Joe Putignano on overcoming addiction & performing on the world’s biggest stages
Joe Putignano has performed in Cirque du Soleil’s Totem, was a part of the cast of the Broadway show The Times They Are A Changin’ choreographed and directed by Twyla Tharp and has been in numerous operas at the Metropolitan Opera House. But before that, he was an addict, homeless in New York, looking only for his next fix.
In his memoir, Acrobaddict, he tells his story from collegiate gymnast to drug addict, from performing on the grandest stages in New York to relapsing, and from hopelessness to hopefulness.
“I’m a gymnast first and a writer second,” he explains. “I was passionate about writing because I felt it was my way out of my addiction. When I started performing at The Met, Robert Lepage, who runs the ring cycle at The Met, asked me what I was always writing when I wasn’t rehearsing. He is someone I admire creatively and he encouraged me to write my story. I knew there were so many addiction memoirs out there, but he said something that haunted me. He said ‘You may be able to say something in a perfect way that will help someone else.’ Then I felt obligated to write it.”
Writing it wasn’t easy though. Beyond juggling his performance schedule, he had to recall periods of his life that he had either moved past or couldn’t remember fully.
“I did a lot of drugs,” he says, “so that’s problematic when remembering the details of parts of my life. But especially because of the benzodiazepines I took, it was tough. Those are made to make you forget trauma, so I don’t just have black-outs in my memories, but year-outs.”
He was able to piece together what he couldn’t remember with the help of the journals he kept over the years, re-piecing his personal history together through the poetry he had written when he was in the middle of his addictions. Which begs the question, for someone who wrote almost exclusively in poetry, how was the transition to writing prose?
“That was hard and a lot of work,” he said. “I re-studied grammar, which is still not my strong suit. I did learn sentence structure and try to take the poetry of my emotions and use it in telling my story. There was a lot of lyricism to my journals so I tried to embody that and put it in a sentence.”
The release of Acrobaddict, which Putignano said made him feel a mixture of fear, rejection, excitement, accomplishment and pride, let people into the honest truth of his life.
“I’m always in awe of when people read my story. My story isn’t interesting to me because it’s all I know. But when I get messages from people I don’t know, it’s not necessarily people who struggle with drugs and alcohol. It can be food, it can be sex, it can be anything, but addiction is something people can relate to no matter what it is that they deal with.”
What he learned from those responses was simple: People are all the same.
“Everyone has pain and everyone struggles every fucking day. It doesn’t matter who you are. We are all in this together.”
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