We had the rare opportunity to speak with the crazy-busy JONATHAN JUDGE-RUSSO, the artistic director of the crusading ANIMUS THEATRE CO.
This high energy company explores works whose themes are envelope pushing and … as their mission proclaims: THE RESILIENCE OF THE HUMAN SPIRIT THAT EXISTS WITHIN US ALL.
Judge-Russo is a Helen Hayes-nominated actor from Brooklyn and a graduate of Circle in the Square. He recently completed filming Woody Allen’s 2018 Feature A Rainy Day in New York as well as a return appearance on “Law & Order: SVU.” He also appeared Off-Broadway in Fall, where he received a Drama Desk nomination. other creds include Beyond the Horizon (Irish Rep); Somewhere with You (Signature); Treasure Island (Irondale); Ask/Tell (LAByrinth Barn – directed by Philip Seymour Hoffman); Snapshot (LAB Barn); La Fanciulla del West (Lincoln Center); Wozzeck (Lincoln Center); The Christmas Revels (Symphony Space); The Enlightenment of Mr. Mole (Sheen) as well as Collected Shorts by Theresa Rebeck (Cherry Lane – directed by Pamela Adlon).
OK, so he has the chops, let’s hear all about the company and the show.
Tell us about Animus … as a company and as an ideal.
Animus was founded as an ensemble meant to celebrate a shared training at Circle in the Square Theatre School as well as aiming to illuminate, through its productions, the resilience of the human spirit through both new and old works, often spotlighting lesser-known works by well-known writers. As an ideal, we do our best to honor our members as well as those stories we deem important and timely that stand on their own merits. Hopefully, we remain tireless in our efforts to present art that highlights the way things are rather than how they look – substance will guide us, optics will not.
Tell us about the company
Nearly all our members share the titles of alums of Circle in the Square, but still others have joined our company from other paths as well.
Why did you chose this production? Is it timely and how?
The genesis of this play in relationship to our pipeline was like so many: As a company, the process of seeking and selecting plays begins with all ensemble members encouraged to bring material to the table that is in keeping with our mission and provides opportunities for at least some of our members. Following that, Animus holds an annual retreat at Shakespeare & Company in the Berkshires where we read, collectively, somewhere between 8-12 plays over 5 days and follow them with open-forum discussions about each and how they might serve the ensemble, the upcoming season, etc… Finally, and with all the above information considered, I try to assemble annual programming that features as many company members as possible while staying true to our mission. “Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me” represents the first play in Animus’ history where no fewer than 5 company members independently championed/recommended the piece.
The “why” behind its choice comes from the central tenet of our mission statement, wherein we aim to produce plays that highlight the resilience of the human spirit. “Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me” examines the captivity of three men and their journeys toward survival, especially in light of their limitations over control, not only of their physical freedoms, but even more so, their mental freedoms.
The original writing and production of this play came as an illustration of a very specific hostage crisis in Lebanon in the 1980s and early 90s. Its resonance then was specific to the events on which it is based, whereas now, it resonates as an unfortunately timeless narrative, highlighting such global travesties as the recent kidnapping and murder of aid workers by Boko Haram as well as the tragic story of Jamal Khashoggi. This being the NY revival, the timing of our production seems particularly poignant considering the events above.
Where do you see yourself in the skyline of theater companies in NYC?
As for the company, the goal is to continue to cement ourselves in the Off-Broadway landscape of NYC, the most competitive market in the world. We count ourselves deeply fortunate to be producing in our fourth full season (a mark which fewer than 1% of theater companies in NYC ever get to achieve), but hopefully there are many more to come wherein we get to collaborate with the best writers, actors, directors, designers, and technicians and can one day provide a living for them all while staying true to our mission and telling stories that stand alone on their merits.
On that note, what’s it like to run a company in the Big Apple?
As mentioned above, it’s the most competitive market in the world, and while that probably should be daunting, I see it as a great privilege, especially as a native New Yorker (Bay Ridge, Brooklyn). It would seem incongruous to me to produce theater anywhere else, and I take a great deal of pride in having reached the elusive “fourth” season, because the attrition rate is very much linked to quality and support, and we’ve been graced to have a great deal of both. It’s exciting, terrifying, and fulfilling to lead such a meaningful non-profit Company in the greatest city in the world.
What is the rest of the season?
Moving forward, as it regards programming, we have a few irons in the fire that will likely include a reunion with Shakespeare, and of course returns to our most frequented venues at the Cherry Lane and Broadway’s Circle in the Square. Keep an eye on our social media pages and website for exciting announcements – I don’t want to give too much away right now. As pertains to our ranks, we’re always eager to meet artists as hungry as we are and hopefully will be growing our membership to include some of said artists, especially some with whom we’ve had the great pleasure of working this year.