Theater Interview: ACE YOUNG (Now appearing in VATICAN FALLS at THE TANK in NYC)

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by Gregory Fletcher on November 4, 2022

in Interviews,Theater-New York


At The Tank theater on West 36th Street, Stage and Cinema’s Gregory Fletcher spoke with Ace Young who stars in Off-Off-Broadway’s Vatican Falls, the controversial play written and co-directed by Frank J. Avella which closely examines the Catholic sex abuse scandal while telling real survivor stories and exploring the fictional journey of one particular survivor. Based on factual accounts and events, Vatican Falls follows the life of one survivor — Ricardo played by Mr. Young — who struggles with understanding how those closest to him could damage him the deepest. The multi-genre, non-linear play probes the conflicting feelings involved in most sexual abuse situations and dares to confront the truth about the ever-growing scandal and the Church’s complicity in it. The piece also takes a dramatic fictional twist. It plays through November 20, 2022. (See info here.)

Ace Young’s Broadway credits include HAIR [succeeding Will Swenson] and Grease, as well as the national tours of Grease (playing Danny Zuko) and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. In addition to theater, Young is a Grammy-nominated songwriter and BMI Pop Award Winner, and millions have seen him perform, most notably on the 5th season of American Idol. Years later, he married American Idol runner-up on season three, Diana DeGarmo.

Ace Young in The Tank's 2022 Production of VATICAN FALLS.
Photo by Ashley Garrett.

Gregory Fletcher: Finally, Vatican Falls has its world premiere after seven attempts in four different countries over the last decade. How is it playing a radicalized protagonist who finally gets his say onstage?

Ace Young: Truthfully, I feel honored to be able to play Ricardo. The fact that the show hasn’t been able to get onstage, that it’s been fighting tooth and nail just to be seen is so much deeper than what people in the world know. It’s a bigger struggle; it’s a story that, once it’s said out loud, can finally be real, can finally be accepted as a real thing for so many people who lived through it. And in that moment of hearing it out loud, they get to accept that it happened and let it go in order to cleanse their spirit. And start a new day without the baggage of questioning — yourself as a survivor — whether it didn’t happen because everyone in your world doesn’t understand it. Such doubt forces self-shaming which goes inward, hurting yourself, and turning your inner light off.

After being written in 2006 and getting to a stage in 2022, this so much bigger than just a play opening. These stories are real survivors. These are people who were paid off by the church so they would disappear. They are still alive. Some of them. Sadder yet, most of them are not. Often, getting paid off by the church means your family shuns you because they can’t deal with it. And the victim has no one to lean on, and they have money, but little purpose for living. Then they’re ashamed of having the finances to live and exist with something they can’t communicate. Over time, it eats at you. Often followed by suicide. The suicide rate is huge amongst people who have been molested, sexually abused, or even just traumatized with such things. So, finally, our hitting the stage makes it real. Frank the playwright, his spirit is cleansed. He can now become the man he is today instead of carrying the child he’s protected all these years. Now, for the first time in his life, he can finally see himself as a man who has grown up. Who has a job, some finances, and abilities. He’s no longer a child who has things he doesn’t know if he can talk about with a stranger. Would the stranger be capable to love him after hearing such things? After the first preview performance, Frank gave me a big hug and kiss and just said, “thank you.” He’s had no one to share it with until now. As an actor, this is a dream come true. I go through so many emotions I never get to go through within a typical show. Emotions, ages, experiences, and I’m so honored to be able to be the one who gets to bring it to the forefront and be onstage with it. No one is shutting us down.

Ace Young and Edward Simon in VATICAN FALLS. Photo by Ashley Garrett.

Fletcher: In a way, the cancellations of past production are additional abuses from the church. More maltreatment and mishandling.

Young: Most definitely. More guilt. More admission. It’s already been affirmed something was wrong. The church gave the victims money. No one gets handed money unless something happened. Something real happened and money was transferred. But the church doesn’t want to talk about it. And that’s what I feel I’m here for. To share these stories. Addressing the fact that there are people who do things that aren’t correct. That aren’t right. That aren’t the way to train young human beings in this world. If we don’t address that such people exist, then we’re letting them fly under the radar and continue to do bad on bad on bad. Their victims are now living in their 50s, years past when such things happened in their teens. Thirty, forty years later, just by addressing it, the church can focus on themselves and admit, yes, there are bad people amongst the hierarchy of the church, people who have strayed off the right path. This could actually fix the things that are happening within the church, that are making so many people no longer attend services they might actually need.

Fletcher: The play feels very original to me because I’ve never seen this subject before. Not priests sexually abusing children, of course we’ve heard plenty of those stories. But organized groups taking revenge against the church? Is this a real thing or just dramatic wishful thinking?

Young: It’s real. The organizations, the people, they’re trying to do things against the church. I don’t say they’re in the right. Truthfully, if the hierarchies of the church focused on what’s going on, people wouldn’t have to go to such drastic measures.

Tucker Aust and Ace Young in VATICAN FALLS. Photo by Ashley Garrett.

Fletcher: How easily were you able to connect to the darker sides of the play?

Young: The play allows me to really dive in because I’ve personally gone through a lot to get where I am today. And nobody would look at me and guess I’ve had a bout with suicide. I’ve been through it twice. First time, I thought I’d be making my mom proud by doing it because I would get to the highest Kingdom in Heaven before the age where I could be judged for it. Her belief system, no longer mine. The second time was when all my brothers left the house. I have four older brothers who always had friends over. I enjoyed everyone in the room. And when they grew up and moved out, I came home to a empty house that had a locked door. The quiet was deafening. I was so sad and empty. It was just me, which wasn’t enough. I didn’t know how to exist. I didn’t even think I was worthy of having a funeral. It was a dark time. I was empty. On my own, alone, looking in the mirror, seeing those little individual things that only make you insecure. But I began to see those things as beautiful, traits that identified me specifically. I literally had to be enough for myself to get through it.

Fletcher: To the point where you’re here now, with such a meaningful performance. And it doesn’t hurt that you’re surrounded by a solid cast. Judy Bowman’s casting is rock solid; there’s not a false moment anywhere.

Young: Yes, absolutely, I’m working with very skilled actors doing amazing work. I feel like I’m in a master class. I don’t have to act. I just have to know what age I’m at. And rely on the power of the words. Frank J Avella, who wrote the script, it blew me away. So, to be able to do this where I get to be at the forefront of pushing this story forward, I know I’m strong enough to take it.

Carlotta Brentan and Ace Young in VATICAN FALLS. Photo by James Gracia.

Fletcher: Has your wife seen your performance yet?

Young: She saw the show last night for the second time and she had a really hard time. Because she saw what I went through. And she couldn’t protect me. But I’m strong enough to do it, and that’s why I’m called to do it. Because I am more capable than I even know. And for that, I can show everyone the glimpse of light. To wake them up. And make them present. And let them be here now, realizing how beautiful they are. We are all capable. And that’s what a lot of younger people may not realize when they’re thinking about their own life. We are all capable.

Fletcher: Your character survives and ultimately finds his voice, which we witness onstage with the song your character Ricardo is trying to write. Did this come about because you were cast or was it already a part of the script?

Young: Actually, there was a lot more in the initial table reads. I was really surprised with the amount — three six-minute songs. Which felt more like poems to me. Frank let me cut them into a smaller version. Frank allowed me to create a chord progression and melody that felt fitting for my character. Ricardo doesn’t have his voice yet; he’s still living in his trauma — his first love with Father David. I mean, he appreciated Father David because he was treated like an adult. And he could ask Father David real questions without having to be a dumb kid in response. Father David didn’t prey on him, he genuinely appreciated the light that he saw in young Ricardo, and they both really fell in love — a real relationship. Now, was Riccardo ready for that? Probably not. So, you’re seeing this guy who hasn’t had inspiration to write yet.

Fletcher: And toward the end of the play, the words and music are complete, and when you sing the full song, it’s so beautiful, haunting, and intense. Side note: you need song credit in the program for writing the melody. But even so, it’s a big turning point for your character.

Young: Yes, it’s the moment where he is no longer wishy-washy with what he’s supposed to do with his life. He’s no longer on the fence with how he feels about Claudia, the Vatican operative he’s been seeing. For the first time, he’s dealing with what he has put himself through. With losing his dad, losing his brother, dealing with his mother, and finding his own personal footing to take a stance. To live. To have a life instead of being in this reactive state. It’s the first time he plants his feet on the ground and realizes how strong he is, which is exhilarating. It’s the moment where I, as Ace, get to let my inner animal out. I let out my roar where it’s beyond words.

Husband and wife duo Ace Young and Diana DeGarmo in the
Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat National Tour. Photo by Daniel Brodie.

Fletcher: You play many ages of Ricardo. As young as…

Young: 13 is when I first met Father David. How we first met. How I genuinely become interested and how he treats me like a young man. Then at 17, I’m already in a relationship with him. He’s the person I confide in and genuinely love. And at the end of the character arc, I’m in my early 40s. And that’s when I’m looking back, still carrying the memories, the trauma, the shame of all I had been through. I get to confront it all.

Fletcher: Not presented in a linear way, the play time-jumps between your ages, as well as with locations and countries. I can only imagine how difficult your character arc must’ve been to fully realize.

Young: About two weeks before we got to our first preview, I was actually just as dumbfounded as you would have thought. Jumping from 13 to 17 to 40, then back and forth throughout the play. But what I grabbed onto was my physicality. And I have my voice. So, if I know exactly where I was age-wise, I could simply react to what’s in front of me. As I get younger, I get a little more floppy when sitting down. By the time I’m 40, I’m sitting upright and holding my position, because if I didn’t, my back would hurt in the morning. I focused specifically on how I feel at the age, and then programmed it into my head based on where I was onstage, because there are moments where I walk across stage jumping in age, jumping time. I have to change my voice and my physicality, back to the innocence of what I truly was when I was 13 — the curiosities of the first exposures to things. The actual infatuation.

There’s a moment where my brother character Peter says for the first time how he’s interested in a girl physically. And he says, “I just wanted to touch her titties.” As the older brother, this is the first time I’ve heard my younger brother even say the word, let alone talk about a girl to me. So, I want to support him. Like, “OK, buddy, this is a great conversation. Dad’s gone. Let’s do this.” And it’s an amazing moment for the two of us as siblings, because I remember when I could talk openly with my four older brothers about things I wasn’t comfortable approaching with my parents. Because the system didn’t tell me how to properly protect myself. The system didn’t tell me about STD’s, how to wear a condom, let alone sexual curiosity. I needed my brothers for that stuff so I wouldn’t change someone else’s life. If you have a baby and you’re 13 or 17, your life has changed. My sibling support is what got me through it. Even when I was older. My brother Ryan moved out to LA with me and protected me through American Idol. When I got off that show, I couldn’t walk one block without people calling me by my first name and asking for a picture, autograph, or a hug. The show had 200 million viewers. We were the biggest show in the world. When my plane landed in New York, it was delayed for an hour because so many passengers came back to take a picture with me. And I was in the back row near the toilet. Then there was a guy holding an Ace Young sign at baggage claim, along with 250 others. I couldn’t go anywhere on my own. My brother protected me. He’s six foot seven and looks like I do. He’d stand in front of me, and people would give us space. He took the hit of criticism. Like when TMZ tried to get me to flip them off by calling me dirty names or telling me how terrible I was, just so they could get a reaction. He took those hits and protected me.

Ace Young with Anita Welch in Aida at Axelrod Performing Arts Center. Photo by Rich Kowalski.

Fletcher: What I admire about you is that you don’t seem to be afraid of taking all sorts of roles: no matter the entertainment medium or venue, at all sorts of levels, big and small. I get the sense that you’re led more by exploration of your craft as an artist and as a human being rather than by money and a paycheck.

Young: There is so much more to life than money. And my abilities to help get other people to realize their dream — that feels priceless to me. I truly feel that my purpose now, since I’ve already achieved my dreams and accomplished my entire bucket list at 41, is to have another 40 years of make-believe and charity work — to make an impact in the real emotions of art, and it has nothing to do with money. There will be certain jobs that pay me more than I feel I’m probably even worth. And others that won’t pay me at all. This production is an Equity Showcase, meaning we’re all doing it for free. But to stand for this story, and to experience the emotional things in a celebrated stance, like a theater, this is something so much greater than a paycheck. Art is our history. If you look at art for the whole past, it makes an impact. They put their memory on the wall, on canvas, on paper, onstage, this is the real history, so I’m just trying to dive into the art full force, and it has nothing to do with money. I’ve been very blessed in so many ways; I will always be able to feed myself.

Fletcher: This positive outlook is so appealing, and you’ve been fortunate to have it for a long time. In preparation for this interview, I watched season five, episode two of American Idol when you auditioned in Denver. And I have to say, I cringed at Simon Cowell’s pouty, negative sighs in response to your a cappella audition. The other two judges had nothing but praise, but Simon gave you a “yes with a small y.” And even then, you responded with positive vibes and a smile. You were endearing. He was not.

Young: It’s genuinely hard to get people to support you. Even with friends who I’d do anything for, but when you hope the support is reciprocated, it’s not. And that’s weird to me. But trauma affects us all in different ways. As a matter of fact, working on this play resurfaced a memory I’d had buried. It involved the same brother Ryan who helped protect me so much in my life. Maybe more this time than ever before. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for him. I called him to see if he remembered it. When I was five and Ryan was nine, we were driving across country with my grandparents. They picked us up in Colorado and headed to California in a Mercury. We spent the night in a hotel that had an outside pool. I asked my grandpa if I could go swimming, but my grandpa insisted in the morning; we’re going to go to bed now. The next morning, I down a bowl of Cinnamon Toast Crunch and put on my swim trunks. Somehow, Ryan surprised me with a Donald Duck inner tube. I loved Donald Duck because he didn’t have to wear pants. Ryan didn’t have his bathing suit on yet, so I told him, “I’ll be at the pool.” He said, “Hold on,” but I was like, “No, no, I’ll be there. Hurry up.” And I ran out and headed to the pool. There was a glass wall looking at the pool and not a soul in sight. I was all alone. I threw the tube in the water and dove into the center opening. My waist got stuck. I’m head first in the water with my feet in the air. And I can’t flip over. I’m five years old! I start trying to flip, like kicking my feet, but I can’t free myself. My eyes were open and I couldn’t get my head up for air. Maybe for a quick second but then I went right back under. I was like, I’m fucked. I was bobbing and bobbing and losing energy from exhaustion. My eyes were open, and I told myself, “Don’t open your mouth. If you open your mouth, you’re done.” And I started literally vibrating. My vision started going to this portal, and it was a vibration like I’d never felt before. Like I was leaving. I looked up to my feet in the air, and I see on the other side of the glass something moving, and then I blacked out. I was gone. No longer there.

I woke up on the side of the pool. My brother Ryan had pulled me out. Unconscious. I had died. But he was able to revive me. I didn’t know what had happened. He told me I was gone for a couple minutes. Neither of us told our grandparents, and when we were back in the car, continuing on our journey to California, the two of us barfed in the backseat of the car. That was how scared we were from what had happened.

Ace Young, Alice Barrett Mitchell, and James Garcia in VATICAN FALLS. Photo by Ashley Garrett.

Skip to four weeks ago in rehearsal for Vatican Falls. This forgotten memory surfaced, and I Facetimed Ryan. I asked him, “Do you remember that trip to California with Grandpa?” He started laughing about the barfing in the backseat. But I asked him about what happened before? And his whole body changed, and his breathing, too. And after all these years, I said, “Bro, thank you for saving my life. I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for you, thank you.” And we had a heart to heart. And he replied, “I had so much shame for not being there. I thought I let you down. That’s why I was always taking the hit for you, walking you through Times Square so you could hide behind me and get a single block without people stopping you.” And the trauma from this experience released from us both. It’s been a long time, but we’re all healing.

And this show for me started with Frank. Frank has gone through a lot. Frank J. Avella, he has my heart. He’s the reason I get to go through all this because he no longer has to carry it. I’m so honored to be a part of it.

Fletcher: I’m so honored to hear these stories; thank you for opening up and sharing your passion, wisdom, and heart. Your positive vibes are a pleasure to witness. How lucky for the audiences at The Tank.

Follow Ace Young on Twitter at IAMACEYOUNG, and on Instagram at ACEYOUNG

find Gregory Fletcher at Gregory Fletcher Facebook and Instagram

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