Hypable recently spoke with Matt Cox, the playwright behind Puffs — a parody of the Harry Potter books that focuses on the Hufflepuffs in Harry’s year.
Puffs closed at the PIT on August 4, but will reopen at the much bigger Elektra Theater off-Broadway on September 29 amidst stellar word of mouth. Visit their official website here.
It’s a parody for the fans, written by a big fan. Puffs follows three of the Hufflepuffs in Harry’s year — Wayne Hopkins (Zac Moon), Megan Jones (Julie Ann Earls), and Oliver Rivers (Langston Belton). The trio forms a strong friendship, and tries to get a magical education (and not last place in the House Cup) as things at Hogwarts get increasingly chaotic.
Q: How did you first decide to write a play about Hufflepuff?
More than a year ago now, we were winding down on Kapow-i GoGo, which was the other big show our little team did before Puffs. I just started thinking about other fun ideas, and I remember sitting on a train, going to a friend’s party, I’d just started thinking about the HP book series, and this general thought of, “Life would have been kind of terrible for all of the other students there, due to the misadventures of our certain young boy wizard protagonist.”
And that little train of thought led to focusing more on the Puffs just because of their status in general pop culture. I thought it would be really fun to see their perspective on those seven years, and how horrific it had to have been to be a student there.
Q: Yeah. Wait, that’s awesome — so you came up with the idea on a train, just like J.K. Rowling.
Yeah, I didn’t even realize that, that’s fun!
Q: How long were you working on Puffs before it premiered at the PIT? What was your writing process like?
We did a reading of it — just the first four years [at Hogwarts] — last July, and that was all pretty much written the week of, just because a spot opened up at the PIT’s calendar. I kinda threw it together, and then it was a lot better than I thought it might end up being. So we really pressed forward.
I pretty much worked on it off and on from July until November, when we started rehearsals for it. I really was tweaking it, and am still tweaking it now… even as the show ran for way longer than we ever anticipated, I kept tweaking it here and there. But the major writing process was done mostly for two months, where I worked really hard on it, and then after the first few shows in December I took another huge whack at it.
Q: You’ve kept rewriting the play and changing things throughout its run — it was different each of the four times I saw it. Do you think you will ever get to a definitive version of the show where you’ll stop changing it?
100%, actually. I’m doing one last big pass through it at the moment, and then when we start rehearsals on Monday [August 29] we’ll be back in an environment where we’re playing with the script, and I’m definitely going to want to change things. It’s how I work and it’s more fun that way. But when it opens at the Elektra that will be the definitive version of the script, barring any major change to the canon that would require us to make sure we can still fit in in a fun way.
Q: Like, for example, a certain movie series coming out with a Hufflepuff protagonist.
That’s certainly going to be something that I’m wracking my brain for preliminary things to throw in and hope they work. And we might end up doing our own little side thing involving that movie, we’ll see… similar to what we did with the reading.[After Puffs’ final show at the PIT on August 4, the cast presented a cold reading of Nineteen Years Later, or: There and Back Again, A Puffs Tale. It was a parody of Cursed Child set as a sequel to Puffs.]
Q: So, talk of the reading… what inspired you to write a Cursed Child parody four days after it came out.
I think it was a joke at first that me and Stephen Stout [one of the producers, who also plays Ernie Macmillan and Professor Snape] made. We were like, “We should just do [a parody] right after it comes out.” I kind of forgot about it for a while, that it was an actual thing, and then I realized our last two shows at the PIT coincided with the week after it came out.
I happened to look at the PIT calendar, and there was an open slot at the 11 o’clock after our show. I was like, “I think it’d be fun,” so I made sure to go get the script book when it came out at midnight. And as I was reading I was coming up with the general plot of what [the parody] was going to end up being. And I was so happy I did, it ended up being such a fun little challenge, in several very awake nights.
Q: So it was, by common consensus, way better than the actual Cursed Child. All the discussions we’ve been having about Cursed Child have ended up referencing the play reading. It was amazing.
That makes me so happy. We do want to do it, it’s on the pipeline to do the reading at least one or two more times. Just because it ended up being better than I anticipated for a play I wrote in three days mostly between the hours of midnight and 5 a.m.
Q: Given your play’s very lovable portrayal of Cedric, how do you feel about him becoming a Death Eater in the darkest timeline in Cursed Child?
I thought that was a little strange. I can kind of get it, but that was a “Huh?” when I was reading the script. That was a little out there. And that was a fun joke to make in the Nineteen Years Later script, to make him so awkwardly evil in a way; he didn’t quite know how to be evil. It was the only way I was able to justify it in my head.
Q: Yeah, I really liked that. Talk of Cedric, Evan Maltby [who played Cedric in Puffs until now] is the only member of the original cast not transferring to the Elektra Theatre production. Have you found a new actor for Cedric/Voldemort yet?
I believe we have. I don’t think I can necessarily talk about it just yet. Just because everything is being finalized. But I think everyone will be really happy with what we end up bringing to the show. We’ll miss Evan a lot.
Q: Going back to Puffs, how is the off-Broadway incarnation going to differ from what we’ve seen at the PIT?
The space is going to be incredibly different that we’ll be performing it in. The show will be entirely restaged – certain things will end up being the same, but you don’t have that architecture that the People’s Improv Theater has, so we’re having much more dedicated of a set that we’re constructing using the architecture of the Elektra. So it’s not anything majorly different, but the staging of the show will be different.
In terms of props and everything, we’re redesigning a lot of things, still keeping that handmade scrappy aesthetic that we have. It’s a little more oomph to some of the items, especially the creatures and stuff like that, we’re gonna make those a little bit bigger and more fun. There are a few bigger script adjustments that are happening; in the battle we’re adding in a few more moments.
Q: The play really deftly blends humor with genuine emotion. Do you struggle to balance the two, or does it come naturally?
It’s kind of our team’s goal. (The team from Kapow-i GoGo and Puffs — Kristin McCarthy Parker the director, Stephen Stout and Colin Waitt the producers.) When we talk through the plot, our goal is to really marry the two things. Because it’s so unexpected, especially with the material that we’re dealing with, because we’re expected to be more of a parody play, so the thing that we strive to do is have that genuine heart and emotion in it.
It is a lot of work to get it in there, because it doesn’t fit as naturally into this hyper-silly world. But it’s so rewarding to try and make it happen, and when it works out it’s good. It’s the thing I work the hardest to put into my plays, that genuine sense of heart surrounding all the silliness.
At the Elektra, we’re putting a lot more emphasis on the heartfelt elements. We’re bringing those more to the forefront in a way. Because we won’t be at a comedy venue, we’ll be moving into a theater, so we want the play elements to shine, while keeping all the silliness and all the craziness. We’re doubling down on the emotional journey of the show in a way that I think will be surprising to everyone and will be a lot of fun.
Q: One of my favorite moments in the play is when your trio revisits the Mirror of Erised, because that’s such a poignant full-circle moment. Do you think that’s a moment that should have been in the books? Because I kind of do.
That moment ended up coming into the script because after our first rehearsal I went back and rewrote a whole lot of the play, just because it was missing a certain flow to their journey as a trio. That was when including the Mirror in the first place came about.
And so when I got to the later point, it was a thing that opened up to me, “Oh that makes so much sense to be a gage of how these characters have grown, by looking into the Mirror again.” I think what we got in the books is just great as it is, but it certainly would have been cool, and I’m happy that we do it.
Q: Another thing you very deftly blended with the play is all the ‘90s references. Did all of those just come to you in the process of writing?
Oh yeah. I was born in 1989, I am very much of that era. When I discovered the books, that was very much the world that I was living in. I did end up doing a lot of Google searching, year by year, what was the big thing in those years? And then it would be things that lined up so perfectly thematically with what was going on in the books. And it was amazing how it worked out, like the Free Willy [reference in the beginning of Year Three.]
Q: My favorite is the AOL Instant Messenger screen names.
Even before I had gotten to that point where I was writing it, I really wanted to include something about AOL Instant Messenger, because it was so huge in my own childhood, especially at that time in my life. And whenever I was working, I was really worried (because I hadn’t even looked it up yet) that the timeline wasn’t gonna work out, and it barely does… it’s still really early on in AOL Instant Messenger, but it’s justifiable.
It rolled out right around 1997/98. That was one of the ones that I had to make sure that goes in there. Those sounds [the logging in/logging off sounds] will mean so much to the people of that era of the books. I got a huge sense of delight from the audience’s reaction to that every night.
Q: There are so many easter eggs in the show for hardcore Harry Potter fans — even I didn’t catch all of them the first time I saw it. Which one are you most proud of, and most impressed when people get it?
There’s one that I don’t know if anyone’s ever actually come up to me and said. In the first book, when the troll is attacking and everyone’s exiting the Great Hall, in the book it says when Harry and Ron are trying to go save Hermione, there’s a moment where they walk past a group of confused Puffs. So that’s what the “We are not a threat! Please be our friends!” bit is supposed to be. So that’s my favorite little bit: it’s them running around in chaos and being confused.
I’m always a huge fan of the mispronunciation of Hermione’s name. It’s funny just because when I first read it before the movies had come out, and I didn’t know Shakespeare at the time, I had no idea how to pronounce this name. That was like a moment of, “Oh, everybody felt like that. Great!”
Q: Well, that’s why Rowling put in the scene in Goblet of Fire where Viktor Krum tries to pronounce her name. That was her appeasement of the fans. My favorite Easter egg is the “dragons like to eat dogs” line [in reference to the first Triwizard Task].
There was also the line, which they might not say anymore because of minor cuts happening, “Who knew what would be awaiting our champions? Well, actually, all of them!” By that point everyone’s been told.
There’s so many. My favorite — and this isn’t even related to the book series — I really like that our Viktor only speaks in Rocky IV quotes. All his lines are lines directly taken from Ivan Drago from Rocky IV, the Russian boxer. And that’s something that’s delighted me since the first reading, that one’s for me. And one person has come up to me and said, “Those are Rocky IV quotes, right?” Yes they were.
Q: Where did you get Sorted on Pottermore?
I was Sorted into Hufflepuff, which made me very happy. It was one of those things where for branding’s sake, I feel like it’s gotta go one way. So that was good.
Q: And what does being in Hufflepuff mean to you?
It wasn’t something I had necessarily thought about. I had always put myself as more of a Snake [Puffs’ name for Slytherin] in my brain leading up to me writing this, because I’ve always been drawn to villainous characters. But in the books, the Puffs are so themselves, and just like that idea that they’re the ones who stay at the school for the [Battle of Hogwarts] in a way that nobody even knows.
That’s beautiful, and that’s such a sense of character and a strong sense of being a human being — just a nice person who doesn’t get the respect. And it’s one of the reasons that I think the play touches on so many good things. And so I’m very happy to be amongst that group of human beings.
In my version, because of the events of Puffs, the Puffs in the future of the series are considered much cooler, just because of the events of the Battle [of Hogwarts]. So one of the things that I’ve always played around with is that their status is raised in a way that we don’t get to see, but it’s a thing that happens.
Q: How did you first get into Harry Potter and the fandom?
It was right after the second book came out. I was in my school library. I was at a year where I was trying to beat everybody at [reading books to acquire points to spend at a Scholastic book fair], so I was reading a lot of books. I saw the first one in our school’s library, and I was like, “That sounds fun!” And I read it, and I loved it, and I read the second one, and I think the third one was coming out right around that time. So it was kind of by happenstance, and I got each one after that the day they came out.
Q: So did you go to a midnight release party for Cursed Child?
I did, I went to the Union Square Barnes & Noble one. They really decked that place out! I was just happy, because there were so many people who missed those particular experiences because it’s been so long. It was a thing that I did at least four times in my life, so it’s great that so many other people got a chance to at least do it one time.
Q: Are you still going to be doing the sound at the Elektra Theatre?
I won’t be running it anymore, but I’m still the sound designer for the show. We’re still using everything from the PIT. And then I’m going to tweak up some stuff, and we’ll still be using my friend Brian Hoes’s music, which all the orchestral stuff is. I’m happy to hear it in better speakers that have a little bit wider of a range. We did the show earlier in the year at the University of Florida, kind of a test run for the Elektra stage. They had all these options – there’s an undercurrent in the music that I had never even heard before, so it was fun to hear the stuff he had made, like I can’t believe some of this stuff is hiding in this music!
Q: So, you doing the sound ended up with you watching the show every single time it was performed. What was that like? Did you ever get a bit tired of it?
No, not at all. That was mostly the reason the show kept changing, because I watched it every night… I would just sit there and come up with ideas for things I’d like to see. So then we just had the room to play. So since I kept doing that I kept wanting to watch it. I still get a kick out of the show, the cast do such a wonderful job, and they all just have fun, so it’s fun to watch it. At the new space I probably won’t be watching it just as much, and that’ll be sad.
Q: Have you been surprised by the success of the play, or did you know that there was an audience for this show if only you could reach them?
When I was first coming up with the idea, it was like Kapow-i, because that was also a show that engaged with a certain culture, it just had a wider net: video games, cartoons, anime, and all that stuff. That one, we did kind of struggle: we found certain places with people who wanted to see it and everyone got really excited about it, but it was hard to reach out to everyone.
So with [Puffs], I did have that feeling, knowing how diffuse this audience is, and if we can tap it in the right way, we can really have some success. But I am constantly amazed that we’re still doing this show. Because the original run was for five performances, and I hoped that maybe we would go on for one more month after that maybe, so I am amazed that there is still enough of a support happening, and that the word of mouth keeps travelling. I hope that it keeps doing that. Because a lot of people have read these books.
Q: J.K. Rowling will be in NYC for the Carnegie Hall event in November. Have you thought about the possibility of her coming to see the show?
Would it be great? I guess so. I would hope that she would like it.
Q: So you’re going into a bigger theater now — 200 seats. What are the opportunities and the challenges of being in a bigger theater?
Definitely the layout of the space is completely different. We have to readjust to fit that particular space. One of our big things as a group is that the show should be awesome for every single seat in the house.
Q: Even the back row, which is “sad forever.” [After a dementor attack in Year Three.]
Even the sad forever rows! At the PIT we try to keep things happening on the stairs and everything like that. So one of our biggest challenges, and we’re going to be learning this in the rehearsal, is how to make sure that the show is awesome for everyone, even in the back row. Which is a little bit further back now. There’s all these different kinds of angles. So it’s just making the experience wonderful for everybody.
Q: Finally, because this is the question that everyone always asks: any plans to ever bring the show to fans outside NYC? Through video, a script release, a touring production?
At the moment, not necessarily. We are focusing on the amazing thing that is happening right here. But eventually, hopefully, if we’re successful enough here, the sky’s the limit. If we do well these next couple months or however long we keep the show going here, there’s at least some chance of it opening up wider. But first we gotta make this one a success.
Our silly little wizard play is still going — that’s exciting!
For more information about Puffs, visit PuffsthePlay.com