Actor Derek Quesada can’t contain his emotions in just one body. After 10 years of study, puppetry has become one of his strongest skill sets, doubling his stage presence. He ordered his first puppet, Andy, and watched videos online of other puppeteers’ tricks of the trade.
Soon, he could delineate the different styles derived from “Sesame Street” or “The Muppets” with relative ease, adapting them into his own mannerisms. When he discovered the funny coming-of-age musical “Avenue Q” in 2003, he feverishly learned every character and practiced in his room with hopes that someday he would bring them to life onstage.
Lip-syncing songs with Andy in front of a black curtain, Quesada recorded his performances and created mash-up videos to post online. Though at times discombobulating, splitting his brain between his own body and facial movements and those of his puppet became second nature.
His true puppet renaissance however, started back with “The Lion King.” He’s seen the live musical four times, and finds himself teary-eyed every time at a seemingly unexpected moment — when the elephant tramps into the aisle. This 15-person puppet baffles and inspires Quesada in the best possible way.
“I see all these people not only maneuvering the puppet but being the elephant by showing the weight and working their muscles,” describes Quesada. “It’s phenomenal that they make this happen to a puppet and it would not happen if they were not present. I think that is most important because they’re acting through their puppet work.”
Quesada’s Miami childhood was infused with the arts as the family took regular trips to New York City to see the latest shows. Though he never saw her perform, he says his grandmother’s involvement in musical theater was perhaps a catalyst for his own interests.
Foremost in his childhood was his uncle, a professional magician who inspired Quesada to learn a few tricks of his own. A kindergarten production of “Beauty and the Beast,” with Quesada as the furry protagonist, was his first experience as a performer.
He continued participating in theater onstage and in the wings throughout middle school and attended a special technical theater program in high school to cultivate skills in lighting and set design. Recently graduated from Florida State University, 22-year-old Quesada holds a dual degree in sociology and theater and finds overlap between the two. One of his last shows as an undergraduate was an original work called “Social Issues,” which featured a skit with his puppet Andy where the news would come on but they didn’t want to watch it.
“When we first started the project I wasn’t very in tune with social issues because I tend to be optimistic and ignore them,” admits Quesada whose tandem learning in sociology helped him throughout the process. “I’ve learned a lot about social problems through theater because I think the news will shut you down more than a show will. Theater is a great form of social change along with entertainment.”
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