Actor JC Cutler talks about the shutdown, his role in 'The People's Violin,' kids, dogs and Scrooge

·6 min read

Oct. 16—JC Cutler figured he'd had a pretty good run of it. After more than 30 years on Twin Cities stages — and elsewhere — when the pandemic shut down live theater, he wondered if it was time to step out of the spotlight.

He'd come to a point in his career where he wanted roles he could sink his teeth into, he says. "I want to do plays of great value, roles that are hugely challenging."

He wondered if the arts were ready to come back from the pandemic. Some theater-makers had moved on to other things.

But Cutler's questioning didn't last long. He knew he belonged on the stage.

And a big reason is his role in "The People's Violin," which opens Oct. 23 at Six Points Theater (formerly Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company).

The meaty roles he wants to pour his energy into? "This play is one of them," says Cutler, 62.

"The People's Violin" has been in the works for Six Points Theater for two years, with plans interrupted by the pandemic, Cutler says. The theater's founder and artistic director Barbara Brooks never gave up on it, he adds.

In "The People's Violin," Cutler is Sol Shank, a filmmaker whose career is sliding when he gets a grant to make a documentary about his father Sidney, a famous Jewish author and therapist for Holocaust survivors. Sol's research discovers a violin, which uncovers the family's unspoken history.

Cutler says "Violin" is a personal journey, but it's also a mystery. When Sol learns some truths about his father, "he's just gobsmacked by it."

"As the play progresses, his entire world view comes into question," Cutler says of his character. "What is American identity? What is Jewish identity? What is Israeli identity?"

"Violin," written by Charles Varon, started as a one-person show in San Francisco, which Cutler calls amazing. This production has Cutler in the role of Sol, with four other actors playing more than 20 roles.

The frame of the play is the documentary of Sol's father, Cutler says. While the audience is watching live theater, they realize, "Oh, this is actually the documentary he made." There will be some filmed parts, with the actors creating voiceover. "It should be a very interesting experience."

It's Cutler's first appearance with Six Points. He's best-known on Twin Cities stages for his work at the Guthrie Theater, including six years as Ebenezer Scrooge in the Guthrie's annual "A Christmas Carol," starting in 2011. He did every performance of "Christmas Carol" during those years, he says, which was "exhausting."

Dickens' well-known holiday tale of a miser's redemption has special meaning for Cutler.

"The first year was the year I got sober," he says, "a remarkable transformation, too, in the sense that you get a second chance."

Cutler has been in more than 50 shows at the Guthrie, including "An Enemy of the People" (2018), "Macbeth" (2010), "King Leer" (2017) and "Pride and Prejudice" (2013). One of his favorites for the Guthrie was "tiny kushner," a collection of short plays by "Angels in America" playwright Tony Kushner that went on to Berkeley Rep in California and a stint London. Other local stage credits include St. Paul's History Theatre ("All the Way") and Park Square Theatre ("Red"). He's worked at Illusion Theatre, Jungle Theater, Mixed Blood Theatre, Children's Theatre Company and others.

Cutler, whose first name is John but he went with JC when he was starting out because there was another actor named John Cutler, grew up in Wichita, Kan., where his dad was a poet, writer and taught at Wichita State. But the family "lived all over," he says, as his dad traveled to Paraguay, Ecuador, Spain and Switzerland on fellowships. His mother is from Italy, so Cutler's family visited there often.

He came to Minnesota in 1981 to attend college at Carleton, where he met his wife, Judy. They have been married for 39 years and have three children and three grandchildren.

One of the children had been born when Cutler studied at Juilliard after Carleton, earning him the distinction as the first theater student to ever have children while attending Juilliard, he says. He still runs into actors who remember him for that.

But 1980s New York was a tough place to raise kids, Cutler says, so they returned to Minnesota in 1986, where he worked at Children's Theatre Company. "I've never regretted it," Cutler says of his decision to settle in the Twin Cities, "where I've been able to be in theater and raise my kids in a proper home." The kids and grandkids all live nearby.

JC and Judy raise orchids and have an Orchidarium in their home, which they also share with two dogs. "I'll always have dogs," he says. He previously worked for the Animal Humane Society and a program that trains unadoptable dogs, and hopes to get back to it some day.

"The dogs need to learn people aren't scary," he says. "It's some of the favorite stuff I've ever done in my life."

During the pandemic lockdown, Cutler stayed connected with friends on walks and outdoor picnics and coffee. He says staging "The People's Violin" has meant creating space between actors on stage and following protocols.

"I never thought I'd have to get my temperature taken before a rehearsal," he says.

And that "Ishtar" story

Very soon after JC Cutler graduated from Juilliard, he got a part in the 1987 movie "Ishtar," "that infamous movie everybody loves to make fun of," he says. He left for filming in Morocco when his wife, Judy, was "pretty pregnant" with their second child. She came home to Minnesota to have the baby, as JC's time in Morocco stretched on. The baby was born Dec. 10. "I should have been home in October," he says.

After the birth, a baffled maternity staffer at the hospital in Crosby-Ironton brought Judy a bouquet from Columbia Pictures, Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman (who starred in "Ishtar"). The staffer thought it was some kind of joke, but Judy said, "Oh, yeah. My spouse is shooting a movie with them right now."

Cutler still laughs about the story. "It was a bit of a moment."

'THE PEOPLE'S VIOLIN'

— What: "The People's Violin" staged by Six Points Theater, formerly Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company

— When: Oct. 23-Nov. 14

— Where: Highland Park Community Center Theater, 1978 Ford Parkway, St. Paul

— Tickets: $38-$25 with artist and student rush tickets for $15; call the box office at 651-647-4315 to purchase tickets.

— COVID precautions: Seats will be chosen for social distancing. Vaccination and mask protocols will be in place. Audiences limited to 55 in the 149-seat theater.

— Information: sixpointstheater.org

— Directed by: Warren C. Bowles

— Featuring: Lea Kalisch, David Coral, Tony Larkin, Patty Matthews

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