By day, Joe Couturier works behind the scenes as a document processor in the Financial Aid office at UMass Lowell.
By night and on weekends, he’s center stage as a leading actor in musicals and plays at the Firehouse Center for the Arts in Newburyport, Massachusetts. Recently, he made his debut as a director, leading the professional theater’s production of “Doubt,” a Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning play. And he often helps with new play festivals and staged readings.
“If they need someone who can’t say ‘No’ to a role, they call me,” Couturier says modestly.
His talents are anything but modest, however. A Lowell native who graduated from Lowell High School in 2007, Couturier was accepted to Wagner College’s nationally renowned musical theater program.
He attended for three years, studying everything from acting, singing and directing to script analysis – and then took a break to help out at home with his brother. Couturier also worked as a personal care assistant for other people with disabilities for several years.
“My younger brother has Down syndrome and a lot of other medical ailments, and he requires medicine around the clock,” Couturier says. “Growing up with that, I thought, ‘Why not do that for other people?’”
Couturier completed his degree in 2016 and then acted in New York City for a few months, appearing in musicals, comedies and dramas that were performed in “found space.” He commuted by bus from Boston for rehearsals and stayed with family in Brooklyn on performance weekends.
“It was all really thrilling,” he says. “And I can say I performed in New York.”
In summer 2017, UML’s Financial Aid office hired Couturier part time to scan a backlog of documents: scholarship applications, financial aid change requests, tax forms and more. A few months later, he was brought on full time.
Not long afterward, he auditioned for the Firehouse production of “Avenue Q,” a triple Tony Award-winning musical and adult-themed parody of Sesame Street, and landed the role of the lead male puppet, Princeton. He’s been involved with the Firehouse ever since.
“I thought, ‘The commute to Newburyport is a lot shorter!’” jokes Couturier, who now lives in Haverhill, Massachusetts, with his partner, a special education support professional and director of the glee club at Haverhill High School.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Firehouse theater company continued to perform, staging summer shows outdoors at local farms, Couturier says. For some of the shows, the audience sat in their cars and tuned their radios to a channel that broadcast the actors’ voices.
“It was like a drive-in,” he says. “We all had to wear masks and be 6 feet apart.”
Now, Couturier has stepped up to directing. “Doubt,” which focuses on the conflict between a younger, progressive priest and a conservative older nun who accuses the priest of sexual misconduct with a student, has fascinated him since he studied it in college, he says.
And, after working with a lot of great directors, he wanted to try directing himself. With typical modesty, he downplays his new role.
“I like directing a lot,” he says. “I just want to make sure everyone else is having a good enough time. They’re welcome to have their own ideas … and usually their ideas are better than mine.”