Rusty Clauss, who mastered comedy and drama during a lengthy career on Washington stages and who performed in movies and on television, died on June 4th after suffering a stroke following a brief hospitalization. She was 81.
Clauss was noted for an approach to acting that was at once subtle and hard-edged. In one of her more recent DC area performances, in the Source Festival two years ago, DCTS’ Ted Ying noted her “exceptional performance,” but that was only one of many accolades.
She appeared in productions all over the area, including at Studio, Washington Shakespeare, Solas Nua, The Shakespeare Theatre and Olney. She worked in Capital Fringe shows as well as the Source Festival, where her work in The Hummingbird’s Nest won her an outstanding lead actress award from the Source Festival in 1996.
She also did substantial work on television and in films. She was the recurring character of Madame Buchard in NBC’s Baltimore-based series, “Homicide: Life on the Streets” and appeared in “America’s Most Wanted” as well. On the big screen, she appeared in “Head of State,” “Soulmates”, “Out of Season” and several industrial films.
Rusty, the former Rosemarie J. Armock, was born in Chicago in 1929, was adopted and raised in Fruitport, Michigan. She was a theater major at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. After graduation, she toured the country doing summer stock, and in Western Massachusetts, she met and married playwright Harry Clauss. They lived in southern Spain for a few years before returning to Massachusetts. Harry Clauss eventually gave up playwrighting and they moved to Washington, where he entered the civil service as a writer. They later divorced.
Rusty Clauss became a teacher in the Fairfax County (Va.) school system, specializing in English as a Second Language and eventually became head of the drama department at Edison High School.
It was a heady, arts-drenched time in the Clauss household, her youngest son, folksinger Brian Clauss, aka Brian the Folksinger recalls. “Young filmmakers, actors, artists and the creative crowd used to hang out at the house,” he remembers. “Phil Wiggins, one of the great harmonica players, rehearsed in her living room.”
They gravitated to Rusty “because she was so inspiring and they had such a good time here. I’m getting calls from many of them now that they’ve heard the news”, he continued. “They started out with my mom and now they are professionals in New York, Los Angeles and here in DC.”
“Theatre was her life,” Brian continued, jumping between our conversation and incoming phone calls. She started three theatre companies: one in western Massachusetts when she was young; in the mid-60’s, she opened The Loft Theatre, a children’s theatre that operated from the Mt. Vernon Unitarian Church; and later, hearing that Edison’s funds for the arts would be cut, she founded Tapestry Theatre, a community theater company which cast adults and children in Shakespeare plays, much as Lumina Studio does today.
“She was worried that with schools dropping drama classes, kids wouldn’t be exposed to Shakespeare,” explains her friend, Peggy Jones, who went on to help manage Tapestry. On Shakespeare’s birthday, Clauss took large groups of students to the Lansburgh for the celebration.
She also was well known for cutting Shakespeare’s plays down to one hour scripts, making them do-able for young casts. Her scripts are still in use around the country.
“She was just an exceptional person to everybody,” says Lee McKenna, another friend. “She always had an answer. I remember all of the lessons she taught me. We’ve been best friends since 1988. ”
“She was my mentor,” says Jones. “She got me into acting and directing and always had a job in mind for me. On day, she walked in and said ‘You’re very talented. Shakespeare Theatre is offering classes now,’ handed me an audition piece, and told me to go.I thought of her as my second mom. But everybody felt the same way, and that they were the only ones to feel like that.” ”
Brian Clauss’ memory of his mother’s approach to life and art is strikingly similar. “She always told me that I had talent. We had long talks about what that means,” he remembers. He recalls her advice to him as a young man. One day she said “Take your guitar and see the world.” He did and at the age of 15 took off on his own, travelling westward. “I always found a place to play,” he told us.
“My relationship with her was artist to artist. That was a great gift she gave me” he added. Brian Clauss will be blogging about his mother at www.brianthefolksinger.com.
About being an artist, Rusty advised: ‘Do what you have to do.’” But she warned him to “do it only if you can’t live with yourself otherwise. You’ll probably always need a second job. And you might not get a girl.’”
At the time of her death, Clauss had been cast in “Swampoodle” and was working on “A Touch of Lavender,” a screenplay about actors in a retirement home who start a brothel in order to raise funds to repair the building.
She was also actively auditioning and had other jobs booked. When Brian explained her illness to one of the producers, he assured him that she could do her part while seated.
In addition to Brian, Rusty Clauss is survived by daughters Rebecca, an emergency room nurse in Reston, and Erica, a former classical dancer who is now an executive, and son David, a former musician who is now a regional director for Americorp in Austin, Texas.
“She went as she’d want to go”, Brian said. “Still in the business.” Then he thought about it. “Actually, except for the inconvenience to the other actors, she’d have liked to die backstage during the show.” And with a laugh, he went on to take more calls.
Memorial services are yet to be announced.
We hope you will share your memories of Rusty Clauss with our readers.