“Yes, it’s an unusual part,” Michael Russotto said about his lead role in Samuel D. Hunter’s The Whale, beginning January 14 at Rep Stage in Columbia. “You don’t often have central characters who are 600-pound people featured in a play.”
I suppose there’s not much room for argument there. Those of us of a certain age might remember Albert Innaurato’s one-act The Transfiguration of Benno Blimpie. (Funnily enough, like The Whale, that play ran in New York at Playwrights Horizons.) Actors playing Falstaff or other portly folk might don padding, but still are able to caper quite ably about the stage. Charlie (like Benno before him) is in a different category. The morbidly obese central character of The Whale spends most of the play on a couch.
“Because of that, it makes demands production-wise, on the costume designer,” Russotto noted. “Prosthetics have to be involved. That was one of my big concerns, when we were in the discussion stages: what, for lack of a better word, the fat suit would be; who was making it. I didn’t want the audience looking at a bad fat suit, not able to immerse themselves in the world of the play because of that.
“They put my mind to rest early. What they have come up with looks pretty great. I’ve been working with the actual thing since day one. The fitting process began [before rehearsals began], and it was to my body. They had all the measurements, so it was ready, the base was ready since the start. They’ve found that they needed to add some to it, but that was done when we had days off. I’ve had access to it for all of the rehearsals.” (Wil Crowther designed the prosthetics.)
“I spend much of the play on the couch,” Russotto told me. “I do have to get up a couple of times. That’s one of the big challenges for anyone who plays Charlie. You have to do it almost all from one position. It’s sort of like Winnie in Happy Days [the Samuel Beckett play that is virtually a monologue for a woman buried in earth up to her waist and then, in the second act, up to her neck]. You have to find other ways to do things, mini-staging things. Instead of a cross, maybe you look across the room.
“It’s a challenge for the director, too. Charlie is the sun around which everyone else is orbiting, movement-wise. That presents challenges for the director. You’re limited in what you can do. But it becomes a defining circumstance, too, and a great obstacle for a character to have to overcome. So there are advantages, in a strange way, to do the role mostly from one position. It imposes hurdles on Charlie that he has to overcome in the moment. It seems like an obstacle, but it’s kind of great, too.”
“This is our third show together,” Russotto told me in response to my question about his past relationship with the play’s director, Kasi Campbell. “We just came off doing Pen together at Washington Stage Guild. I love it because Kasi just calls me up and asks if I want to do a play. Getting hired is an easy, wonderful process, because she trusts me to work hard and to honor the character. She’s a real actor’s director. She has a vision, but she listens to her actors. She let’s you play and fail and then, hopefully, eventually succeed. She’s a great guide, but she doesn’t feel the need to impose things on actors, which I love.”
I asked if this was the hardest role he has done. “It’s up there. I’m trying to think if there’s been anything harder. It’s the hardest role in a long time, let’s put it that way, because you want to honor the character and the physical. You want it to be as real as humanly possible, this idea of a 600-pound man. I don’t know a lot about that, but I’ve been watching a ton of shows and videos, observing the way people move and the limitations that having that weight imposes, what happens physically when you can’t get around easily. There was a lot of research involved. You have to be clear and specific, all the time, in every moment, from one spot on the sofa. But the writing is so wonderful, so good, that I can’t say that I’m struggling because I feel like the playwright has helped me tremendously.”
I asked if Russotto had known of the script before being engaged to play the part. “Yes I did, actually, because I did another of his plays, A Bright New Boise, at Woolly Mammoth, and I know Sam [playwright Samuel D. Hunter] because of that. He was there in rehearsal with us for five weeks. He’s a friend of mine. So I did know this play, and I was hoping that it would be produced in the DC area. He and I tried to get another theater interested in it, but that other theatre didn’t feel like it fit. It just wasn’t the right niche.
“The Rep Stage production happened without any involvement from Sam. When I found out that Rep Stage was doing it, I assumed it had an actor attached, so I was surprised and thrilled to get a phone call about it.”
(During an e-mail exchange setting up this interview, Joseph W. Ritsch, Co-Producing Artistic Director of Rep Stage, described the genesis of the production and, interestingly, what appealed to him about the play. See the sidebar at the end of this article.)
Since Hunter and Russotto are friends, I asked if Hunter intends to come down for the production. “We’ve been talking. He has said that he really wants to come and see it. He knows the dates. But he’s a very busy fellow these days. He just won a MacArthur ‘genius’ grant. He’s in great demand.” In addition to the MacArthur grant, Hunter just premiered a new play, Pocatello, at Playwrights Horizons. He has also been in the news as one of the playwrights involved in Playwrights Horizons’ ground-breaking initiative to improve compensation and quality of life for theatre writers.
Having seen Russotto on stage since the mid/late 80s, I was aware of his parallel career as a director and the fact that he hasn’t been directing much lately. The last thing I remember seeing that he directed was Electra featuring Jennifer Mendenhall at MetroStage almost ten years ago. Was that indeed the last thing he directed?
“That was the last thing I directed for public consumption, but I’ve directed many, many shows at Theatre Lab for their Summer Youth Program and at National Conservatory of Dramatic Art. I direct a show or two a year. I did Kleptocracy at Rorschach Theatre, which was fun, but about all I have time to do [between acting jobs]. I don’t really put my name in the hat that much anymore. I’ve approached some theaters recently. I’ve got a couple of irons in the fire. I’ve been so focused on the acting part of what we do that I haven’t delved into professional directing gigs.
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“I kinda do miss it. I would like to do more. But I don’t know the people who hire directors these days. They don’t really know who I am; they haven’t seen my work. It’s a little bit of a difficult thing to break into, or, re-break into. But I’d be interested in doing it again.”
This left an opening for me to ask about the downside of the explosion of the DC theatre scene: the consequent shrinking of the institutional memory. After all, anyone familiar with the scene in the 90s would be fully conversant with Russotto’s work as a director. He acknowledged that dynamic. “Even at Woolly Mammoth, where I’m a company member, the faces have changed. It’s been a year and a half since I’ve done a play there, and so much of the staff has turned over. There are very few people left that I know. It’s a challenge in that way.”
On the other hand: “I think it’s great that there has been an explosion. There’s so much out there. There are a ton of opportunities for people to beak into the scene in DC and to work with really high-quality companies on amazing projects. Theatre in DC has attracted a lot of people from other parts of the country, and that’s a good thing. People come from New York, Atlanta, Chicago. We want the gene pool to be large — not inbred, where we have no outside influence on the art.”
Reflecting on the viability of the arts in general, and theatre in particular, in DC, Russotto said, “I’m not sure why it happened here, in the face of budget and funding cuts across the economic spectrum.” Acknowledging that “we’ve lost companies,” he noted that “every time we lose one, five grow back, like The Hydra.” He extolled young companies who do “so much with limited resources,” and observed that that is where “art really comes from, when presented with challenges like that.”
In the 90s, Russotto began his own company, Actors Theatre of Washington, which led me to an obvious question, the response to which was, “No, I don’t think I’d want to run a theater again. You have to be married to it. I think that it would be hard to get excited about that prospect. I think that’s for other, younger people. To run a company, you have to be excited about administration and fund-raising. God knows, we need people who want to do that. I’m focused now on doing the art, on acting, directing.”
Since it was at Studio that I first saw Russotto act and direct, I asked if he was excited about seeing Studio’s Founding Artistic Director Joy Zinoman when she takes the stage this Spring at Round House Theatre in Uncle Vanya. “It will be quite an event. There will be three or four artistic directors in the cast. It will be fascinating to see Joy on stage. I’m gonna try. I don’t have a good track record, going to shows on my nights off. When I’m home, I want to be home. But this one is special. I’m going to try to make it.”
Last question: As an actor-slash-director, does it become difficult to turn off the directing impulse when you are not the director, but just one of the cast? “I do have trouble disengaging the ‘director’ part of my brain sometimes. I’ve gotten much better, though, about knowing when it’s appropriate, and when it’s not, to speak up. Especially if it’s going to improve a scene in some way, I have no trouble saying, ‘How about if I answer the door?’ or ‘What if I’m on this side of the sofa?’ or ‘Can we try dancing?’ So, in a way, I don’t hold back when I’m involved in a scene. But sometimes, I’ll make a ‘none-of-my-business’ comment. I’ll say, ‘This is a “none-of-my-business” comment.’ But it depends on the director. If I don’t know the director well, if I think it might offend another performer, I don’t speak. Or I’ll think, ‘What would I think if someone made this particular comment in front of me [if I were the director]?’ Most of the time, I avoid the rocks and shoals.
“But sometimes I make a mistake,” he said, with a laugh. “Sometimes, it’s hard to shut up.”
[For the record: while artistic director of Washington Shakespeare Company, I hired Michael Russotto to direct Richard III (1997) and Measure for Measure (1999). In 1998, Russotto played Don Pedro at Folger Theatre in the Joe Banno production in which I played Don John.]
Joseph W. Ritsch, Co-Producing Artistic Director of Rep Stage, on selecting The Whale:
“I was familiar with Samuel D. Hunter’s work, but had not seen or read The Whale. My artistic partner Suzanne Beal and I were looking at plays that were coming out of Playwrights Horizons because of their commitment to producing new work. The Whale was one of those plays I could not put down, and by the end I was deeply moved, as was Suzanne. Hunter’s storytelling is so beautifully simple, yet exquisite in its depth. I think we were both taken by Charlie’s ability to find beauty in the most ordinary of places. Here is a man who the world sees as grotesque who has a genuine ability to look past the monstrous qualities in others to see the beauty underneath. It is both inspiring and heart-breaking at the same time.
We are hoping that audiences are moved by this play as much as we were in reading it. One of my favorite lines in the play is when Charlie is addressing his English students on an on-line class he teaches. He is talking about a recent assignment where he has told them to throw all the other rules of the assignments away and just write from the heart, telling them to forget about grammar, forget about sentence structure and thesis statements, and just write something honest. After reading those papers Charlie says: ‘This course doesn’t matter. College doesn’t matter. These beautiful, honest things you wrote—they matter.’ Theatre is a beautiful, honest thing. It brings a group of strangers together in the hope that they will all empathize in the same way no matter how diverse their lives are. I cannot think of a more beautiful or important thing.”