No matter what House you identify with, Puffs, or: Seven Increasingly Eventful Years at a Certain School of Magic & Magic is a must-see for any Harry Potter fan. While it pays homage to the original books and movies, Puffs is a completely new story that shines a spotlight on the often overlooked house. You will laugh, you will cry, you will be delighted by all the references. Following a sold out run at The Pit, Puffs is now playing Off Broadway at the Elektra Theatre.
Puffs features a stellar cast, many of whom juggle multiple roles in the show. Zac Moon plays the central character Wayne, an ordinary boy who finds himself placed in extraordinary circumstances. I am a big fan of Puffs, so I was happy to sit down with Zac to discuss how the show came to be and what goes on behind the scenes.
Serena: What can you tell us about your background in theater? How did you get started?
Zac: I was kind of doomed from an early age because my dad was an actor and director. I grew up in Richmond, Virginia. He worked for a theater there and then in Barksdale, so I grew up on staging shows and seeing shows and so forth early on. Then I went to UNC at Chapel Hill – good times – and majored in dramatic arts and media production there. I did a lot of stuff in theater, from acting to producing to directing, so sort of just got all around and that was it. I never really felt like I had any other options. It was just always the thing I wanted to do.
S: Were you performing as a child, or not until you got to college?
Z: In high school I was in every show. We did two shows a year, and I was in every one of them. I think I remember doing a production of Pandora’s Box when I was in elementary school and I forget what I played, but it was something ridiculous. I think I was the rock.
S: Did you see any Broadway shows when you were younger?
Z: I did. I always had family here [in NYC] so we actually would come up for Christmas and stuff. Lion King as a kid way back in the day, 42nd Street and a bunch of [other] shows growing up.
S: When did you first hear about Puffs and how did you get involved?
Z: Well, Matt [Cox] and I worked together for free for a couple of years and a lot of us all came out of there. By the time Matt was working on Kapow-i GoGo, he and I had been good friends for a long time. He came over to me and said, “I was thinking about writing a show and I want to give you the lead.” I am like, “okay, I will be there.” He told me the idea and I was like, “I am hooked, that sounds amazing, I am in.”
S: Was there any collaboration on your part, or was it all his ideas?
Z: For the most part it was all Matt’s ideas, but we all worked together for so long that as soon as we got in the rehearsal room, there was a lot of, “Here are more jokes” or “Here are other things we can do” – especially since we had the source material to pool from that a lot of us were very familiar with. I was like “Where can we add the giant squid in?” which is how it got into the pre-show and that was the only place, but I will take it.
S: Were you a Harry Potter fan before this?
Z: I was, yes. Definitely grew up on it and really loved it – I don’t have cable now but any time I am around cable and the movies are on, you can bet that’s what I am watching for the next however long the marathon lasts.
S: What did you think about Harry after hearing the other side of the story? Do you like him more or less?
Z: Oh, it’s funny. I mean I just reread the books again a few months ago when I was re-amping up for this and it’s funny. Our version of Harry is a very specific view of him, which is maybe not in the best light.
S: For people who haven’t seen Puffs yet – you have a twist on the character of Harry. I don’t want to give it away…
Z: Yes definitely. No spoilers but – rereading it, Harry is just so charming, so endearing – especially as someone growing up and reading those books. I think the reason so many people like it so much, you can identify with that person and the everyday struggles, but also he has these fantastic things he has to deal with that are like, unimaginable to me, dealing with something like that. There is this part of me inside that really wants to be the person that can deal with something like that. I think it brings out the best in you to be able to like be “no, I want to face those challenges head on and deal with it this way.”
S: So Puffs didn’t spoil the books for you?
Z: No, not at all. If anything, I like it so much more now. The whole series, coming back and reading it and especially finding little points. You know, I think one of my favorite things that happened happens in Year One in our show is what we call the Panic Club and all the trolls. It stems from one sentence in the book where Harry passes a group of confused Hufflepuffs.
S: What exactly is a Puff? What is your definition of it? How does the show define it?
Z: What is a Puff? It’s funny because it’s so all‑encompassing. I mean, the thing I am drawn to about it, the other three [houses] have such specific definitions, especially since how the show deals with it. It’s so much more that makes a person a person – you have to be smart, you have to be kind, and you have to be loyal to your friend because those are the things that really matter in life. So to me that’s what a Puff is, being the best version of yourself for the people around you.
S: Would you consider yourself a Puff if you had to sort yourself into one of the houses?
Z: You know, online it said not, but I think that I am.
S: Those online quizzes are very inconsistent.
Z: I don’t know if I trust them. I would be honored if I were a Puff. Why don’t you say that? I think that I am and I would certainly like to be considered as such.
S: What can you tell us about the different characters in the show? You have a very interesting combination of quirky and unique personalities.
Z: Many other folks in the show have to wear so many hats, figuratively and literally. Sometimes I feel like I got the easiest job of all. I am like “I will be here, just to be one guy.” I think Wayne is so cool and I am so drawn to him as a character because it’s sort of the story of what we all deal with, like the fact that we are not all going to be the hero that goes off and saves the day. At some point you have to come to grips with the fact that you are a person in the world and that you are trying as hard as you can but you might not be [the hero]. I think that’s the interesting thing about playing this person that has these grand ambitions and dreams and throughout the play, learning what it is to actually be okay with – not mediocrity, but just being okay with the place that you are and being okay with the person that you are and self acceptance in that way. And having Oliver and Megan there is such a good combination. Matt was the best in making this trio and making them all different strengths. Oliver is perfectly happy to never have any trouble ever in his life. My job is to break him out of his shell.
S: And when Oliver comes out at the end – no spoilers but –
Z: Yes because it’s the completion of that part for him that he has actually accepted that he is going to do this thing like he is doing it for us. You know, still doing it and the Megan idea of totally not wanting to be associated with this group of people, totally wanting to be something else and slowly but surely having to accept that yes, it’s okay to be this person, it’s okay to be a Puff, and it’s okay to let these people into your life and to be happy in that way.
S: How challenging is it for all the people playing multiple roles switching back and forth? I am sure they have had some mishaps, whether it’s costumes or messing up the lines.
Z: Once in awhile. I mean, yes, the costumes – I don’t even know if we have a count. I know it’s over 150 props and costumes sitting backstage in various places and a lot of them get used more than once. When you are a ghost you have got this collar on and tracking whom different people are as a ghost and where the collar ends up. We did run throughs where someone comes out and said “Well, the thing wasn’t there and I didn’t have any more time, so here I am,”
S: It’s so challenging, but the audience appreciates it.
Z: I think everyone does such a good job and Maddy [Bundy] and Liz [Blessing] have done a great job with the costumes and making those identifiers, because so much is happening so fast in the show. It’s like you need one identifier to make sure that the audience tracks that, because we don’t want to leave anyone behind and we want to make sure that everyone is on board.
S: Was there any part of the show that was improvised when you were performing at the PIT? Are you all following the script exactly?
Z: It’s mostly scripted. I would say Steve maybe gets one line that he used to improvise more and now he sort of settled into what he thinks works, which does work. And then the only one that’s really truly improvised every night still is the Zac Smith scene in Year Six when he comes out during the sports tryouts, which is usually ridiculous and usually offensive to some of the others and maybe to me depending on the day, but he has free rein to improvise that line which changes every single time.
S: Have there been a lot of changes since you transferred to Off Broadway?
Z: Yes, definitely. We went through a vague bunch of rewrites back in July after the writers had gone down to Florida to work on the show there. Then we had a month off before we started rehearsals again and Matt did a bunch of rewrites – probably in rehearsal we had rewrites every day. Some of those were big, some of those were small. Some were cut because we had to make the show much shorter. I think the Free Willy letter that I write in between Years Two and Three has changed probably 20 times.
S: What’s the best audience reaction you had for anything? Was there anytime you remember thinking “Oh, wow, they are really loving this?”
Z: Matt just like two weeks ago, maybe right before the weekend before opening, [added] just a one line rewrite in Year Six. He just wanted to add a reference into a line and right before I went on I said, “I don’t know if I can relearn this.” We were going to see if it worked and it did, but I sort of had to pause a little bit to say it and then people just lost it. And I was like “All right, Matt, good work. I think that line works.” That was a surprise. I think that’s the biggest [reaction] for me. I think the biggest one in the show is usually after Steve does the sex ed. The very last line of that…
S: That was epic.
Z: It’s pretty epic just because it comes out of left field.
S: He is so great. Fantastic.
Z: I know. It’s one of my favorite things when he first comes out and does the first classroom scene to watch or listen to everyone realizing what’s happening and then just lose it. It’s really, really great.
S: This is probably more a question for the writers, but is it challenging to do a Harry Potter show where you don’t actually say “Harry Potter” and there are also a lot of references and words that have to change?
Z: Well, I think early on it was something we were working with, Matt and all of us, but especially Matt and Steve and Kristin were very conscious of it also – you know, in having those hindrances, it sort of opens up a little bit of freedom in a way because you get to be creative about things. The same way Maddy dealt with the Sorting Hat and finally cracked that nugget. When we moved to Off Broadway, she was like “It took me months to get this where I finally figured that out.” But in a way, being able to parody this universe and come up with our own language for it is really fun. It sort of makes it our own in that way, which I know is a nice creative freedom for them because once the ball started rolling, okay, this is just how we are dealing with it.
S: There are so many references in the show. Are there any hidden references that you think people might miss because it’s an inside joke?
Z: Inside – there are so many references. I mean, the Panic Club was one of the more obscure ones. There is another one in the field trip where Ellie [Philips] as Hannah is talking about Sirius being a flowery shrub, which is actually something that the character does say in the books in Herbology class. I can’t remember the exact reference but I do know it’s in the books because it was a reference that totally went over my head for months. I didn’t realize it was a thing and then when I was rereading it, I was like “Whoa, there it is. Found it.”
S: Do you have any favorite lines that you get to say?
Z: “Puff on this” will always be my favorite.
S: Can you tell us what’s happening backstage at Puffs? Are there any crazy things going on? I’ve seen a little bit through the Puffs (@puffstheplay) Snapchat stories.
Z: I know. Julie [Earls] on Snapchat. It’s so good. She is so great at it. I am so glad she is doing it and not me because I would be like, “I don’t know what’s Snapchat.” We have a lot of fun. We have been doing this together for so long now. It’s like we get back to doing the show and it’s sort of a well-oiled machine at this point, with hiccups every once in awhile of course because there are so many problems. People are always looking out for each other in case something does happen because things move so fast. Backstage there is a pretty intricate ballet at this point. Everyone knows you run off, I am going to stand here so that you can pass, and then I am going to go because I have to get this prop. I have got to go there, but you have got to go in front of me before then and I have got to do this quick change. So it is certainly a lot going on in a very short amount of time, but it’s great fun.
S: Do you think that people who aren’t very familiar with Harry Potter will get the show? Has anybody said to you, “I haven’t read the books, but I loved it? “
Z: I have heard people say that, which I think is one of the greatest compliments that we get because we do get people coming over to me, “I don’t know anything about Harry Potter, never read the books, never saw the movies. And so a couple of jokes went over my head obviously because they are straight references, but really enjoyed it.” They found it endearing, which I think is the highest praise to me that we have this thing that, regardless of your familiarity with the source material, you can come and enjoy and have a good time.
S: Right, because I was worried about recommending it to people that haven’t read Harry Potter. I don’t know if they would enjoy it or not.
Z: It’s definitely a sort of layered thing. You can come and enjoy it because there is this story and it’s funny. Sometimes jokes are just jokes, and you don’t have to necessarily know the source material to get it, but the more familiar you are, I think you get the next layer and you get the next layer, and if you know every word of the book, you are probably getting the deepest layers that Matt has flung to find all of these things.
S: So there is something for everyone?
Z: I do definitely think that, and I don’t hesitate recommending it to people that aren’t familiar. You might want to read the Wikipedia real fast or something, but I think they will still enjoy it.