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Holding Her "Q" Her Broadway debut happened to fall during the stagehands' strike, so Sarah Stiles patiently waited to bow as Kate Monster in "Avenue Q."
Among the unforeseen side effects of the recent Local 1 stagehands' were a few missed exits and entrances: John Lloyd Young, the Tony-winning star of Jersey Boys, didn't get his scheduled final bow. The 10th anniversary gala performance of The Lion King was not celebrated on the stage of the Minskoff.

And Sarah Stiles, all set to succeed Mary Faber in the roles of Avenue Q's Kate Monster and Lucy the Slut, had her Broadway debut delayed a few weeks. Slated to premiere on Nov. 13, she instead went on Nov. 30.

She confesses that she didn't see it coming.

"I have to say, because the show is so hard, and the rehearsal process was so intense, I really had no idea these talks were going on," confesses Stiles, whose last brush with Broadway was as an understudy for The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, and who had been working out of town over the summer. She says it wasn't until the day of her final "put-in" rehearsal--a full run-through with the other cast members--that she started to hear about it.

That happened to be on Friday, Nov. 9, one day before the strike began on Nov. 10.

"I knew something was up that Friday night when they made a backstage announcement at intermission, and then again at the end of the show, reminding us to take our valuables home," Stiles recalls. "That's when it started to dawn on us that this might happen. It was still very much a shock to me."

That Friday "put-in" rehearsal was bittersweet in another way: It was Stiles' first chance to work with the Q crew--the same folks who would be on the picket lines the next day. Though the strike would plunge her into a few weeks of anxiety, Stiles says she bore the stagehands no ill will.

"Every time I'd come to the picket line, the stagehands were so apologetic," Stiles recalls warmly. "I told them, 'It's so not about me!' I didn't get upset. There was so much support."

The challenges of walking into a long-running, well-oiled Broadway machine can be big enough. In Stiles case, you can add an unplanned three-week delay, without rehearsals or previews to warm up. ut as if those weren't big enough hurdles, consider that Avenue Q adds one more: puppetry.

A seasoned musical theatre performer (her credits include a tour of Dr. Doolittle and several regional runs), Stiles hadn't worked with puppets before.

"I'd never done it, but I love it--I took to it pretty fast," said Stiles, who was given a crash course by practiced puppeteer and original Q ensemble member Peter Linz. "It's about not being intimidated by having that thing on your arm, and to learn to see it just as an extension of yourself."

Her biggest challenge, Stiles admits, was to find the spontaneity in a totally unfamiliar technique.

"When you start working with it, you can't imagine you'll ever be able to do it," Stiles admits. "You feel like you're going to pull all of your hair out. You look at the people in the show, and they all make it look so easy."

It's not, of course.

"I'm the sort of actor who likes to sort of play and go moment to moment, let things happen, find new things every night," Stiles says. "But with the puppet I really had to know exactly what I was doing at every moment. It's like choreography. The most challenging thing for me was having to plan everything, until I finally got used to it and could let it go."

She was amazed at her fellow cast members, who had the show back up and running the day after the strike ended--and without a rehearsal. Another original cast member, Jennifer Barnhart, took the Kate/Lucy roles that first night. And though the producers gave her the option of a few more days of run-throughs and warm-ups, she says, "I'd been sitting in my apartment waiting during the strike, and I couldn't wait another day, so I just decided to go for it!"

She was on the next night. Stiles' husband quickly drove from his home in Washington, D.C., and her manager came, as well. It was a successful debut, with only one minor glitch: "My mic came off! I'm a bit sweaty for a girl, and it slid off. They had to pull me out of a scene for a second and stick it back on."

She laughs at the memory of her belated first weekend as a lead on a Broadway, quipping, "Honestly, I thought, 'If I can do this show and get through this weekend, I can do anything!' "

Stiles has lived to tell, indeed.

"What a strange time to be coming into the business!" Stiles marvels of her post-strike debut. "It's been a one-of-a-kind experience."

We trust that Sarah Stiles starring on Broadway is not a one-shot, though.

To learn how to get tickets to Avenue Q, go here.