Adjunct Lecturer, English, Baruch
BA in English and Theater, Cornell
MA in Educational Theater, NYU
Catherine Russell loves her work – whether it’s as the leading lady in an off-Broadway play, a businesswoman who runs her own theater or as an adjunct in her 32nd year of teaching English composition at Baruch.
“I have three different lives. I spend my early mornings in class. I spend my days dealing with numbers and then I spend my evenings shooting people. It’s great!” Russell says.
Russell stars in “Perfect Crime,” the longest-running play in New York City history. She plays a psychiatrist, Margaret Thorne Brent, who falls under suspicion when her husband is killed. The play is a classic whodunit that keeps audiences guessing about the killer, and even whether or not a murder has taken place. On April 18, Russell marked a quarter century in the leading role. During that time, she has given more than 10,000 performances, missing only four shows for family weddings. Clarion caught up with Russell on the day after her big anniversary back at work in the theater she founded in 2005.
My First Leading Role
When I was 14 years old, I was in “The Diary of Anne Frank.” It’s a pivotal moment for me because I remember walking on stage and saying my first line, and it felt very right. I stopped being scared. I’ve held onto that feeling ever since.
Good Acting Is...
If I believe the words coming out of your mouth then you’re a good actor. As an actor, you take all your life experiences, what you look like, how smart you are, how you speak, your vocal pattern, your physical pattern – you take all of that and you mix it up a little bit to play a character. A lot of actors forget they have a persona. The trick to good acting is taking your persona and making it work believably with the character you’re playing.
10,000-plus Consecutive Shows
I find it a challenge to come on the stage for each performance and make it a little different. People say, “Oh, this woman has been doing it for so long, I bet she’s phoning it in.” But actually I’m not and, I think if people see the show on a few different nights, they’ll see that. If I felt I was doing the show by rote, I would stop doing it.
My Favorite Playwright Is...
Chekhov. And my favorite play is “The Three Sisters.” I find the things his characters talk about in Russia in 1898 are still very relevant today – having dreams and not being able to act on them, being married to the wrong person and being unhappy but afraid to leave. Done right, Chekhov is very funny. He simultaneously captures the humorous and the sad aspects of any experience and he does so with beautiful language.
Drama at Rikers Island
In the 1980s and early 1990s, I worked with male adolescent inmates at Rikers. Theater is the great equalizer and they started working together better once they got engaged. Guys who had killed people were directing each other. The goals of the program were for them to not only be entertained, but to learn to work together, to think about problem-solving on their feet without using any kind of violence. For people in the drama program, the recidivism rate went down from 75% or more to around 15%.
Theater Is Special Because...
There is something about being in front of people that is terrific. Every performance is different. Every performance is moment to moment. You see it for two hours and then it’s gone. It’s a shared experience between the actors and the audience that you don’t get in a movie.
How I Came to CUNY
I was a “tutor in the classroom” at Baruch when I was a graduate student at NYU right out of college, and I had the opportunity to observe several amazing professors teaching there – one of whom, Paula Berggren, is still here at Baruch. She is still a terrific mentor and role model for me. I think CUNY is a very effective institution – often a lot more effective than NYU, where I also teach today!
I teach freshmen and a lot of the focus is on critical thinking skills. It’s challenging and exciting to encourage people at that age to really think for themselves, to develop opinions and articulate how they feel. I teach at 8:15 am. I go in there wide awake with a cup of coffee and I have a great time. My students will start out half asleep and kind of grumpy and by the end of the two hours, they’re bouncing out of the room and ready for the rest of their day. We do a lot of discussing, arguing and thinking, and that tends to wake people up quickly and keep them engaged.
You need to ask the right questions and then give students time to answer. Don’t let them off the hook and answer the question for them. Let them think about it, and when you see that little light bulb go off, it’s really gratifying.
One assignment I frequently give is for each student to bring in an article from any newspaper. We move our chairs in a circle and the students have to summarize the articles they have chosen and give their opinions. It’s fascinating to see what people think, how they argue with each other, what their perspectives are – in person and then in writing. There are so many different races, so many different religions in class and I find it really exciting to see the interactions between people. It’s fascinating to see the different worldviews that come together in one classroom.
What I Tell My Students
I ask my students how many people sitting on the subway around you look like they’re happy to go to work. And I ask, “What work can you do that’s going to make you happy, and how can you get a job like that?”
In my English basic writing class, I require all my students to figure out a job that they think they would like to have in ten years, and then find somebody who has that job, interview him/her and then write up the interview. Often for the first time, they’re thinking about what they really want to do and what their lives would be like if they had that job.
I’m happy and proud to be a member of four different unions – Actors’ Equity, the Screen Actors’ Guild/AFTRA, the PSC at CUNY, and the UAW at NYU – and I’m really grateful for the protection and support that unions provide. In a way, all four are unions in the performing arts! I think people learn better if you can be entertaining.