John Ambrosino Talks ’Avenue Q’

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Monday May 7, 2012

"Avenue Q" surprised Broadway nine years ago when it scooped the Best Musical Tony Award from the then big new kid on the block: "Wicked." Yet the combination of Sesame Street-like style presentation (it mixes puppets and human actors pretty much equally) and a snarky satire suitable for cable television made the show an immediate hit. It ran on Broadway for some six years before moving off-Broadway, where it is currently (and quite successfully) continuing. Now the show is finding its way onto regional theater stages, such as Boston's Lyric Stage Company, where it runs through June 19.

The show's plot centers on Princeton, a recent college graduate that moves to New York and finds a home on Avenue Q, a less-than-desirable, but affordable neighborhood far from the hipper ones in Manhattan. With his English degree, Princeton is searching for some purpose to his life; not unlike his neighbors on Avenue Q, who are all struggling with issues facing young urbanites. (Not unlike the young Brooklynites seen on HBO's "Girls.")

In the show John Ambrosino plays Princeton, but also the closeted gay character Rod, a puppet that he and his fellow actors manipulate. Good thing that he has puppetry experience, having toured with the kid-oriented show "Flat Stanley" and an early interest in different styles of performance using puppetry.

"I actually did a lot of puppet work early on in my career," Ambrosino told EDGE during a recent interview. "When I was working as a director I was specifically interested in Bunraku puppetry of Japan and Wayang Kulit, which is shadow puppetry from Indonesia. But this is a completely new experience for me--Bunraku puppetry [is quite different from the puppetry of "Avenue Q."] The mouth doesn't move on the Bunraku puppet. And its manipulated by three puppeteers: One is the head and the left arm, and then one is the right arm, and one is the feet."

Puppetry as Expression

Is working the "Avenue Q" puppets a matter of just more work to do on stage, or does this offer a new means of expression? Or both?

"It's incredibly difficult," Ambrosino reckoned. "It's probably one of the most physically difficult things I've done in theater, ever. 'Flat Stanley' was very physically difficult, with the weight of the puppet and how it was hooked onto my body, but this is ten times harder.

"[The mouths of] our puppets are run by our right arm, and the arms are run by our left arm, so you have to hold your right arm up at an almost 90 degree angle at shoulder height and manipulate the puppet and walk it around, so you can imagine the experience of holding the puppet up for an extended period of time--it's really tough on your shoulder and on your back. We've been in rehearsal for a week, and all of us are just [worn out].

"Just in general, the physicality of holding that puppet up is difficult," Ambrosino continued, "and then on top of that making the puppet alive and able to speak with your own voice and move its head at the same time, it's like rubbing your tummy and patting your head. The puppets' mouth operates differently from your own mouth, so we make the puppet's mouth move a little bit more to make the puppet look as though it's speaking correctly. There's kind of an extra movement there with certain words.

"But I'm loving it!" the actor declared. "The whole cast is. When you watch [the puppetry] being done, it's just astonishing how mesmerizing and beautiful it is. You really do start to fall in love with the puppets, and the actor is there [on stage and visible], but you see the characters come through the puppets, and it's amazing."

The Rigors of the Road

"Flat Stanley" was a touring production, and "Avenue Q" has had touring productions, but in this case the actor doesn't have to face long hours on the road from city to city: This production is staying put at the Lyric Stage.

"It's really exhausting to travel," Ambrosino noted, "and 'Flat Stanley' was a particularly exhausting schedule because we would do a full weekend with six performances, and sometimes we would do a day and a night and travel the next day."

The grueling schedule took its toll.

"From a performer's standpoint, everything we do is so much connected to how we are physically, how our health is," Ambrosino said. "A lot of people don't realize that the travel takes a toll on your body and it's tough to maintain your voice and your muscles and all that when you travel all the time, because you are constantly working.

"After I did 'Flat Stanley' I did 'Jersey Boys' for two years and I was in the Las Vegas company, which doesn't tour, even though 'Jersey Boys' does have a touring production," the actor recalled. "I remember getting 'Jersey Boys' in Vegas and thinking, 'Oh, thank God, I don't have to move!' "

But now Ambrosino, a Boston area native, is back in his home town, where he ran Animus Ensemble for six years.

"Boston is a great market," the actor enthused. "All of the touring companies love to come to Boston because the audiences are so good. When my friends doing the 'Jersey Boys' tour were here, they said to me, 'Wow, what is it with Boston? The audiences are so enthusiastic!' I said, 'I don't know; everybody who was on tour that I've spoken to said the exact same thing.'

"I don't know if it's because we're a college town, or we're more aware of the excitement of live performance, but it is true that when you set down in Boston with a touring performance, audiences are usually just over the top for it," Ambrosino continued.

"When a tour comes into town, a tour is just a Broadway production that's on the road. It's the same production, basically, though sometimes there are some changes that can happen on the road. The Lyric is doing its own production of 'Avenue Q.' Obviously, it's the same script and the same score and we're working with the same puppets, but it's Spiro Veloudas directing, so that's a different thing."

And speaking of the Lyric, Ambrosino was full of praise for the company and its artistic director.

"The [Boston] market itself is crowded with companies because of that, I think, and because we have a great group of artists that want to fill that need. I feel that really great work is being, done, and the Lyric is obviously at the head of that.

"When I was producing and directing with Animus, it was so exciting to be part of the small to midsize community in Boston, because you can find stuff in Boston that is incredible experimental," Ambrosino continued. "At the same time, you can also find stuff that is classic. It runs the gamut. Also, I think the community is very close-knit, and so there is a sense of camaraderie that's exciting as well."

Life on the Street

Ambrosino directed quite a few productions for Animus, including "Once Upon A Mattress" and "The Memory of Salt," and he garnered an IRNE nomination for Best Director for "Promises, Promises." EDGE asked him about the experience of being both an actor and a director.

"You know, everything aspect of theater informs the other aspects," mused the multitalented Ambrisino. "I feel like performers could come to know all the other theater aspects that are happening around them, from the business of the theatre to the design of the theater to costume and lighting and sound. All of those things go in to become what the actor's performance is, so if it's not becoming that, it's supporting that.

"For me, [acting and directing] are obviously completely different disciplines, and obviously when I listen to a director direct me I feel like I have a better understanding of what he or she wants because I've been in that position before. I like it; I feel like it helps me to really be able to communicate better with the person who is overseeing the entire thing.

"As a director, when you talk to an actor, having been there," the performer went on. "You get a chance to better communicate what needs to happen. That communication piece is really exciting, and I use it in both areas."

"Avenue Q" takes on all sorts of adult issues: Racism, homophobia, Internet porn. EDGE asked Ambrosino what he thought the show's over-arcing message might be.

"That's a loaded question, right?" he laughed. "It's a musical comedy, and it uses comedy, as comedy usually is used in the theater, to poke fun at and critique really important issues. The writers of 'Avenue Q' take a day in the life of an average human being and go into all of these areas and mine the comedy out of it.

"But the comedy is coming out of the things that any given person really needs to work on, or things that we have to know about, things we have to discover," Ambrosino noted.

"Overall, I think the show is about the human journey: How we begin our life after 18 years and how we encounter the world and figure out how we're going to navigate it.

"The play is about a young kid who has just graduated college with a BA in English and he can't get a job and he has no money. The exploration of the play is how he works toward finding his purpose in life and fitting in. Yes, he encounters all of these things as he goes along: Racism and Internet porn, all of that stuff, and he gets to see how he navigates it and how all the other people on Avenue Q navigate those issues.

"Ultimately, what he's working toward is to find himself and become part of a community. It's a very basic theme: You're growing up. How are you going to do that?"

A Queer Sensibility

Princeton, and most of the other characters in "Avenue Q" are straight, but there is something of a queer sensibility--including, one might argue, the title. Thinking about plays like "Avenue Q," which riffs on "Sesame Street," and "Dog Sees God," which riffs on the "Peanuts" comic strip, it might seem as though theater is taking mainstream, iconic cultural landmarks and queering them up a little.

"There is a gay character in the show; Princeton is not gay, but Rod is gay, and he's a closeted homosexual when the play starts and then he comes out in the end," Ambrosino said. "Spiro thinks this is not a gay play; it's really not about being gay. But, being gay is part of it.

"We were talking the other day about whether the Q in 'Avenue Q' stands for Queer," Ambrosino continued. "I don't think so; I think it's just a matter of this poor kid starting at Avenue A and he's already down to Avenue Q before he can find a place [where he can afford] to live.

"But I think that the idea of being gay is becoming more accepted in the world, and I think that we're seeing more and more that it crops up in movies and theater and TV and people are just a little but less worried about it. Do I think they're queering 'Sesame Street?' I guess so, because there's a gay character in it. But I also think that this is also a puppet show that was created for 20-somethings. I think that's even something one of the writers says about it. And this play was first done, what, ten years ago? This is nothing new for this generation. The Millennials and those just before the Millennials have been dealing with gay [issues] since they were kids.

"But when I grew up, just before that," and here the young actor chuckled, "that wasn't something that was as prevalent in society. So do I think that 'Avenue Q' is a queering of 'Sesame Street?' No; I think it's just an adult [version of] 'Sesame Street' that's going to deal with all sorts of issues that 'Sesame Street' wouldn't deal with. This is just a children's medium being used to explore adult issues."

Getting Better

One of the major themes of "Avenue Q" is the disconnect between hearing all sorts of encouragement when one is young, and then growing up to find out that nobody necessarily thinks you're special.

However, for gay people, it's kind of the reverse: When you're young you get all sorts of anti-gay messages and they're hard to process. Then you grow up and things, as they say now, "get better."

Has Ambrosino found that this is the case, that things have gotten better?

"For me? Of course," Ambrosino stated. "I didn't have a bad coming out experience. After I had come out, in my early 20s, I had a lot of people come up to me and say, 'Listen, my friend, he's 17, 18... I'm worried that his parents are going to kick him out of the house... can you talk to him?' And I'd say, 'I'm happy to talk to him, but I didn't have that experience. My parents didn't kick me out of the house, and I never expected them to, so I don't know what your friend is going through. I am happy to talk to him as a gay man, because he should know that there are other gay men out there who have come out and have a life that is completely fabulous.'

"I think the fear that I had when I was younger was that I wasn't around gay men and women, so I was worried about what I was," Ambrosino added. "And then you grow up and you realize that gay people are all around everybody, and you're less worried about that. So for me, yeah, it does get better because you get to the point where you're secure in yourself.

"In high school or middle school if someone called me a fag, I'd be devastated and hurt by that, and scared, and have awful feelings about myself. And now if someone were to call me that on the street I'd say, 'You're right! That's what I am!' " Ambrosino laughed. "It doesn't bother me.

"For me, the idea of 'It Gets Better' is about coming to realization that it's okay that you're gay. Once you become okay with it, it's hard for somebody to hurt you with those comments because you are what you are and you're proud of it. It's a great sense of power to have control over something negative like the term 'fag,' and to own it. It's so different when someone is using it toward you in a bullying manner. Clearly, that does happen all the time.

"I also grew up in Boston, and Massachusetts tends to be liberal," mused the actor. "I don't know if that's anyone's experience in the Midwest. I don't know whether, if I had grown up in a very conservative, Christian town, I would have had the same kind of coming out experience.

"In terms of 'Avenue Q,' it's a big joke about the character Rod coming out, but it's so real for him. He's already grown up; he's already in the work force, and he's having an awful time coming out. What you find is that his best friend is telling him, 'If you're gay, it's okay. I don't care.' But Rod still can't come to grips with it himself, and that's why it's a problem--not because he's gay but because he can't admit it. He says, 'What are you talking about? I'm not gay!' He realizes his friends will accept him and are supportive of him, but he himself is in turmoil over it. That character arc comes to this really funny moment when he comes out and the rest of the characters say, 'We already knew that.'

"And that is something that happened to me: All my friends were like, 'I've always thought you were gay. So, what's next? Should we go have an ice cream?' "

"Avenue Q" runs May 11 - June 17 at the Lyric Stage Company in Boston. For more details, visit the Lyric Stage Company website.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.