Broadway Blog editor Matthew Wexler interviews author and acrobat Joe Putignano.
After seeing a Broadway show, you may find yourself reading performer biographies and dreaming of lives filled with standing ovations and bright lights. But what you don’t realize is that their lives are filled with the same kinds of trials and tribulations as our own. In Acrobaddict, Joe Putignano’s new gripping memoir about his battle with heroin, the Cirque du Soleil and Broadway performer recounts his love for gymnastics and his slow descent into addiction and subsequent sobriety.
Tumbling around his living room from the time he was a small child, Putignano says that he was born with a natural ability. “It’s like a musician hearing their instrument for the first time. I knew the first time I saw it on TV I knew this was it. It’s exactly what dancers say, a fire inside of me. As if I was doing it in a past life.” But his love for gymnastics was also tethered to the stigma of participating in a sport not identified as masculine in his Boston neighborhood. “The teenage mind and social system is an atom bomb wrapped in denim and designer clothes,” he writes, “drenched in perfume and cologne, and steered by an intellect that thinks it knows everything.”
Putignano’s passion turned to obsession—one that he feels he was born with and that parallels his addiction. But he is quick to point the difference: “Passion is creative and inspires others and brings unity. Obsession destroys.”
His exploration with alcohol, prescription drugs, cocaine and marijuana eventually led to heroin use and a suicide attempt that nearly killed him. He writes, “I wanted my soul to rocket through my skin and stain the floor where I once lived and breathed, to forever nark my pain, regret, shame and anger.”
Putignano also had to face his homosexuality and a romantic obsession with a fellow addict whom he eventually disassociated with in order to save both their lives. After attempts at recovery and relapses, he found himself in New York City, which he describes as “being trapped in a nonstop fashion show of sex, pride, prestige and power. Gorgeous people, too busy to appreciate each other’s beauty…”
Putignano eventually landed a job at The New York Times in an administrative position as he continued to face his demons and regain his strength. He was hired as an acrobat in Puccini’s Turandot at the Metropolitan Opera House and then again for Samson & Delilah. He not only stretched himself to overcome his addiction, but was literally stretching himself to explore the world of contortionism as an addendum to his gymnastics ability.
Take the jump to read about Putignano’s experience on Broadway and with Cirque du Soleil.
Iconic choreographer and director Twyla Tharp saw something in Putignano and hired him as an understudy for the Bob Dylan-inspired Times They Are A-Changin’. “I had 90 days clean when Twyla picked me. Three months isn’t a long time to go from using heroine to someone seeing something in me,” says Putignano, who says of Tharp, “There are people you meet who are absolutely unique. You’re left with a sense that you want to be more and do more.”
While the show unexpectedly catapulted him to the Broadway stage, the reviews were not kind and the production closed shortly thereafter, as did Putignano’s sobriety. He writes of the final performance, “All that applause and hard work for that one single moment, and I felt nothing but shame. I was nothing.”
Continuing to battle his demons, Putignano trained harder and worked on his flexibility. Then the opportunity came to fulfill a lifelong dream—to create a role in a Cirque du Soleil production of Totem. “I first saw a Cirque show when I was around 12-years-old and I knew I wanted to do that some day,” says Putignano. In later years he dated someone in Zumanity and had a moment of clarity: if he got clean, he could do that and the dream became real.
Putignano describes the Cirque community as a tribe. “We really live and breath everything—especially on the touring shows. You’re either in the big top, the artistic tent or the kitchen. And you do 10 shows a week. You learn how to perform by performing—I did 1,000 performances in three years.” It’s also about humility, says Putignano, who finally learned through Cirque that it’s not about being the best, but about being part of a show.
What’s next for Putignano? He’ll be graduating as a physician’s assistant this May and is recovering from several shoulder surgeries with the hope to perform again. He’s also working on his second book, tentatively titled Zeus’s Garden, which explores the discovery of the gay gene. “I wanted to give voice to the gay culture,” says Putignano, who after decades of battling addiction and his own inner demons, has found his own voice to inspire and encourage others.
Acrobaddict by Joe Putignano (Central Recovery Press, 2013)