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Catherine Russell Takes Center Stage as Theater Builder

She finds spaces for off-Broadway productions

Catherine Russell

Legendary off-Broadway actress Catherine Russell has overseen the purchase and construction of two new theaters in Times Square. — Mark Peterson/Redux

For 24 years, Catherine Russell has kept New York audiences guessing — Did she or didn't she? — as the leading lady in Perfect Crime, an off-Broadway Agatha Christie-style whodunit. But it isn't the 55-year-old actress' more than 9,600 performances — earning her a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records — that has put her in the spotlight. It's her new role as a builder of much-needed, comfortable theaters for off-Broadway plays and musicals.

Not only has Russell built a permanent home for Perfect Crime, she has two more theater complexes in the works: one, a former movie theater that will house two stages and rehearsal space in the heart of Times Square, should open in June; the other, with three stages, is slated to open by year's end.

"I get smarter with each one — hiring the right people, following my instincts, trusting my gut, and dealing with the New York bureaucracy," she says.

Scouting a location

Russell was just another struggling actress enduring casting calls in 1987 when she originated the role of Perfect Crime's Margaret Brent, a psychiatrist who may have killed her husband. "I figured the show would last three months max," she says.

Instead, it became off-Broadway's longest-running play. Because most small New York theaters aren't set up for long runs, Perfect Crime bounced from stage to stage, finally settling into a former strip club-turned-theater in 1993. But even a steady box office couldn't prevent that building from being sold in 2005 for $110 million.

Instead of taking a final bow, Russell, who also had become the show's general manager, did a little detective work of her own and found new quarters: 20,000 square feet of raw space four blocks away at 50th and Broadway. Two architects, three contractors, two investors, one loan and six weeks later, Perfect Crime reopened in the Snapple Theater Center.

Russell didn't simply supervise the renovation; she worked side-by-side daily with the carpenters, plumbers and electricians. "I even found 400 seats for $5 each at a defunct theater, hauled each up 60 steps and installed them!" It took another year to build a second, adjacent stage (now home to the hit musical The Fantasticks) and two rehearsal spaces.

"I'd come in at 6:30 a.m., schlep tile or paint the restrooms, wipe off the sheetrock dust, then go upstairs to perform in the 2 p.m. matinee," she recalls. "My contractors trusted me to pay them because I'd say, 'You always know where to find me eight times a week … on stage.' "

Growing into the role

And it's on stage Russell intends to stay, at least for a while longer. "When I started playing Margaret at 31, I was a little young for the character; now I'm a little old," admits Russell, who spends her days juggling the demands of managing the theater center, teaching at New York University and Baruch College, and taking the occasional outside role. "It's a relief to get on stage. For two hours there are no phone calls. I get to yell, scream and cry," she says. Even after 24 years? "As corny as this sounds, it's thrilling to keep it fresh every performance. If I was just phoning it in, I would stop."

This master of multitasking hopes to build and run more theaters, welcome news to an ever-growing list of plays and musicals seeking performance space. Russell also is raising money to produce a documentary film on the 65-year history of off-Broadway. Still, her greatest joy comes from the simple task of being the one to lock up her theater every night.

"When I turn off the lights, set the alarm, look out the window and see the lights of Broadway, it's very peaceful, very magical," she says.

Laura Daily is a writer in Denver.

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