Alice Wheeler

Sarah Rudinoff's Genius Award has already started causing problems in her professional life. Two weeks ago, when Rudinoff received the chocolate cake that lets Genius Award winners know they've won, she was on her way to the third rehearsal of the 5th Avenue Theatre's production of Smokey Joe's Cafe, a musical revue that represents Rudinoff's first full-fledged professional theater gig. While those acquainted with her work in local productions might think it only natural that she should be cast in such a show--an ensemble cast singing and selling the songs of Leiber and Stoller, songs that have an honest claim to having invented rock 'n' roll--her costars weren't so sure.

"These people don't know me, don't know my shows, and there I am in the middle of the first week, holding a big cake that says 'You're a Genius!' on it in frosting," Rudinoff exclaims. "It was a total debacle. I was late for rehearsal because I was getting this cake. There were two stage managers waiting at the elevator, like 'Where the hell are you? We're starting a sing-through of the whole show, top to bottom!' Everyone's sitting around the music stands, and I walk in with this cake. I'm blush red, I've just been totally surprised, and what's going through my mind is '$5,000! $5,000!' And then I have to sing, on top of that?"

News quickly spread around the room that Rudinoff had won some kind of contest from some kind of newspaper or whatever. Then someone announced the $5,000 grant that accompanies a Genius Award, and the tone changed immediately. Her fellow actors, all seasoned professionals on the musical theater circuit, were visibly confused: Who the hell is this upstart, Sarah Rudinoff, and why the hell does she deserve this award? Clearly, these people had never seen her naked promo photos.

Sarah Rudinoff is one of maybe 10 performers in town who have achieved the distinction of local stardom in non-rock-band live performance. She sings like a demon, equally comfortable belting rock, jazz, or blues. Her comic timing is unmatched. So is her capacity for unexpected pathos. Rudinoff is not the kind of actress who "disappears" into the roles she plays. She's the kind of actress who explodes out of her roles with heroic, instinctive, and fearless performances. These shows include everything from Hamlet to Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and have been mounted on stages as diverse as the Re-bar and the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles. While these performances have earned her the affection of fringe audiences, it's her solo shows, especially last year's Go There, that best contain her particular gifts. The genius of Rudinoff's performance is Rudinoff herself.

Having carved out an identity and a persona--brassy, hilarious, a little sad--she has wedged herself indelibly into the consciousness of local independent theater. So where does she go from here? She has done the thing of rising to the top of a local scene. She has done the thing of moving to Los Angeles and New York to try to go for it. She has done the thing of deciding to stop going for it in favor of coming home to do "good work with people I love and respect." Now this veteran of countless great and terrible productions has reached a point in her career that many actors don't even realize they can still viably dream about: After 15 years of hard work, Rudinoff stands poised to make a good living on the legitimate stage without leaving town.

"I'm in a totally different universe," she gasps. "And not just because they all have amazing voices and this and that. It's working with actors and other people I don't know, which of course I've done before, but not in Seattle, really... It's been a lot of first-day-of-school type stuff."

Some of that stuff was straight out of the drama nerd playbook. ("I stepped out onto the stage and looked out at the empty seats, with only the ghost light--it was the culmination of all that shit," she bursts out laughing.) But some issued from a much scarier story, one not everyone will sympathize with: the one where you get everything you ask for, and then wonder if you deserve it.

At rehearsals for a show like this, actors are on call for 12 hours and work 10 of them. Since Smokey Joe's Cafe is all songs, these sessions consist entirely of singing and dancing. Before the first "10 out of 12" was over, she was a total mess. Though her voice was shredded from eight straight hours of singing in an uncomfortable range, she didn't feel justified asking the music director for an adjustment, on account of classic actor anxiety. "My mental thing was: 'They're gonna fire me, oh my God, I'm gonna lose the paycheck, I just moved into a new place, maybe if I can just get the one paycheck before I get fired I can pay first and last month's rent and deposit on my new place...'" Rudinoff's eyes go wide again. "I haven't had a panic attack like that in 10 years. I couldn't sleep all night."

Then Rudinoff faced the music and confronted her employers with the news of her limitations.

"I went in and they were like, 'We love you. We cast you because we want you, not someone else. You.'" Rudinoff can't suppress a smile. "It's a revue. They have three piano players and a voice coach. They can change the key. They've been incredibly accommodating." Part of that accommodation has included teaching Rudinoff that her range is low alto-high tenor, spanning two octaves with a high of A. This might not seem like earth-shattering information until you imagine her costars in the revue asking questions about "the quarter note in the 28th bar" while Rudinoff hides behind a music stand. "I see how much they know and it's like my asshole is just shriveling," she admits. "By the second week, I'd become a lot more confident.... But there's still this thing, at almost every rehearsal, of like, 'Where am I? What am I doing here?'"

Of course, these concerns are only a slight paraphrase of the three questions Stanislavski demanded that every actor ask at the beginning of every scene: "Who am I? Where did I come from? Where am I going?" For Rudinoff, those answers aren't easy to figure out.

"I've learned by doing this that I can't really be 'for hire' as a musical-theater actress with my skill set," she explains. "People who do this for a living have incredible knowledge and control of their instrument. And for me, it's like, this is what I do."


GENIUS DATA SHEET

BIRTH DATE: August 26, 1971.

BIRTHPLACE: Alexandria, VA.

TURN-ONS: Full lips, lower-class British accents, the desert, the Olympics, 5 pm on Kauai.

TURN-OFFS: Half-hearted attempts, material that doesn't breathe, cigarette smoke, theme restaurants.

CITIES I HAVE CALLED HOME: Lihue, Honolulu, Los Angeles, Claremont, Chicago, London, New York, Portland, Seattle.

FIVE THINGS BESIDE MY BED: Sleeping mask to block out the light, a pen and paper, books, a reading lamp, and a pair of "locals" rubber slippers.