I once referred to local theater maven Tony Rust as the hardest-working man in local show biz, but I believe there’s a more apt description, borrowed from baseball parlance: Rust is the ultimate utility player, able to fill a variety of positions, and to fill them rather well. In utility players, talent and endurance and flexibility find an invaluable harmony, and Cottage Theatre is lucky to have Rust on its team.
For instance, it would seem of late that there isn’t a production at Cottage Theatre upon which Rust hasn’t left something of an imprint — as director, as set designer, as a board member, as a builder and painter, and even, occasionally, as an actor strutting and fretting his hour on stage, only to move on immediately to the next project.
“Partially, it’s just my makeup as a human being,” Rust says when I ask him about his ceaseless work in local theater, which includes teaching in the Fine Arts Department at Marist High School. “I’m not a happy person if I’m not busy, if I’m not doing things. I interweave my theater worlds. I balance my work.”
In appearance — on stage, and even more in person — Rust personifies the image of the frenetic entertainer, his fingers in several pots at once. He has an air of vaudeville about him, lanky and charismatic and sepia-tinted, though he also carries a distinct vibe of the freewheeling ’70s: mustachioed, a bit loose-limbed and shaggy, but whip-smart and alert to his surroundings, and at home with rambling like a rolling stone. Rust wouldn’t have been out of place in a Sydney Lumet flick — say Serpico, or Dog Day Afternoon.
Part of this cosmopolitan impression derives from Rust’s peripatetic background, including a long stint on the East Coast. Born and raised in Wyoming, he studied vocal and theater arts at the University of Oregon in the mid ’70s before taking part in a 1979 production of Godspell that toured Eugene parks. After a brief period in Texas, Rust took the big leap, moving to New York, where he served as artistic director of a small Shakespeare company before he and his wife ran a scene shop for Broadway and off-Broadway productions.
Rust and his wife moved back to Oregon from the Big Apple some 13 or 14 years ago, relocating to Cottage Grove, where Janet Rust had gone to high school. “We got involved with Cottage Theatre pretty much after we got back here,” Tony Rust says, adding that his wife acted in the first production they were both involved in. “That kind of pulled us in,” he says. “Eventually it became the place we hang out most of the time.”
Hanging out is one thing, but doing it as a volunteer who is willing to do everything from hitting the boards to painting them is another altogether. Susan Goes, executive director of Cottage Theatre, says Rust is an example the kind of volunteer that community theaters “wish we could clone.”
“He readily shares his wealth of design and directing experience and is deeply committed to producing work of the highest standard on our stage,” Goes says. “Tony is a clear leader within our community of production volunteers, and he inspires and mentors less-experienced theater artists.”
Community theaters, when running on all cylinders, can present audiences with “the best part of theaters,” Rust says. “Everybody that’s involved wants to do it and is in love with it.”
Because venues like Cottage Theatre run largely on volunteer hours, he says, the trick is finding balance — between working hard and having fun, as well as between entertaining audiences and pushing the envelope.
“We do push the envelope,” Rust says, both in terms of the material presented and the scope of the theater’s enterprise and its ability to mount bigger, more complex shows. “Our dream is that one day it would be on the level of what Ashland’s Shakespeare Festival grew into, that we would grow into providing stipends and salaries for more people, and that more college kids could afford to make the rehearsals.”
Right now, Rust is throwing a good portion of his apparently boundless energy into Act Three, a huge renovation of Cottage Theatre with a price tag of more than $1 million; the upgrades will include more seating, refurbishing the lobby, fixing the proscenium and, in general, “just breathing it out a little bit more,” he says. The renovations are set to begin after next year’s spring show.
“The center of our existence this year is Act III,” Rust says. “It’s a huge, huge project. It’s going to have a huge impact on our lives. It’s just a great, warm, welcoming space to work in, both onstage and off, and we’re going to make it better.”
And, never one to stop short of exhaustion, Rust is trying to reinvigorate another pet project. A few years back, a cancer scare caused him to cancel a production of Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson, an edgy emo-rock musical. “The cancer was hard, but having to tell everybody no…” he trails off, acknowledging that the experience still brings tears to his eyes.
This past presidential election — “Politics are pretty hairy right now,” he understates — convinced him to try again, and hence his side project Fab Performances was born. The troupe of musicians remounted the canceled Andrew Jackson musical, and then Rust envisioned the company going on to recreate classic albums by legendary bands like The Doors and The Rolling Stones, with Rust often taking lead vocals.
“The goal is to have this ongoing company that every month or two is doing a new album,” he says. “It’s kind of rock and roll on a theatrical template.” It was recently announced that Fab Performances will perform John Lennon’s solo album Imagine.
The show will be a fundraiser for Act III. And that’s Tony Rust through and through — killing two birds with one stone.
Fab (Favorite Album Band) Performances does the Rolling Stones’ Let It Bleed, Friday, Sept. 14 at the Bob Deveraux Theatre at 1900 Kingsley Road. $15 general admission, $10 student/senior. fabperformances.org.