An engineer in the spotlight

Engineering director Ray D'Ambrosio has a second life in acting

Chief biomedical engineer, actor, singer, dancer and entertainer. It's an uncommon résumé, but one that describes Ray D'Ambrosio well.

During the workday, he is the director of systems engineering at Mountain View's Hansen Medical. But in the evenings, the techie hat comes off, and on goes the actor hat. D'Ambrosio is a successful local actor whose credits include principal roles in multiple community theater productions, including "Little Shop of Horrors" and "Jesus Christ Superstar." He has worked with theater companies across the Bay Area, ranging from Newark's Stage 1 Theatre to Redwood City-based Broadway by the Bay.

While D'Ambrosio's long list of acting credits may give the impression of a seasoned professional, his first time performing in front of an audience took place just four years ago.

"My daughter was in StarStruck Theatre's production of "Annie," and they needed someone for the role of Judge Brandeis," D'Ambrosio explained. "I was just glad I got to be in a show with my daughter."

D'Ambrosio has his daughters to thank for introducing him to the world of theater and performing arts in the first place.

His initial theater experience was in the fall of 2009, when his oldest daughter, Ally, starred as Bilbo Baggins in Irvington High School's production of "The Hobbit." Until then, D'Ambrosio's only theatrical responsibilities had involved behind-the-scenes tasks, such as building sets and shuttling the kids to and from rehearsals.

"I didn't have any background in theater at all. You could say I followed my kids into theater," said D'Ambrosio.

When the director realized she needed someone to play the voice of Smaug, the fearsome dragon antagonist, Ray and another parent volunteer stepped up to the plate.

"It was a blast. I mean, I got to pretend to be a dragon!" D'Ambrosio said.

Although he didn't actually step out of the wings and on to the stage until his brief appearance as Judge Brandeis in "Annie," he had already caught the theater bug.

In late 2011, Stage 1 Theatre held auditions for its production of the comedy rock musical, "Little Shop of Horrors." Ray decided to audition for the offstage role of the voice of Audrey II, a bloodthirsty flytrap plant bent on taking over the world.

"I was quite nervous," he remembered of the experience. "It was the first time I'd ever auditioned for anything like this."

D'Ambrosio said he was taken completely by surprise when Stage 1 called a week later and offered him the principal role of Mr. Mushnik, complete with multiple singing performances.

"That phone call has become a core memory that I'll never forget," said D'Ambrosio. "From that point on, I basically just jumped in with both feet."

He stuck with Stage 1 for his next production, when he played Adult Male Authority Figure in "Hairspray" a role that encompassed five different characters and gave him a chance to stretch his repertoire.

"After "Hairspray" was when I knew this was all real," said D'Ambrosio. "Before, it almost seemed like a fluke. I kind of just went along with the roles for my daughters' shows because I was a parent volunteer, and "Little Shop of Horrors" just fell into my lap. But after doing "Hairspray," I realized acting could be real for me."

D'Ambrosio has been performing in three to four shows a year ever since. His most recent role is Marcus Lycus, an ancient Roman purveyor of courtesans, in Foothill Music Theatre's production of "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," which runs from July 24 to Aug. 9 at Smithwick Theatre in Los Altos Hills.

On a typical weekday, D'Ambrosio leaves his office at Hansen Medical in the late afternoon and heads directly to rehearsals, which can sometimes run until 10 p.m. or later. With his busy schedule, the married father of two says life as both an actor and full-time engineer does require sacrifice and compromise.

"My daughters are grown, and their going to college has, in a sense, created more time for me. But my wife is a schoolteacher, and it isn't uncommon for me to kiss her good night on Sunday and say, 'See you Friday!'" said D'Ambrosio.

Nevertheless, he said his family and friends have been happy to accompany him on his journey through the performing arts world.

"My wife is very amazing and supportive, and my kids were amused, especially since we started out acting together. This job as an actor is the dad I've become, but I'm still just their regular old dad," he said.

D'Ambrosio recalled when he auditioned for a part in "The Full Monty."

"My daughter was mortified when I told her I would have a strip scene if I got the part. Ultimately I was not cast, but the look on her face when I told her was worth the rejection," D'Ambrosio recalled with a laugh.

As for splitting his time between his engineering career and his acting life, D'Ambrosio said he appreciates that they challenge him in different ways. While directing engineering projects works the analytical left brain, telling an audience a story exercises the creative right brain.

"They're wonderfully different occupations," he said. "Engineering can be a very serious business, very detail-oriented and slow moving. There's a lot of technical depth, and it can take over a year to complete projects, whereas a show schedule typically only lasts six to eight weeks."

With six years and over fifteen roles to his name, D'Ambrosio shows no signs of slowing down as an actor.

"I feel so fortunate and blessed," he said. "For me, acting is all about the process, from initially reading a script, auditioning and doing research into a role, to forming a character and presenting it to an audience. Right now, I don't foresee or desire an end."

Shannon Chai is an editorial intern at the Mountain View Voice.

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