The stage show Puffs: or Seven Increasingly Eventful Years at a Certain School of Magic and Magic has already had a dramatic rise in fame and fortune. The play comments on the Harry Potter series by telling it from the perspective of Hufflepuff characters who have their own arcs affected by, but not affecting, the world-changing events adjacent to them. It was only intended to run for five performances at The People’s Improv Theater, but it turned into a surprise hit. After several successful months at PIT, the production was refurbished and moved to The Elektra, an upstairs off-Broadway space on 43rd Street. Less than a year ago, the show moved venues again, and it is now in the sleek New World Stages space on West 50th, complete with their official off-Broadway Playbill.
Now Puffs has another venue in its sights, both smaller and larger than its current space: your living room. The Puffs are Kickstarting recording the show with a professional multi-camera rig. Reader, I backed them.
Both the playwright and the director answered some questions over email about the show’s successes, and how this Kickstarter will serve their extensive fanbase.
Playwright Matt Cox has an extensive history in improv, as well as playwriting, and got the idea for Puffs while riding on a train.
You’ve talked a lot in other interviews about how you got the idea for the show and how wildly successful it has been. How does it feel now for the show to be in its third venue and planning to record the show for an even wider audience?
Matt Cox: It is absolutely astonishing. Every once in awhile I’m sitting at New World Stages in the lobby listening to Avenue Q or now Jersey Boys, and it’s a funny little feeling of oh yeah, our show is here too with these big, New York-Broadway staples, and that’s crazy! It’s only my second full-length play, and we started as such a small thing at The PIT, with hopes of maybe extending once or twice. So, to see it still going strong two years later with people from all over the world coming to NYC just to see us, (or requesting over and over for us to film it so they can see us too!) that’s insane and just great.
Do you feel like it is the same show, all grown up, or has it morphed into something different?
Cox: Has the show grown up and changed? Oh, so much. The cast has been with the show for so long now that the roles are so embedded on to them that every time they perform it really is something special. New World also just feels like the perfect venue for what the show has become. It feels both big and intimate all at the same time, just like a certain book series we all know and love. Not only that, we’ve learned so much as we’ve transferred and extended over two years, we’ve been able to really put our best foot forward with the humor and the heart of the show. We view the piece as a legitimate play rather than a spoof type thing, and I think it’s really grown into that.
I love that you partner with the Ali Forney Center, which supports homeless LGBTQ+ youth, and that over the summer you did a fundraiser performance for the Harry Potter Alliance, an activist organization that “turns fans into heroes.” Can you tell us more about Puffs’ progressivism?
Cox: Puffs (the people) are loyal, caring, hard-working, and just really really nice. I think it’s important that Puffs (the show) puts those same attributes out into the world. We try to find as much as we can to give back and help out (and be really really nice.) I’m so happy with what we are doing/have done with The Ali Forney Center and HP Alliance, and we certainly plan to continue that in the future.
Puffs is about the rest of us and how we live our own lives and have personal triumphs and tragedies while big world-changing stuff is happening adjacent to us. And about trying to help in our individual ways even if we can’t single-handedly save the world. Do you see parallels between your concept for the show and what’s happening in the world now?
Cox: Yes, most definitely, which has been interesting to watch progress over the past two years. As the world around us has become slightly crazier, I am always very touched when people tell us the show provided a much-needed laugh. It’s escapism in the best possible way if that’s what you need. But, at the play’s center is a heart that embodies the existential dilemma of not feeling you can do anything to change the evil in the world, or even make a dent in the way things are. However, just by existing as a (really really) nice person, you can make a difference somewhere, to someone. Which I think is important to remember, always. Moments of the show have developed a lot more meaning for the cast and myself, unintentionally, but I think those moments stand as good reminders of how to embody that Puff spirit, despite whatever terrifying things could be happening outside the door.
Who do you think is the most underrated character in the Harry Potter books?
Cox: Perhaps it is Helga [Hufflepuff], because she gifted this wonderful bunch of underdogs and their way of life to us.
Is there a question that you wish interviewers would ask you that they never do?
Cox: Maybe, since the show has so many ’90s references, what is my favorite relic of the ’90s? I think it would have to be the television show Reboot. Perhaps this is just because I was explaining how awesome it was to someone recently (and it’s all on YouTube), but that show has been way more influential on my way of storytelling than one might expect. How it slowly built into an epic story from a weird premise about what goes on inside an early ’90s computer, with characters you love and care about, who all go through surprising journeys is great.
Having never watched Reboot, I feel that description fits Puffs pretty closely, except for the computer part, obviously, because electronics don’t function at Hogwarts.
Kristin McCarthy Parker, the director of the show, has been with it since its days at The PIT and has worked with Cox on other projects as well. I asked her about how her role has developed since the show has been running for two years, and how she envisions the filmed version working:
Puffs has been running for a long time! How does your job as director evolve as the show evolves?
Kristin McCarthy Parker: Puffs has had many iterations since we first opened two years ago, and we’ve gotten to reimagine and improve it each time. What started at the very beginning as “how can we do the most with very little,” became “how can we make the show the best version of itself?” That process is always full of fun challenges, and you spend probably too much time thinking about what and when to drop a prop from the grid, or whether someone should exit through the stage left door or the far stage left door. But, at its core, especially as we welcome new team members, there’s always a return to the basics of the story and what makes our group of lovable weirdos human.
Were you a fan of Harry Potter before coming to Puffs?
McCarthy Parker: Of course! I’d read the series twice and seen all the movies, and did so again as we were developing the show. In my last pass through, I read mostly on the train, and many people stopped me to ask if I’d read them before or which book was my favorite. I came of age with the series and have very distinct memories of parents pulling their kids out of school to see the first movie when it was released. It’s been amazing to experience the fandom anew via Puffs and see how it’s impacted so many people so profoundly.
Some of the people involved in Puffs have had dual roles in the production. Actress Madeleine Bundy did design work, for instance, and playwright Matt Cox did the sound! How does that shape the way you all put on a show together? It seems very Puff-appropriate.
McCarthy Parker: The show has truly evolved into what it is now by virtue of our team. We’ve worked hard to make it better and better while preserving our Puff-y angle on the story and the design. The show is very actor-driven, and Madeleine’s been great at giving the cast a fantastic and specific world to play in, punctuated with visual Easter eggs for the most diehard boy-who-lived fans. Matt’s sound design is cinematic in how fully it underscores and moves with the show, which shapes the rhythm and tone of much of it. It’s all combined to create a world so full that it’s hard to imagine how we squeeze it all into 1 hour 45 minutes.
I agree that the sound is cinematic and the play has a lot of references to the Harry Potter movies, as well as the books, so there’s already some film stuff built in. How do you envision Puffs working as a filmed experience? The Hypable rave review of the show notes that “Kristin McCarthy Parker’s direction does not shy away from making the emotional moments really emotional.” How will that be different on screen?
McCarthy Parker: The balance of humor and heart is integral to the show, so we’ll definitely work to preserve that on film. The camera will bring you closer to the actors at times, which will be great for the more intimate moments of the show. So much is happening at any given time across the stage that the camera’s highlighting of certain moments will make the final video an exciting watch for anyone, even those who have seen the show multiple times. It will still be Puffs, through and through, but we’re working to make the video feel like its own special experience, not just a carbon copy of the live one.
Matt Cox has said in another interview that one of the challenges of moving to a new venue, in fact, one of the major goals of the show, is “to make sure that the show is awesome for everyone, even in the back row … it’s just making the experience wonderful for everybody.” With the Kickstarted recording, it will be exciting to see what is achievable when there is no back row: new avenues will open for making the experience of watching the show wonderful for everybody.