John Ambrosino Talks ’Avenue Q’
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."
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.