Perfect Crime_Catherine Russell 1987-2009_crop

Catherine Russell in 'Perfect Crime' in 1987 (left) and 2009

This weekend, Perfect Crime, the longest-running play in the history of New York theatre, celebrates its 22nd anniversary and 9,000th performance Off-Broadway in NYC. Catherine Russell, the star and general manager of Perfect Crime, is also celebrating 22 years and 9,000 performances: The actress has been starring in the lead role of Margaret Brent in the murder mystery since the show opened in 1987.

Throughout Russell’s run, nearly 1.5 million audience members have seen the play; more than 80,000 gunshots have been fired onstage; almost 5,000 prop coffee cakes — an important clue in the show’s plot — have been consumed, and hundreds of actors have been employed. Russell also built and manages the Snapple Theater Center, which houses both Perfect Crime and The Fantasticks (for which Russell is also a producer), and she teaches acting and English at NYU and Baruch College.

Russell will be officially inducted into The Guinness Book of World Records for “Most Performances by a Theater Actor in a Role” after the April 18 performance of Perfect Crime at the Snapple Theater Center in NYC.

First of all, congratulations on reaching this historic milestone and being honored by The Guinness Book of World Records.

Thank you. I’m sort of embarrassed by the whole thing. I’m very happy to have it, but we’re not gonna make any big deal over it.

So it doesn’t feel like a vindication, or culmination, of your career in the theatre?

That makes it sound like I’m gonna, like, have a heart attack or something! (laughs) No, because I never really had the goal of breaking a record. I just have a work ethic and I go to work every day. It just sort of happened by accident.

 What does it take to reach 9,000 performances in the same role?

A lot of stamina. Luck. A play that has longevity. Perfect Crime is the longest-running play in New York, so that’s what you need.

Is it even possible for anyone to take this record away from you?

(Laughs) I don’t know if anyone would be that crazy.

How have you kept going for 22 years on stage in Perfect Crime? It was originally just a four-week showcase –

First of all, it’s a terrific part. In some ways, I really learned to act by doing this part, because it’s a real luxury to play a role for so long, and you learn how to deal with any circumstance. You learn how to hold for a laugh, deal with a cell phone ringing in the audience, fire alarms going off – you get a great education, I think, in how to act doing a play. I teach acting, and while I think that class is enormously valuable, there’s no substitution for actually being in front of audience eight times a week.

I also run the business of the play. I’ve been able to use my brain in terms of managing the show, and use my heart in terms of being able to act in it eight times a week.

I actually have to say that I really got this role as a result of Back Stage. I answered an ad in Back Stage in 1981, to join a theatre company called the Actors Collective. We produced five shows a year. And we all took turns selling ads in the program, and hanging the lights, and doing the ushering, and then the deal was that I would do it for you and you would do it for me. Everybody worked at least once in the season, and we all helped out. And you had to be part of it. [Perfect Crime] was just one of the plays in our season [in 1987], and [the artistic director] cast me in this role.

I continued producing a number of [Actors Collective] shows while I was in Perfect Crime, for many years. The theatre was down on Grove Street, and I’d run the box office until 10 of 8:00 for that show, hop in a cab or on the subway, and run up and get on stage at 8:00 for Perfect Crime. Now, I manage the Snapple Theater Center, so I run down to the box office for The Fantasticks and make sure everything’s okay with Perfect Crime, but it’s easier to run backstage.

When I auditioned for the Actors Collective, they asked, “What can you contribute to a theatre company?” And I was like, “Well, I have a car, and I can lift heavy things, and I’ve done a little producing before, and I’ll hang lights.” And that was really what they asked for. And I would ask other people the same thing when they were auditioning. We wanted people who are talented, who can also be part of a company or a family. I’ve sort of recreated that here, as corny as it sounds. Everybody who works at the Snapple Theater Center is like a large, dysfunctional family. And I think that’s part of the reason why the show’s been running for so long. Everyone here in this building basically jumps in and helps. Nobody says, “That’s not my job.”

There’s no room for divas.

No. Absolutely none. I find that everyone works harder and more cheerfully if everybody’s doing it together. Maybe it comes from my Actors Collective days, but I don’t mind plunging the toilet or turning off the fire alarm.

Describe your typical weekly schedule.

I spend 16 hours a week of stage, which means. if you think about it – and I’ve figured it out – over two years of my life on stage playing Margaret Brent. The show is two hours long, and I’m on stage for most of the time, eight times a week. I get to the theatre at 8:30 or 9 in the morning and I leave at 11 at night. Pretty much seven days a week. I leave to teach, but other than that, I’m basically here.

It also makes me appreciate when I get on stage, because I have two hours when my cell phone won’t ring. I have two hours of doing what I absolutely love to do. I think that just being an actress, while it’s enormously satisfying, probably wouldn’t challenge me enough for 22 years. I don’t know what I’d do all day. But when I was a little girl, I always wanted to work in the theatre. I always wanted to be an actress and get on stage every night, and be in the theatre. So it makes me quite happy.

How do you bring something new to a role that you’ve performed 9,000 times?

I do actually keep trying to find something new. I’m getting older in the role, and I hope I’m getting better at it. It’s a pretty complicated play, and it’s a very complicated role, so I don’t think I have her completely figured out yet. Maybe after 25 years. (laughs)

When would you feel the need to do something different?

I’ve been really lucky, because I’ve been able to do a couple of films and a couple of other plays around this schedule, sometimes for as long as a year and a half. So I’ve been able to do other work. If I only did this play – if that was the only acting I ever did – that would probably be pretty tragic. But I find working on other things makes me appreciate coming back and working on Perfect Crime.

Why do you think Perfect Crime has been running for 22 years? Why not a different play?

I think people like thrillers. It’s a very popular genre. I mean, The Mousetrap is the show that’s run the longest in the world. It’s run over 50 years in London. People like mysteries.

We get a lot of people coming to see the show, believe it or not, who’ve never seen a play before in their lives. And I think it’s something they can understand, because of Law and Order and CSI, and Columbo and Murder, She Wrote, and before that Perry Mason. I think thrillers are something that everybody has seen. Agatha Christie is the most published author in the world, I believe. So it’s familiar to people, and it’s a formula. And I think they figure, well, even if I don’t like the play, I’ll sit here for two hours and try to figure it out.

We’re selling tickets. If you’re making money and selling tickets, I think it’s stupid to stop. With The Fantasticks being the longest-running musical in the world, and Perfect Crime being the longest-running play [in New York], it’s a really good match at the Snapple Theater Center.

Have you still only missed four performances?

Yeah. The last ones that I missed were in 1995, when my brother got married. No vacations, no sick days. I’m really healthy. I get Tuesday night off. I think I’m probably getting married this year, and I’m gonna get married on a Tuesday, at City Hall. (laughs) We’ll have a honeymoon of one night, so I can work on Wednesday.

Do you even need an understudy?

I do have an understudy. She’s also the assistant stage manager. When we hire people, we always warn them, “Look, she hasn’t missed a performance in a long time.” So it’s not like we do false advertising.

What has been the biggest challenge in 22 years of Perfect Crime?

Honestly, I think for Off-Broadway shows in general, it’s about finding affordable venues. We moved a lot in our first couple of years, not because we were kicked out by the landlord, but because there are not that many Off-Broadway theatres that are built for long runs. I personally believe that Off-Broadway does better when it’s in the “Broadway box.” Certain specialty shows like Stomp and Blue Man Group are fabulous downtown, but for more traditional musicals and plays, it’s really helpful to be in the Broadway area. I think we need more affordable venues here.

In the first few years of the show, we had rewrites almost every single day. And Warren Manzi – who was the playwright, but also functioned after a while as the director – made fun of me, imitated me, criticized me constantly, to the point of almost tears. And you know what? I’m grateful for every piece of criticism, because it made me better. He was probably my harshest critic, and the best acting teaching I’ve ever had.

He’d hand me rewrites frequently at intermission, and sometimes backstage – “Say this line” or “Just switch those two lines” – and I would have to slap him as I was attempting to get on stage. “Warren, I have to get on stage! Shut up!” And he would hand me something at intermission, like a speech, and say, “Look, it doesn’t have to be verbatim.” I’m like, “I have six minutes!” And he goes, “You have six minutes! Come on! Learn it!” He’d want to hear whether it was working or not, and I would just do it. It was fabulous training. I feel like I’m a very quick study now.

What have been some of the craziest onstage moments on stage in the past two decades of Perfect Crime?

A chair has caught on fire. My dog ran on stage one night at intermission to eat the coffee cake, which is a clue in the play, and then looked up and realized there was an entire audience of people looking at her. She was on stage and caught in the act. Now we have backups for everything, but everything that could possibly go wrong has gone wrong in this play, and we’ve survived it. We had a glass table on stage for a long time, and one of the actors at the beginning of the play dropped a .45 on it and it shattered into a thousand pieces. He gets shot and goes off, and I get on stage and I’m cleaning up the glass while I’m on the phone. And somebody said to me, “Oh that’s such a great effect! How do you do that every night?” (laughs) You just roll with it.

How much longer do you think you can last in this role?

I will not be doing this when I’m 75. But I haven’t thought about it. There have been so many surprises in my life that I’m gonna wait and see what happens. No matter whether it’s writing or acting or singing or producing or whatever, you have to find something that you’re passionate about. I feel very blessed that I’ve been given the opportunity to get on stage eight times a week for so long. I really love what I do. So I look forward to going to work in the morning.

Perfect Crime is currently running at the Snapple Theater Center, 210 W. 50th St. (at Broadway), NYC. For more info, visit www.perfect-crime.com.

Photo courtesy of DBS Press.

This Q&A was published April 16, 2009 online at Blog Stage.

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