great business to be in and I love it. Spitting Image was amazing because it’s like an historical document and was really exciting to work on. There were a couple of moments when we thought we might get sued but we didn’t!
“The PG Tips Monkey is a great character to play too. My career has been full of highlights!” he adds warmly.
He got the Avenue Q job through a recommendation after having worked for Jim Henson Productions, creator of the Muppets and Sesame Street. That was 10 years ago and he’s still loving being part of the show.
"I still get a kick out of it,” he says. “I have seen it about 200 times now and still love being in the audience and seeing their reactions.
“Nothing beats a live audience and the experience of being in a theatre and that’s why Avenue Q works so well.
"It’s magical to see puppets on stage and I think their resurgence on the stage in shows such as War Horse, The Lion King and more latterly The Lorax is testament to that magical moment where you use your imagination and suspend belief.
"It’s an amazing thing - even though you know the actor is there you almost forget.
"The cast coming to Wimbledon are top rate and really great performers and just seem to be getting better and better."
Avenue Q is on at the New Wimbledon Theatre, Broadway, between Monday March 14 and Saturday, March 19. Tickets from £15. Visit http://www.atgtickets.com/wimbledon or call the box office on 0844 871 7646.