Joe Putignano Shines in ‘Totem’

Joe Putignano knows how to make an entrance.

As the Crystal Man in Cirque du Soleil’s Totem, playing in Atlanta through December 30, Putignano opens the show by descending from the top of the Big Top.

The road to the top of Totem was lengthy, though. The New York native was a competitive gymnast growing up, only to quit in his early 20s and fall into alcoholism and drug addiction. Eventually cleaning up his act, Putignano decided to start training again and become an actor – one with the physical prowess his gymnastic past afforded him. Following stints in The Times They Are A-Changin’ with Twyla Tharp on Broadway and La damnation de Faust with the Metropolitan Opera, Putignano was recruited by Totem director Robert Lepage in 2009 to join the touring production.

I spoke with Putignano recently about his time with Totem, his experiences in Atlanta, and how it feels to descend into the performance every night.

How did you join Totem?

I worked with Robert Lepage, the director of this show – he also directs in Las Vegas – and I was doing La damnation de Faust at the Metropolitan Opera House. He liked what I was doing there, and he said, “I have a position for you,” so he invited me onto the show, which is good, because the audition process is very difficult, and I kind of got to skip all that. Very happy about that.

You’ve been with Totem for three years, and this is the last stop of your time with the show. What will you be doing after?

I have a book coming out, called Acrobatics. It’s a contortionist heroine romance, in either summer or fall. In addition to that, I may go back to school. But yeah, after three years of doing the same thing, you can only give so much. You can only bring so much to it. I feel like, artistically, I’ve done it. I’ve beaten it. So it’s time to, if I want to grow as an artist or as a performer, it’s really time to have new challenges.

What has performing been like over the course of three years, moving from city to city?

You know, it’s interesting. Like most people, I tend to look at time in years, and I have to say as a performer, I’ve grown tremendously. I’ve learned to let go of my fears, and I’ve also gotten new fears of performance, which I think is normal. But it has been rocky in the sense of being up and down. You have your good months and your bad months, but that’s life. It has nothing to do with the job aspect. It’s more of a… This is our job, and people think of performers, they’re thinking every night is a party, because it looks like we’re having a party. And it sometimes feels like that. But it’s not – it’s our daily job. So sometimes, if you have a cold, you do the job with a cold. So there are periods of up and down.

Now, the way you enter every night – that has to be nerve-wracking, I’m sure, at least some nights.

Terrifying. Every night. Even after all this time. Because I’m first, I don’t want to bring my nervous energy to the rest of the performers. They’re sitting down below, and I don’t want to come down going “Oh my God, what do I do?” So I have the responsibility of bringing confidence and integrity and energy. Otherwise, you know…you’re starting the show. It has to be like a gun shot. So I really am very nervous, but as soon as the music comes on, what I try to do: Josh, who plays the flute, I always tell him to give me something outside of the ordinary, so I can hear it and go “You’re backing me up – you’re with me.” That helps me kind of get into performance mode. And then the body takes over and the mind kind of goes. But I’m scared to death, and that’s normal. People have paid to see our show, and I want to do well for them. I want to do well for our show. I also want to do well for the Frogs – it’s their act, and I’m a guest in their act. I’ll worry about that, because I want to support them. So yeah. I just have to show up. I don’t have a choice, which is great. Like, once I clip in and go down, I’ve surrendered.

No “I’m not ready for this.”

Right. Which is really a blessing, because otherwise, I’d be out the door and on my way home.

What is it like being gay in Cirque du Soleil?

This is the entertainment business. I always thought in the business, even though gay, straight, or whatever, there are so many creative people and open-mindedness. We have to be. As a performer, you have to be vulnerable to each side of you. You have to explore different facets of yourself, whether you have to be a bird or a monkey. You can’t be a good performer with a closed mind. It just doesn’t work. As far as every show I’ve done outside of Cirque du Soleil, everyone’s been really cool about it.

You’ve been in Atlanta since October, and you’re here through the end of the year. Have you had a chance to explore Atlanta?

Yeah. Piedmont Park to me is… I’m from New York City, and without Central Park, I don’t know how I could handle it, so I love to go there every day. And we live on Peachtree, so walking down there is really nice. I like it here a lot. I actually found a lot of New Yorkers who have moved here.

With everything that’s been going on in New York recently, how has it been being away?

I feel bad. I was there through 9/11, so when there’s any sort of catastrophe, I feel like I should be there. I hate that I’m not, but there’s that thing where when your family is going through some sort of tragedy, you want to be there for them, but you can’t. We have another New Yorker in the show who’s lost a lot. It’s just sad, very sad.

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