6:30 pm EST, March 1, 2019

Hypable speaks with Jessie Cannizzaro, your little house-elf friend from ‘Puffs’

By Irvin K

Jessie Cannizzaro has played Sally Perks and Bippy the house-elf (among others) for over three years in Puffs; on February 9, she hung up her glasses and pillowcase for good.

Hypable was there for her last show to honor someone “who’s been here the whole time.” A few days before the final performance, we spoke with Jessie about her eyebrows, song-writing, and being the hero of her own story.

You’re pretty much the biggest Harry Potter fan in the cast. How has it been, the intersection of “it’s a show I’m working on” and the fact that it’s Harry Potter?

I’m a big Potter nerd, for sure. I grew up going to every midnight book release party, every midnight movie premiere. I was cosplaying as all the characters, from Tonks to Lupin to every character in between. I never went to a school that had a football team, but I always had schools that had a certain sport played on broomsticks. I have played [Quidditch] and I like to be the snitch! I love it.

That’s the wonderful thing about the Potter community, how loving and wonderful and what a community it is. You know, I think that “community” can certainly be used to describe a lot of fandoms, but the Potter fandom in particular is just nothing but love.

When I graduated college, I saw this job posting to be a wizard at the Potter Exhibition in Midtown. I just immediately applied. It said something like, “Must be able to carry around a 15 pound lantern.” I’m like, we’ll work on that, but I’m applying for this job. And I wore wizard robes and talked in a British accent and Sorted people into their houses… And just loved it. [Small world alert: Jessie actually Sorted this writer at the Exhibition eight years ago!] It was such a dream job. I always joke that the Potter fandom has, in some way or another, kept me gainfully employed since my graduation.

The one thing that is definitely not changing anytime soon is my nerdy little Potter-loving heart! Potter is such a rich, incredible, detailed world. And to have a universe that lends itself to creating stories like Puffs… You can have not just the main character, but you can read the books and go, “What’s going on with those side characters over there? I’m curious about them.” What an awesome thing to get to be a part of.

What has surprised you the most about the fan response to Puffs?

The fan response has been incredible. It’s been incredible to watch it evolve and become its own thing over the years. I always remember the first time that The Group That Shall Not Be Named came and bought out the theater at the PIT. And people made t-shirts and were just there laughing and so supportive of this little world we had created. To watch it then, as we went to the Elektra and had people cosplay us for the first time… it’s been absolutely nuts. My favorite is always getting these wonderful letters in the mail, these incredibly thoughtful fan gifts. I’m sitting here right now with this homemade Bippy doll that was created for me. To have something that makes people want to give back to the world we have created has been amazing.

And this December a bunch of the original cast and I got a chance to go out to the Weekend of Wizardry out in Tacoma, Washington. We’re performing the show in New York, and it’s incredible to watch people come and visit. But it was this first time of going out to another place on the other side of the country, and to have people still come up and go, “Oh, my goodness, you’re the cast of Puffs! I’ve seen the show two times!” or, “I flew to New York back in the summer and saw the show!” or, “I’ve seen the movie!” [It] was just unreal to know that it’s had that wide of a reach.

I was on the train last night and these guys came up and said, “We’ve seen Puffs three times and just wanted to say hi and say how great it is. And tell you how much we loved Bippy.” I love that this show is not just ours anymore. It belongs to anyone who comes to see it and laughs and likes it. And I feel very special to have been a part of that. I am going to miss it SO much!

What’s been your favorite experience with the show?

I think filming the show will always be this incredible gift that we were able to share. Something that we made was broadcast in over 600 movie theaters across the country on huge giant screens, that was absolutely unreal.

What was it like seeing yourself twenty feet tall on a movie screen?

It was terrible and exciting and amazing. We all were so nervous going into it thinking, “Okay, I don’t know what I look like doing this show. But I know that I’ve played a bunch of different characters running around acting absolutely insane, doing huge crazy voices and making pretty big choices. What is that going to look like on the big screen?”

But then [we] get to sit there with our cast, with you and other incredible fans who have become our friends over the years. As soon as the show started, and I watched how amazing my castmates are… And to get to see the show for the very first time as an audience member was just breathing a sigh of relief.

You’re the only actor who gets two death scenes in the show. How do you mix the humor and the pathos in those scenes without veering too far in either direction?

It’s intense. What’s interesting is my two characters, Sally and Bippy, they have these very drastically different kinds of death scenes, that are very close to each other. And the brilliant thing about Matt [Cox]’s script, which certainly is inspired by how the arc of the books plays out as well, is that you start off Year One: it’s exciting, and it’s scary at times, but it’s full of adventure, and the excitement of being an 11-year-old in this world for the first time. But as you get older, you start to deal with real tragedy.

And the intense thing about Sally’s moment in the battle is that it’s the first death in the battle that we see. There’s always this moment in the audience, this bit of surprise, that they went there. It’s been fun, and we’ve been running around and casting spells and just enjoying it. And then suddenly, it’s that reminder of [how] these are still teenagers, fighting this giant war. And that comes with consequences and it comes with tragedy. So with Sally’s death, there is this responsibility that I feel not make it too silly. She has this moment of coming into her own. And just in that second, as she finally accepts herself for who she is, she’s taken away.

What’s nice is then to come out as Bippy. Even though we watch Bippy die this very dramatic death as her song is played throughout the theater, I think it’s a nice moment of relief for the audience. “We can laugh again!” Just before we take their heart and tear it into pieces with Wayne’s death.

Which is extra rough because all the other Puffs die just after their respective moments of triumph, but not Wayne.

He is able to corral the group together and inspire them to fight, which in some ways could be considered [him] stepping into his own. But he never quite makes it in that way that he thinks he will. He never quite becomes the grand hero, or has his name remembered and written down in books. But it’s the wonderful lesson that is just my favorite thing about Puffs: learning to accept that even if you’re not the hero you think you’re supposed to become, you are the hero in your own right. You’re the hero of your own story. Learn to accept whatever house you’re in and whatever qualities you have as heroic in their own way.

That portrayal of the headmaster in the White Room scene… I think it’s one of my favorite lines in the entire show, when the headmaster says, “We’re all heroes in some way to someone. And as for your story, I think it was pretty cool.” I’m tearing up just thinking about it.

What’s your favorite part in the show?

The White Room scene is probably my favorite overall part of the show, I just think it’s beautiful. But my favorite part to do for me is just to play Bippy. Both times I get to come out as Bippy, I sort of live for that moment of the show. Or “Peepee,” as we now know [per] the closed captions.

Tell me about how you came up with Bippy’s song.

When we were rehearsing for our transfer to the Elektra Theater, we were figuring out how to evolve the script and the show. Which also meant changing Bippy’s entrance. Back at the PIT, I would come out with a bag of chips and feed chips to Wayne and to Megan. And then Matt [Cox] did some rewrites. Originally Bippy would just sort of come out and be this crazy little house-elf. And I think it was Steve Stout [Ernie Mac], who turned to me in rehearsal one day and was joking about Bippy having a theme song. Matt overheard as we were joking about it, and said, “You know, Jessie, I’m gonna let you try writing a theme song. And I might hate it, and I might cut it, but I’m gonna give you the chance to try. See what you come up with.”

And I was like, “Okay, I’m gonna go home. And I’m going to write a great theme song. He’s not going to hate it, he’s gonna love it. And it’s going to stay in the show.” So I just went home that night, and I was like, “Okay, let’s figure out how to rhyme and write lyrics. It can’t be that hard!”

I sort of wrote the first few lines, and what rhymes with “adventure”? “Indentured”! Great, got it! The song has been written.

It’s the brilliant thing about Matt as a playwright and Kristin [McCarthy Parker] as a director: they are so collaborative. All of us met working in downtown theater, [which] has this very collaborative nature. And they’ve always embraced that style, to give you the space to try things out and to play around with the script. I always take my hat off to Matt for letting me try some very stupid things. And it didn’t get cut, as we know!

How’s your portrayal of the characters evolved over the last three years?

It’s changed a lot. Even last night, I was playing around with a version of Sally’s voice and demeanor, [where] I was like, “I wonder if I could play with this in my last three days here.” And it’s morphed so much over time, as we found new interactions with the characters. I think the incredible thing that helps this show evolve is how brilliant the cast is. We all play off of each other. Playing with Nick [Carrillo] on stage, as Sally and J-Finch, we would find these moments. And then, by the time we got to the Elektra, we realized, Sally and J-Finch do kind of have their own track going on. They don’t intersect a lot, but when they do, they do! And finding what those character intersections are, and evolving that, has been really fun to play.

Sally, when she first started out, was a character that we were trying to figure out. What is her moment of transformation? Is it a full hair-down-glasses-off in a real ’80s movie teen romance kind of way? And then Maddie [Bundy, the costume/props designer] was like, “From a prop and costume perspective, it’d be really funny if it was just: She takes her glasses off, and suddenly, she becomes this beautiful creature in Wayne and Oliver’s eyes.

It’s been fun to figure out: What is that transformation? Throughout the seven years, what does she do on her own journey to get to that point of acceptance of who she is? Where she’s not trying to impress anyone. It’s been fun to find.

You have all these storylines happening at the periphery of the stage. So tell me about Sally’s journey during Puffs, where Sally’s the hero of her own story. What’s that story look like?

Sally is exploring. She comes to the school and is very well-meaning, very nice, and a little awkward in her own skin. Sally is somebody who really wants to find love, in a very earnest real way.

In Year One she kind of tries to kiss J-Finch, and he holds up his soccer ball and deflects. And she’s like, “Okay, it’s not that.”

Later, she goes to the [Yule] Ball with Ernie and is nervously slow-dancing with him. And at the end I kind of try to kiss him, and he doesn’t notice, so I shake his hand instead. “Okay, that’s not it, either.” I’m sure that I am going to find love and I just have to put myself out there.

But from the very first moment we enter the Puff common room, Sally turns around and there’s this moment of Susie entering the common room behind her. Sally’s looking around, overwhelmed, going, “Oh, wow, what a cool common room!” And she turns, and they lock eyes… they shake hands and it just clicks. It’s me and Maddie Bundy (who plays Susie) kind of whispering to each other. Maddie is usually like, “You’re really pretty!” And then I go, “Oh, you’re really pretty!”

Throughout the rest of the show, I think Sally is exploring it, going, “Well we’re just really good friends!” But there are several moments throughout the show where Sally and Susie are always together. Sally comes up to Susie during “Butterbeers” and they just hug. Later on, during Year Six, they run out, and (maybe over the summer) they’ve realized that they are in love, and that they will start exploring that.

And then, of course, Sally ends up going on that fateful date with Wayne. She spends a lot of time confused and curious and trying to find love. But I think her one true love is Susie Bones. What did you say, “Perky Bones,” is that the shipping name?

Yes, from when I interviewed Maddie way back when.

I like it! “Perky Bones.” Let’s get t-shirts!

Well I think that story was pretty cool.

Hey, thanks! Sally’s the hero in her own journey, too!

You can kind of watch any side character and follow their path. The first time you see [Puffs], it builds this whole stage picture that is rich and detailed. But you don’t really notice all those small details at first, it all just combines to create this picture of the world. So it’s nice to have a show [where] people can come back and catch the smaller moments.

True. For example, I noticed last time that your Rita Skeeter eyebrow work is so impressive!

Thank you! That’s one of those details [where] I hear one person in the audience go, “Oh, her eyebrows!” Yes, I got through to one person!

Somebody came up to me at the stage door once and said, “You have the most expressive eyebrows I’ve ever seen!” Like, “Cool, do that eyebrow acting!”

What’s your favorite Zach Smith?

My personal favorite is probably Jennifer Buckets. There was one show where it was torrentially raining outside. It was raining so bad that that part of the ceiling started to leak a little bit, just an absolute thunderstorm. We put a bucket on stage to catch this leak. And we’re all avoiding it and running around. But the amazing thing about this cast, and particularly Nick Carrillo, is the way that they worked the bucket into moments of this show, just on the fly. Nick came out as Zach Smith, and talked about this bucket being his girlfriend that had transformed. But the bucket was named Jennifer Buckets. And it has since become part of the Puffs canon in a lot of ways.

I’m one of the actors who doesn’t get to be in the Zach Smith moments, a real sad thing for me. But I get to stand backstage. During Zach Smith, everyone who is not in the moment and all of our crew are usually crowded around the curtains watching from the sides, to see what ridiculous thing is happening out there.

Do you have a favorite Easter egg in the show?

All the design Easter eggs [from] Maddie Bundy, who not only plays Harry but is our absolutely brilliant props and set and costume designer… I don’t know how she does it! But she has designed this space, and not just the set on stage. The minute you walk into the theater, there are so many little design Easter eggs! So you feel like you are walking into the castle, into this other [un]seen part of the castle. I have spent so much time looking at each portrait on the walls. I think that is just brilliant, that she has these portraits up [where] all the people in the portraits have left and wandered off, as we know they tend to do. So it’s just these empty portraits all over the theater. I think that is brilliant.

What has being a part of Puffs meant to you?

Being a part of Puffs has been far and away the most memorable theatrical experience that I’ve ever had. And that I think I will ever have. I honestly think that to have something that you created with your very best friends, that was supposed to run for five performances and then never happen again… to have it find its audience! And not only that, but extend and transfer and transfer again and become this thing that is no longer just ours… [it] has been amazing.

You’ve heard Julie [Ann Earls] talk about how you can play Hamlet, but people aren’t going to come to the theater in cosplay as Hamlet. And that’s so true. To have a show [where] people come dressed up as you, and come back again and again, it’s truly been the most memorable experience that I’ve had in in the world of theater and in the world of wizardry.

I’m excited for whatever the future brings, but I know that I will never have another experience quite like Puffs. And I just feel lucky beyond belief to have had this home, this common room near the kitchens, for the last three years. To be a part of eight shows a week, it’s been truly a joy and a thrill.

Would you ever come back to Puffs? Years down the line, a reunion tour…?

Absolutely, we have to do the reunion tour! When we’re all like, “Oh my gosh, there’s so much running in this show! My back hurts!” It’ll have to be slightly altered, with orthopedic shoes. It’s been so fun to see the show grow and evolve as new people join and become part of our Puffs family. But if they ever wanted to do a reunion show down the line with the original cast, I will certainly be there.

Any closing thoughts?

I guess I just want to say thank you, to you and to everyone who has supported Puffs from the beginning. Or who has joined our Puffs community over the years. Whether you’re seeing it for the first time on the big screen, or whether you’re coming back to see the live show for the ninth or tenth time.

I still am shocked every time that there are people who are not just my mom and dad in the audience, seeing it multiple times, supporting us and supporting this weird crazy thing that we’ve created. We would not be here three years later, Off-Broadway, having a production that was in Australia, getting to release the script and make a movie… we would not be here at all without the Puffs fans. So thank you, to anyone who came and came back, or told a friend to come. Just thank you, from the bottom of my Puff heart.

Thanks to Jessie for speaking with us! She left Puffs to star in The Gods of Comedy with Tony nominee Brad Oscar (Something Rotten) — a new play by renowned playwright Ken Ludwig about two professors who inadvertently summon the ancient gods of comedy. Jessie will be playing Thalia, the muse of comedy and idyllic poetry. It will play New Jersey’s McCarter Theatre, March 12 through 31, before heading to San Francisco’s Old Globe. Tickets are on sale now!

Puffs continues its record-breaking run in New York City, and you can find out more about the play on their website. In recent exciting news, they have published their scripts so you can read through and catch the jokes you missed on your first few viewings.

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