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Inside Puffs, an unofficial off-Broadway play about Harry Potter's loser kids

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Sep 7, 2017, 4:38 PM EDT (Updated)

Don't worry about trying to do the impossible and get tickets to the Broadway run of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Instead, check out Puffs, or Seven Increasingly Eventful Years at a Certain School of Magic and Magic, an Off-Broadway play that offers a unique experience for Harry Potter fans. Following a group of kids from the historically wimpy house, it offers up a tongue-in-cheek look at what other Hogwarts students were doing when a certain Gryffindor trio were running around saving the world. Of course, the show can't use any of those official names, since it's a very unofficial play, but that's part of the fun.

Full of humor and heart, I loved Puffs when I first saw the show. It will make you laugh and make you tear up as you meet these new characters and follow them through the familiar events of the beloved magical series. Recently the show moved to a new venue, New World Stages, and tickets are on sale through Jan. 14.

As Puffs continues to bring its unique form of magic into the lives of fans, I had the chance to speak with Puffs playwright Matt Cox about the show's beginnings and more.

How did the idea for this play come about, and what made you want to write Puffs?

Matt Cox: It started out with the same creative team, myself; the director, Kristin McCarthy Parker; and the two original producers, Stephen Stout and Colin Waitt. We did this other show that ran for almost a year. It was a 4.5-hour-long play called Kapow-i GoGo that was a mash-up of all sort of nerdy geek things like cartoons, video games, sci-fi stuff, all that. It was great, but kind of a tough sell. We started to think about what the next project would be, and I was sitting on a subway train and I kind of just had the random thought: It would have been really terrible to be another student at that particular magic school whenever Harry was there. I let that funny thought sit in my head for a little bit. It would have been just miserable to be another kid there as things kept getting worse and worse every year and you kept going back and it was like, "Oh, what other crazy thing [is going to happen]."

Then it was a quick jump between that idea and it should focus on the puffs who pop culture has sort of deemed the underdogs of the wizard world and the not coolest kids at the school. It seemed like a really great place to focus the story on them, and then when I pitched it, it was like, "Oh yeah, that sounds fun. It would be a much easier sell," and it was such a fun idea, so we hit the ground running with it. We did a reading not too long after that, which was fun to put together, and we kept tweaking it until we moved from the Peoples Improv Theatre to the Elektra and now New World Stages, and it’s been a fun time.

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Photo by Hunter Canning

What was the most challenging part of writing the play and finally putting it all together for an audience?

The most challenging part was probably figuring out how to connect the seven books and eight movies into a story that made sense, because one of the things that we were thinking about was why it very much has the nature of a parody, and it feels like one, but we didn't want it to be a parody. That it was very much its own play and its own story along with poking fun at that whole universe. Finding that balance of it while also being able to tell a cohesive story that made sense within the world was very challenging, and it took a while to fit all the pieces, and a lot of things ended up getting cut as we moved along, because they didn’t quite lend itself to that story or the play would have been about three hours long with everything we originally wanted to do, which I personally would have loved, but maybe not everybody else.

Once we kind of got the real crux of it, the things that are usually generally challenging anyway, making sure all the characters feel compelling and real and making sure we never step too much on the toes of the fans of the series. We wanted to make sure it would be enjoyable and not everybody would feel like we were making fun of anything that people really hold dear, because it’s something people really love.

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Photo by Hunter Canning

The Off-Broadway play has changed theaters a few times, like you mentioned, and is now at the New World Stages. Does the venue impact the show at all, or how the show has evolved from its original production?

Definitely. We started at the Peoples Improv Theater, which is very much a comedy space, so it originally resulted in a very simple development. We did what we could to do things that were impressive. And then we moved to the Elektra Theatre last fall, and that had a very set structure of the stage that was there. That theater was very long and wide, so the show had to change, because it was so much bigger of a space than the Peoples Improv Theater, so a lot of the moments grew and the show was faster and wackier in how it was performed. Now at New World Stages, even though it’s a larger venue technically, it’s a lot more intimate in a really nice way. It’s a version of the show that lets itself breathe a little bit.

We also make script changes, but that’s not necessarily the venue. Since we’ve been living with the show for so long, sometimes it’s fun to keep it fresh and try new jokes and things like that to see what works.

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Photo by Hunter Canning

What do you hope people take away after watching Puffs?

One of the original things is obviously there’s the part within the fandom. While everyone always considers the puffs the not-so-cool people in the crowd and the school, it’s kind of like the nature of "Oh, there’s actually some really fun, compelling characters and stories" and things like that, so you can read the books with that in mind, and it’s a great bunch of people and you should be proud if the internet or yourself tells you that you are one of them. But also we call it and it’s a play for anyone who has not been destined to save the world, so it’s kind of like even if you ever feel like you’re not necessarily the most important person around, you probably are in some way to something or somebody, and I think that’s a fun thing to think about and a nice little message to leave with.

The show has an interesting balance where it’s hilarious but also has some serious, dark things as these bad things are happening. What was it like playing with that balance in the play?

That was one of the most important things when we were developing the show, that it still had that sense of really true heart to it, just because, similar to what I was saying earlier, that way it doesn’t just feel like a parody, which would have been very easy to do. That way it’s something that sticks with you, that sense of heart. We all come from theater backgrounds, and it was the only way to make it feel like it was an actual story in the same way the books and movies are. The reason they’ve lasted this long because there’s so many relatable things and putting that in and having there be a reason this story is being told.

It’s so important and very challenging, because between all that there’s still a lot of really funny wizard jokes and everything. Finding the balance is difficult; we have to decide if we take a moment and play it real or if it can be a moment where we kind of make fun of Harry. That was part of the fun of making the show as well. It certainly has the more heartfelt moments. There’s been more of those, and we focus a bit more on that when we realize there’s enough jokes in the show, but it’s what we love about the show. It’s both very fun and makes you feel something.

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Photo by Hunter Canning

Has anyone reached out to you, or have you been in touch with anyone who is officially involved with that certain boy wizard who has heard about your show or come to see it at all?

We have not ever heard directly from them, which I think is a good thing, and I think I’ll leave it at that!

Anything else you want to tell us about Puffs? What’s in store for the future of the show or what you have coming up?

I have a few other projects that are coming out down the line in a little bit. The same group of us, the team and producers, are working on a western play that’s a mixture of a western and a revenge tragedy and a comedy, which is fun. I’m also working on a space-opera adaptation of the King Arthur legend that’s a four-play series that’s going to be like seven hours long, because that’s the kind of stuff I like to write! I think that one is going to be really fun. Otherwise, with Puffs, we’re just always surprised and happy that it’s still going and people want to see it.

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