5:00 pm EST, August 16, 2019

What ‘Puffs’ means to me

By Irvin K

I have been covering Puffs for Hypable for three and a half years, so as it’s about to close on August 18, here is my reflection on what this show has meant to me.

Every time I do an interview with the actors of Puffs, I ask them the question, “What has being a part of Puffs meant to you?” Their answers have proven eloquent and touching (Exhibits A, B, C, D, and E). But as we are about to bid farewell to Puffs, I thought I’d try to answer that question myself.

There’s the surface-level stuff, of course. Puffs has been a refreshing constant in my life for three and a half years – every few months, we’d get a group together and put on costumes and spend 90-ish minutes on a story and characters we loved. It’s like graduating from high school: you feel like the routine will last forever, and then it suddenly ends.

There’s the fact that Puffs accidentally made me a theatre journalist. This was never something that was even in my mind as a thing real-life people did. Yet I now have the wholly surreal experience of walking by words that I’d written on billboards in Times Square and on subway platforms. I’ve found a new activity I love, interviewing other creative people, and it all began with Matt Cox being very patient as I figured out how to record a phone call.

But that still doesn’t cut to the heart of my relationship to this show. I’ll have seen it 24 times by August 18, and there’s no other show that I’ve even hit double digits on. There are plenty of shows I love, and plenty of them have closed over the years – Heathers, Mamma Mia!, even The Prom just this week (RIP). I was sad, but this is different. Puffs is not just a show for me – it’s a whole era of my life, being an integral part of my mid-20s.

So it’s about to get real personal here, if you’ll indulge me. But first, I need to extend my sincere and profound gratitude to everyone involved in Puffs – as you’re about to read, it’s meant the world to me. So, here’s the story of my Puffs Era, and what Puffs means to me.

‘Puffs’ means more love for Potter

It’s no secret that the past few years in the Potter fandom have been rocky, as the official material coming from Rowling and the Wizarding World has not been well-received, and was mired in controversy. Lots of soul-searching was happening about our relationship to the Wizarding World, myself included.

Yet amid all this, was something as pure as Puffs. A true love letter to the Harry Potter books, and a gift for all us Potter fans. It’s been embraced more whole-heartedly than any Wizarding World addition of the decade. Potter may have brought me to Puffs, but my affection for Puffs has actually helped nurture my love for Potter. The Fantastic Beasts characters are fine and all, but I care about all of the Puffs characters as friends, just as I do Harry/Ron/Hermione.

Puffs also enriches the seven books by filling in some miniscule gaps. How Cedric came up with all the ideas for the Triwizard Tournament, why Ginny tried to flush Riddle’s diary, and how Magic Sex Ed is taught… these weren’t burning questions, but we now have answers that I’ll gladly consider definitive. Some of the Puffs actors have even begun to supplant my mental image of the characters when reading the books, a feat almost none of the HP film actors achieved.

It helps that it’s witty and humorous. When Potter fans congregate in NYC, it’s Puffs quotes you’ll constantly hear thrown into conversation. Any cup is “a nice cup,” anything annoying is told “you’re dumb,” all feelings are “J-Finch approved,” and someone always wonders, “What would the plants say?” When someone says “hello,” “Puff,” or “Hufflepuff,” the “Hiiiiiiiiiiiii!” is a Pavlovian response at this point.

‘Puffs’ means a family of friends

At the People’s Improv Theater, where it all began, there isn’t really a stage door. So after the show, everyone just mills about in the bar area. That was where I found out that everyone involved in Puffs – the cast, writer, director, and producers – is genuinely an amazing person.

They embraced not just me, but all of the fans, as friends. We would chat into the night. They would ask about my life, and how things were going. Several of them even showed up at the launch party for my book.

Over the course of three and a half years, this group of creatives and fans has coalesced into a Puffs family. Steve Stout said in our interview, “For me, having this group of people that I really love, and going on this crazy journey over the last couple of years, has been the most rewarding part of the thing.” It’s a sentiment that I’m sure many would echo. Puffs has created its own fandom – complete with cosplay and fanart and all the other trappings, but most of all with community. And given its focal point, the Puffs fandom is one of the kindest and closest I’ve ever been a part of.

As evidence, look no further than the readings of Matt Cox’s other Puffs-universe plays, particularly the two readings of PUF3S that took place at the PIT this summer and last. The entire original cast of Puffs gathered, even if it’d been ages since they were in the show, even if they had to travel for hours just for that. The replacement cast and understudies all sat in the audience, devoting their day off to more Puffs chicanery. The readings sold out no matter how many extra chairs were crammed into the PIT.

The swirling storm of emotion in that room was something to behold. Tears flowed freely from cast and audience alike, as Matt Cox stomps all over our hearts. Take a look at Julie Ann Earls delivering the iconic Puffs speech here, and listen to the words added on for this reading: “It’s a family of friends who made each other’s lives all the better, just by being near.”

‘Puffs’ means embracing the part of me that’s a Puff

The Potter fandom has, of late, seen a Renaissance for Hufflepuff House – largely due to Newt Scamander. Even Jo Rowling began to explicitly acknowledge the Hufflepuffs as more than a bunch of duffers. But in NYC, the Hufflepuff Renaissance began earlier, with a play that made it cool to be a Puff way before we watched Eddie Redmayne running about with a mustard-colored scarf.

Growing up, I was pure Ravenclaw. Slowly, bits of Hufflepuff began creeping in – as I got farther away from school, I began to realize being the smartest was not as important to me as being loyal and kind. By the time I first saw Puffs, it was approaching a 50-50 split. Puffs changed all that.

Maybe it’s that part of you that works hard, the part that remains loyal and true despite whatever terrifying monsters are thrown your way. The part that plays fair, even when life is anything but. Maybe that’s a Puff there.

That speech in the play never fails to make my heart swell. In a world that is seemingly obsessed with being better, faster, stronger, this is a validation of putting basic decency to the forefront. AJ Ditty, who spoke those words hundreds of times as the Narrator, said, “I fundamentally think that doing Puffs has made me a better person.” I second that sentiment – this play has made me proud of being a Puff, proud of striving to be a decent person, because it told us that matters.

So as the years have gone by, I still identify as Ravenpuff. (In fact, I’m recording an episode of Alohomora! about House duality this very week!) But if I was sitting on that stool, with the Sorting Hat on my head, having to choose one House… I choose the Puffs. I want to be a part of the Puffs that Matt Cox showed us.

‘Puffs’ means finding the story all about you

Ultimately, what drew me to Puffs at the beginning and made it so much more than a fun fandom lark, was the story and the message. There are so many characters in Puffs, with so much to teach us. But the one that spoke to me most was the lead: Wayne Hopkins.

Just like Wayne, I grew up on Chosen One narratives. I went to fancy-pants schools whose alumni seemingly all won either Oscars or Nobel Prizes, maybe a Pulitzer if they were slacking. I feared being unimportant and forgotten, that I’d never do something great. While I never wanted to be a hero in the Gryffindor sense, I wanted to be like Jo Rowling, I wanted to create something that mattered to people. And in one of the final scenes, it felt as if The Headmaster were speaking directly to me:

It is very easy to feel like you’re only a secondary character in someone else’s grand story. That does not mean, however, there isn’t another story out there that’s all about you. The one where we’re the most important person in the world. The hero. We’re all important, Wayne. And we’re all unimportant. We’re all heroes. In some way. To someone.

These words were such an immeasurable comfort to me. I’ve come to realize that I won’t cure cancer by the time I’m thirty. But this was so validating – that I was still important, in some way, to someone. Sometimes it takes hearing something over twenty times for it to sink in. But thanks to the words Matt Cox wrote, which Steve Stout delivers with such impact night after night, I’ve learned to be happy with my lot. And for that, I’m forever grateful to Puffs.

‘Puffs’ means learning how to deal with failure

Finally, a large part of my attachment to Puffs is because it came at a time in my life when I needed it very much. My transition to adulthood was, to put it mildly, somewhat rough. I graduated college in 2014 and the job market was still adjusting post-recession. In December 2015, I still had not found a real job, but was working several part-time jobs. The next month, I did finally get a job, which precipitated a year and a half of alternating horrible soul-crushing jobs and stints of unemployment. My Ravenclaw self was not well-equipped to handle this – I couldn’t just study up and pass the test to make it all okay.

But Puffs had the answer.

“Failure, Wayne, is just another form of practice. As long as you never stop trying. So… try again. Eventually… You get better.”

These were words I needed to hear. The job interviews that never went anywhere. The book I wrote that no publisher would take a chance on. Not being able to afford moving out of Mom’s place, given the patchy employment and student loans. I just held on to those words: Never stop trying. Eventually… you get better.

In fact, Jo Rowling herself also articulated an appreciation for failure in her Harvard commencement speech – but that was in 2008, so I never quite internalized that one. But Cedric’s speech here, probably due to repetition (I’ve heard it over two dozen times), stuck with me.

It did get better for me. I’ve gotten the perfect unicorn of a job, I’m living on my own, I’ve achieved my childhood dream of being a published author. But without the message of Puffs, I may not have believed that I’d get here.

So there it is: my attempt to articulate why I have gone so far above and beyond in my love for this show. Why I am seeing it four days in a row as it closes. Why I cry every single time I’ve seen it, even if I can recite most of it from memory. The stories that truly speak to us have a very profound impact, and Puffs has been one of the most important creative works I’ve engaged with in my life.

There are shows out there that I think are just as good as Puffs. But there is no show out there that will mean as much to me as Puffs.

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