Once an involved CRCitizen who would play Muppet music during her Radiothon shows, Stephanie D’Abruzzo (Comm ‘93) is now a seasoned puppeteer and a regular on Sesame Street. She originated the roles of Kate Monster/Lucy the Slut in Broadway’s Avenue Q, for which she was nominated for the Tony for Best Actress in a Musical against Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel. In light of her upcoming return to campus to perform in CommFest’s “A Starry Night,” NBN talked with D’Abruzzo about her valued time at Northwestern and succeeding in a volatile industry.
North by Northwestern: Do you have any traditions or events that you look back on and think “that's quintessential Northwestern”?
Stephanie D’Abruzzo: You have to remember this was a time before you could make movies on your laptop. In fact, there was no Internet as we know it now. What CRC brought to the table that no other dormitory had is you had access to hundreds of thousands of dollars of camera equipment and editing equipment. So the fact that CRC offered that equipment, and then that you had a dorm full of people who would be willing to make, and I say this with the most love possible, a crappy student film at 3 in the morning – that's the stuff we would do. I would never have been able to do the projects that I did were it not for the equipment at CRC and my friends at CRC. What it gave us was not only the ability to create, but the freedom to fail. We would always have film and video nights where we would share class projects or things we did on our own, and it was such a spirited, loving, wonderful audience. We knew it wasn't great but we learned so much from it and we had so much fun doing it ... I have a very special place in my heart for Radiothon. I had a radio show that I knew no one listened to, because it was on at midnight, and I would mostly do blocks of Muppet music. That was the way things were in CRC, we would just do silly things.
NBN: There's this big inside joke at Northwestern now because of all this new branding, this phrase "AND is in our DNA," just meaning that we're all multifaceted and we have varying interests. Did Northwestern push you to explore a lot of different passions when you were here?
D’Abruzzo: Oh, yeah. In fact, I will always assert – and this is not to disparage any of the wonder academic areas – but I often learned more outside of class than I did in class because of all the opportunities, it wasn't just about anything that happened between 9 and 6, Monday through Friday. It was a 24 hour place of learning. You would find your various tribes, and that could change. I was in University Singers my freshman year, but that was something I didn't sustain because I wanted to have more flexibility, so we started little singing groups. I was in a guitar duo, I tried to form a barber shop quartet. I was in a campus improv troupe. I did Studio 22 ... I think [Northwestern] attracts a lot of people who are figuring out what they want to do. I certainly discovered puppetry – I'd never considered it as a career – but Northwestern gave me the opportunity to explore it, to learn it on my own. The education was tailored to not just your needs and desires, but the things you will discover along the way.
NBN: The name of the main CommFest event is “A Starry Night,” so obviously there are going to be some very accomplished people on campus. Is there anyone specifically that your most looking forward to seeing or working with in your performance?
D'Abruzzo: Oh, boy. I have had the honor of crossing paths with some of [them]. I met Brian d’Arcy James on many occasions ... I've met Richard Kind ... Tony Roberts, I've run into every once in a while and he usually remembers who I am, and I'm always floored by that ... Heather Headley, she did a Sesame Street home video a long time ago ... and it's always nice to share that Northwestern [connection]. Obviously, Mr. Colbert. It just aired last night, Cookie Monster appeared on the Late Show, and I was Cookie Monster's right hand ... Even to be in the man's presence … I've never met Ana Gasteyer, but I saw her at a voice audition years ago, and I was too afraid to even go up and say "Northwestern." I did the Scrubs musical [with] Zach Braff, we were undergrads together … I feel like this group who's going to be there, like, I know I’m “one of these things is not like the other,” I'm very much aware that I am different. And that's fine, that's why I lived in CRC, that's why I went to Northwestern. I don't honestly know if I'm going to be able to put two words together. This is one of those places where you can't use, "Oh, you went to Northwestern? So did I!" as an icebreaker. It's going to be really special, not just for the people who are performing, but all these great alumni who are coming back who do so many great things in so many areas. And let's not forget, the students who are performing in this, they're incredible. They're gonna mop the stage with us.
NBN: What advice do you have for students, whether in entertainment and media or just in general, about getting involved in an industry and making your own mark?
D’Abruzzo: I say this to a lot of kids who are still in school: the best thing that you can do with the time that you have is do something that's risky. Take a class that you wouldn't normally take or do something that you might fail at doing. I'm so grateful, when I decided that I might want to pursue puppetry, that I was able to create something. I really didn't know if this was for me ... so I needed to do something, but I gave myself permission to fail. I built puppets that weren't pretty. There was no internet for me to find out how to build them. A lot of it was guesswork or meeting people who had done [it], and getting bits of advice here and there ... But I gave myself permission to fail, and I think that's more important now than ever, because the one thing that I see in almost every field, but certainly in media –the temptation to put your work online ... I think that does a disservice, because you're thinking about pleasing others rather than figuring out what your voice is. And I think that college is sort of the last place where you can take bigger risks. The stakes should be lower in college. It's not about getting good grades, it's about figuring out what you bring to the table that no one else does.
This interview has been edited and condensed.