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BWW Interview: Theatre Life with Michael Russotto

Michael Russotto

Today's subject has been living his theatre life on our area stages for many years. Michael Russotto has proven throughout his career that he is one of DC's most versatile performers.

If you take a look at what he's doing this season, you will see evidence of his versatility. He is currently playing a pastor of an American Mega-Church in The Christians at Theater J, where he also appeared in The Sisters Rosensweig and Falling out of Time. Right before The Christians, Michael went "Jewish" at Olney Theatre Center, playing Mr. Dussel in The Diary of Anne Frank. In January, he will be back at Theater J for Copenhagen. How's that for a well-rounded season of work?

A few of Michael's other extensive area acting credits include Hay Fever and Bakersfield Mist at Olney Theatre Center, The Letters and Rough Crossing at MetroStage, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner at Arena Stage, Art at Signature Theatre, The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg at Kennedy Center, If You Give a Moose a Muffin at Adventure Theatre-MTC, The Chosen and Peter & the Wolf at Theater J, and House of Gold and The Day Room at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. Other credits include The Comedy of Errors and "The Scottish Play" at Folger Theatre.

Michael's theatrical talents aren't limited to acting. As a director, his work has been seen at Studio Theatre, including Hard Times and Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune. He also teaches at The Theatre Lab School of the Dramatic Arts and Kennedy Center. Can you imagine having one of DC's finest as your teacher? That would be really cool, don't you think?

For something completely different from the usual holiday offerings around town, check out Michael Russotto and the rest of the fantastic cast in The Christians at Theater J. It runs through December 11th. If you have seen Michael's work before, you'll be impressed as always. If this is your first time seeing him onstage, I guarantee you won't be disappointed. The Christians is just another reason why Michael Russotto has been delighting area audiences for 30 plus years now. With that build up, what other reason do you need to go see the show?

Michael Russotto in Theater J's production of The Christians. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Can you please tell us a little something about The Christians and who your character is in the show?

The Christians is a play about the intersection of faith, love and religion in America. I play Pastor Paul, Founder and Head Pastor of an American Mega-Church. He's a charismatic leader who has worked hard to create a warm and welcoming super-sized church for an ever-growing congregation. Without giving too much away, Pastor Paul chooses to preach a rather challenging sermon that ends up shattering some of the fundamental beliefs of his church. Drama ensues.

Some people might find it a little bit different that a show called The Christians is being performed in a Jewish Community Center. What can you say to people to convince them that this show is for everyone regardless of religious beliefs?

I love the fact that Theater J is producing this script. Artistic Director Adam Immerwahr says, only half-jokingly, that The Christians is actually the most Jewish play in his 2016-2017 season. Pastor Paul, though he is a Christian himself, takes a very Jewish approach towards scripture - questioning, debating, struggling with the actual text, and searching for meaning. He's part pastor, part anthropologist, applying history and scholarship to his understanding of the Bible, God's Word."

The bottom line, though, is that the play is about human beings wrestling with their faith, and the seismic forces in religion and society that can bring us together or tear us apart. Surely we can all relate to that struggle. This is a play that everyone can appreciate, regardless of religious affiliation.

Michael Russotto and Kimberly Schraf in Theater J's production of The Sisters Rosensweig. Photo by Stan Barouh.

You've performed in a bunch of shows at Theater J over the years. As an artist, what do you enjoy the most about working at Theater J?

Strong artistic leadership, provocative plays with wonderful roles for actors, and lively, engaged audiences that embrace new ideas and progressive, challenging theatre. Plus, it's close to my house!!

You recently completed a run of The Diary of Anne Frank at Olney Theatre Center Lab space. What was it like working in this proscenium space?

The Lab was the perfect space for Olney's production of Anne Frank. It's small, it's intimate, and it puts the audience right on top of the action, which is particularly important in a "direct address" piece like Anne Frank, in which the main character speaks directly to audience members through the theatrical convention of diary entries. The tightness of the Lab space also supported wonderful design choices that ended up contributing significantly to the telling of the story by creating a claustrophobic, "Secret Annex" atmosphere.

Michael Russotto and student at The Theatre Lab School of the Dramatic Arts. Photo courtesy of the organization.

You are on staff at The Theatre Lab School of the Dramatic Arts. What is the most satisfying thing about teaching theatre there?

Theatre Lab students are really a constant inspiration to me. It's always refreshing to work with such earnest, enthusiastic and interested people. They tend to come from a wide variety of backgrounds, some with previous theatre experience, but many with no experience at all - and that makes for a really exciting mix of people. They keep me sharp, focused and bring a freshness to my own work, by reminding me, in what often can be a cynical business, of the importance of honesty and the search for truth in the craft of acting.

You perform primarily in dramas and comedies. Have you wanted to perform in a musical, and if so, what are some of your dream musical roles?

I have done plenty of plays where I've had to sing a bit as part of the performance. They were plays with music as opposed to genuine musicals. And I can carry a tune and even sing harmony. But I've never done a true musical. I would certainly love to be in one, yes. Don't really know how good I'd be at it, though. We'll find out, I suppose, if I ever get an offer!

Having said that, I'll admit to being a huge Stephen Sondheim fan. If I suddenly found the musical talent to do it, I'd love to play any role in Sweeney Todd - Sweeney himself, The Judge, Beadle Bamford, even Mrs. Lovett!

Michael Russotto and Simon Brooking in Studio Theatre's 1986 production of The Slab Boys.

After The Christians you stay at Theater J for Copenhagen in January. After that, where will you be performing the rest of the season?

I'm delighted to be hanging out at Theater J again at the start of 2017. I do have some other irons in the fire for later in the season, some other projects in the offing, but they haven't been officially announced, so I'm not at liberty to talk about them just now. I can say that one of them involves a theatre I haven't yet had the pleasure of working at in all my years in DC. But I'll have to leave it there!

Special Thanks to Theater J's former Director of Marketing and Communications and Arena Stage's new publicist Lauren Alexander for her assistance in coordinating this interview.

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