And now for something completely different! I thought I would do a blog entry on a lighter note. So I’ll talk a bit about my experiences in theatre. To date, the only thing I have not done in theatre is write or design. Most of my experiences are acting, but I have also had various degrees of time doing set construction, furniture altering, props, running sound cues, pulling the fly ropes, stage managing, singing, dancing, and assistant directing.I have even had the pleasure of interpreting theatre for deaf audiences. I feel really gifted to have had so many of these experiences! When I’m in a theatre, I feel at home. (In a ball park as well, but that’s a different story.) It all started back in high school……

Picture it…..1979-80….Chicago… St. Patrick High School, one of the English teachers decided to direct some Shakespeare. We ended up opening with a one-act by George Bernard Shaw entitled “The Dark Lady of the Sonnets”, which is a story that suggests that many of Shakespeare’s most famous lines were actually gleaned from people he met along the way, just in casual conversation. A very cute piece, and then we followed that with “A Comedy of Errors”. I was the guard at the Tower of London in the Shaw piece….not much stage time, but it was my first, and I was in heaven! I remember the performance that my mom came to, when I made my first steps across stage, my foot slipped. I did not fall, but I did keep going with the scene. My mother was very impressed with that, which surprised me because my thinking was ‘of course I did…what else was I going to do?’. And so the ethic was born.

After high school, I found the nerve to audition for a local group that was doing a play at St. Viator’s Parish out on west Addison Avenue. I learned a ton from that show. It was a James Kirkwood piece called “UTBU-Unhealthy to Be Unpleasant”, a dark comedy about a blind man who creates a program through which he dispatches unpleasant people by blowing them up. I learned that there can be more than one male or female lead in a play….I was one of them. I also played blind in my first official play…..even had a pratfall that scared the more elderly members of the audience. I learned how bad theatre can get when I was the only lead to NOT change each of the three weekends that we ran the show. I learned that I LOVE videotape as a rehearsal tool….it showed me physical habits that I had that I was completely not aware of. I also met some people that are still friends of mine to this day….amazingly talented people. One of them is now one of the sisters who teaches “Late Night Catechism” classes! And I learned what I was capable of as an actor.

My second show was another big surprise….a musical! I was truly blessed enough to play one of my all time favorite comic characters….Charlie Brown! We did “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” in the basement room of Mayfair Lutheran Church on the northwest side. That was my first time falling in love with a show and a character. It was also my first time committing a faux pas on stage. One night, I was performing the baseball game song, and I mistakenly slipped from verse two to verse three. I tried to get back, and for a moment, my brain locked, my arms came down, and I whispered a faint “ah shit!”. Somehow I got back into it and finished it, but I was somewhat mortified. I had my one and only wardrobe malfunction in that show as well….again during the baseball game. I shouldered my bat, swung and spun around and dropped to a sitting position, and I could feel the pants split just barely below the butt….close enough that my curtain call was somewhat stiff. And it was also my first time doing theatre in the round, and the first time doing a closing song in the closing performance where we were all careful not to look too much at each other for fear of bursting into tears. We really didn’t want it to end. What a lovely memory! I also did a little Christian theatre at this time, which is where I got the chance to direct a little bit.

Then, there was a nice bit of stint at a local park that is actually just a few blocks from where I live now. At Chase Park, I started doing work with building sets, painting flats, and expanding a little range as an actor. The great thing about community theatre is that you get the opportunity to play roles that in professional theatre would take a really really long time to be able to pick. I got to play a cop in “Arsenic and Old Lace”, a variety of characters in Alan Aykbourn’s “Confusions”, and a few favorites that I’m still so happy to have gotten the chance to play; Vito in “PS-Your Cat is Dead” (with my first husband Page Hearn), Madame Arcati in “Blithe Spirit” (also with Page!), and Christopher Wren in Agatha Christie’s “Mousetrap”. And the woman who directed me in all of these programs is one whom I am SO thankful that she is still a very dear friend of mine, and a teacher in Pagan practices…the lovely Ms. Jean Feddercke. I love her dearly for all that she taught me in that upper room at Chase Park, and for the roles I got to play and play with during my time there.

During this time, I also got my big chance to be in a full out Broadway musical! Well…not on Broadway – it was at Theatre on the Lake. But I got to be in the chorus of “My Fair Lady”! I got to switch back and forth between the dirty Covent Garden folk, and the Ascot rich folk! I had the chance to be choreographed, to sing the bass part, and to do Russian splits over Eliza’s head! SUCH a treat that was! By the way, the amazingly talented woman who played Eliza was Kathy Messmer….the wife of sports event singer Wayne Messmer. Kathy is one hell of a singer, and I believe my first woman crush since my 5th grade teacher! 🙂

At that time, my relationship with Page ended as such, and that event very much derailed me. (I’ve spoken of this in other blog entries) It stalled me in theatre as well. I did a workshop here and a class there, but I didn’t really do much on stage for a little bit of time. Then I got reacquainted with my theatre friends who were, by now, producing shows at the Atheneum Theatre on Wellington at Southport. There, I was gifted with a wonderful education in so many other aspects of theatre. There were two groups working out of that beautiful old 900 seat proscenium stage theatre space, and I had the chance to work with them both. It was at this time that I got the wonderful opportunity of playing Jonathan Harker in “Dracula” for a state-wide theatre competition in Springfield. I took over the role from…guess who?….Page, who performed it here in town! This was a time for another first….I was rehearsing a comedy for another park in the area (The Butler Did It), and I had to be off book when I started my rehearsals for Dracula. So I was memorizing two scripts simultaneously! And guess what? I did it….and our Dracula even tied for 3rd place in competition, and I got a lovely comment from one of the judges of the competition. I also learned that I could still work with Page in theatre projects. (He was a truly amazing character actor. He did a role in “The Reimers of Eldrich” in which I did not recognize him for a bit after his first entrance!)

Anyway, at the Athemeum Theatre during the 90s, I did some set and furniture construction on “A Little Night Music” (a truly amazing show!), I flew set backdrops in and out by pulling the wonderfully old fashioned ropes in shows like “Night Music”, “Guys & Dolls”, various backstage jobs on “Picnic”, “Philadelphia Story” (small role onstage), and “The Haunting of Hill House”. Two of my favorites experiences there were partly because of what I got to do in them, but also because it introduced me to two of my favorite scripts ever! I got to work with wonderful actors while playing Phillip in “The Lion in Winter”. Truly truly one of the best scripts ever…not a word wasted anywhere, and the language is just delicious! The other was this – I was assistant director, stage manager, prop supervisor, sound technician, and I had a non-speaking walk-on in “A Streetcar Named Desire”. Beautifully directed by my friend David Graham, gorgeous performances by everyone, including Stanley being played by a lovely young man named Jamie Denton. He goes by James now on various TV shows, including “Desperate Housewives”. Really very exciting and rewarding experiences!

Fell away from theatre again for quite a while until I began to develop skills at ASL interpreting. Then for a few seasons, I was blessed to perform quite a few concerts of the Windy City Gay Chorus, and Unison. (One season, Unison even brought me with them to a performance in the Washington DC area!) And part of that fun was that the shows were performed at the Preston Bradley Center on Wilson Ave, and my old friend, the Atheneum Theatre! During that time, I met my best friend, and true soul mate Mike…one of the best stage managers in the entire Chicagoland area. I was given the chance in doing these shows to really study and expand my ability to really look at what a song is communicating, and to express that beautifully in ASL. And even since then, I have had quite a few experiences professionally interpret theatre into ASL. This, of course, is very exciting because I am able to combine two of my most favorite things to do! I have also had the experience of being a rehearsal interpreter, a voice actor for the deaf actor onstage (my one paid acting job!), and even sign coach on a show involving both hearing and deaf actors. Unfortunately, the current licensing structure for interpreters in Illinois prohibits me from interpreting professional theatre at this time until I raise my license level. But before that, I was able to be involved in plays featuring Tandy Cronyn, Harold Gould, and others. I mean really, how cool is that?!

So as you can see, I have a lot to be grateful for in terms of how many amazing experiences I have been given in this lifetime. What has it taught me? Well….the most obvious is I love to perform! I like to hide myself in a character. Presenting myself in front of folks is a little different. I had learned a while back that I never pursued this more because I did not see myself as deserving of any more success than I had achieved. That’s actually a really valuable thing to learn. I learned that there is more to observe about any person beyond what you first see. Everyone has a story. A story that I don’t know. And how easy it is to form an opinion about someone so quickly without knowing their story. I learned the limited range of emotions available to me onstage, and how that meant that I had a wealth of emotional information that was locked up inside. I’m still working on unlocking some of that information.

I do hope to be back onstage at least one more time in this lifetime…..I want to play Ebenezer Scrooge! I hope I get to sometime. Please feel free to share your thoughts, and even your own theatre experiences and the lessons provided to you through them. Break a leg!


About Rob Russo

June baby in 1962 in Chicago of Irish and Sicilian parents. I'm gay and that the shock is out of the way, I am a mystic, energy/light worker/teacher, sensitive, paranormal investigator, local tour guide, and student of the Universe. Love and Light!
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2 Responses to Theatre

  1. Get your ass back on stage, Russo! I must have said that to you more than once at Chase and I say it again now. Theatre is in your blood and it’s time for a transfusion.

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