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The Leading Player

The indefatigable Tony Rust brings Pippin to Marist High School
Tony Rust
Tony Rust

One year ago, Tony Rust conceived the idea of directing Pippin at Marist High School, and playing the Leading Player himself. If directing a high school play and being in it sounds crazy, remember that this is Tony Rust — the Marist drama teacher doesn’t sleep. He can be found doing everything from directing, running summer camps, crafting sets under the name FeO2, singing lead roles, teaching high school drama and often doing several of these things at the same time.

One year ago, Rust planned a summer packed with theater, including an ambitious plot to squeeze in a three-day run of Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson at the Cottage Theatre. Then there would be a theater summer camp for youth and more directing at CT. Amidst all these plans and schemes, a persistent sore throat led Rust to see one doctor, then another, until the diagnosis was undeniable. 

One year ago, Rust was diagnosed with cancer.

Theater plans were dropped, reluctantly at first, then released wholesale as chemotherapy began to set in. “The rest of the summer pretty much sucked,” Rust notes. Friends and family leapt in to help. “I was worried sick,” his student Jack Lemhouse says. “I don’t know what we’d do without Mr. Rust.” By the end of summer, Rust had completed chemo; he took two weeks off in the fall before returning to the director’s chair at Marist.

Having kicked the last of the cancer, Rust describes himself as “still underweight, and not as much energy as I used to have.” But Rust on half energy is like most of us after a triple latte. He is back teaching full time, making grand plans for this summer, and his dream of directing and acting along with his students is becoming a reality. Pippin opens this week.

At Marist, Rust works with a small group of dedicated students. “My biggest goal,” he says, “is to get the kids to come out of themselves on a safe and comfortable level.”

“It’s definitely a fun group to work with,” Lemhouse says, explaining how most of the drama kids hang out at lunch and after school in the “green room.”

I ask if it is awkward, directing and acting at the same time. Rust laughs, saying, “It’s a little wacky … but with at least one of your actors you can communicate really well.” Rust goes on to describe that as a director, he likes to establish blocking and character early on, then, “I put a lot in the hands of my actors.” Not being a micromanager by nature, Rust is able to set his cast heading in a direction, then jump on board as an actor and enjoy the ride.

His actors sound like they’re having fun with it. Student Jeff Carr notes that when Rust is giving lectures on memorizing lines, he’s now speaking to himself as well as his cast. Lemhouse says, “It’s definitely different … but the role he’s playing suits that.”

Pippin opened on Broadway in 1972. It’s an adorable story about a band of traveling players that was, according to musical theater historian Scott Miller, made “surreal and disturbing” by Bob Fosse’s choreography. For the Marist community, Rust is toning down the 1970s sleaze and focusing on the humor and fun.

Up next for Rust? His production of Much Ado About Nothing opens at the Cottage Theatre in June, then he’ll be helping run a summer theater camp, and capping off August gearing up for a production of Spamalot. In other words, he’ll be taking it easy.

Pippin runs at 7:30 pm April 19-27 at Marist High School, 1900 Kingsley Rd; $10. For more information visit maristarts.weebly.com or email trust@marisths.org. The Pippin cast will gather donations for Project Starfish during intermission.