Photo: Rich Kessler Photography

DC Actress Maria Rizzo Embraces Challenges, Finds Humor & Adds a Hint of Sass

Kicking and Singing

Maria Rizzo is quick to tell you she’s not a dancer. Her high kicks aren’t high enough, she says when flinging her leg effortlessly in the air for the On Tap cover shoot. 

“I’m in pain,” she says. “Great pain. My hamstrings are ruined. [Dancing] is absolutely horrifying and really scary to me, [but] it’s a wonderful challenge.” 

The challenge she’s currently tackling is playing Shelia in Signature Theatre’s A Chorus Line. During her audition at the Arlington theater, Rizzo made a point not to dance. That was never her strong suit, and it wasn’t going to be the reason for her casting. Instead, the Helen Hayes nominee relied on the aspects she loves most about acting: comedy and sass. 

“I was cracking jokes in there,” she says. “I was trying to be funny, trying to be charming. I love comedy so much. You can find humor in [characters] if you’re not taking them as seriously as they take themselves.” 

In the DC theatre scene, Rizzo is definitely taken seriously. She’s performed at many of the city’s most renowned theaters including Arena Stage, Keegan Theatre, Olney Theatre Center and Studio Theatre, among others. The actress has essentially taken residency at Signature this year, appearing in Grand Hotel, Assassins and the aforementioned A Chorus Line, running through January 5. 

“I mean I didn’t plan it, but they just kept asking. [Signature] feels like home. I know and respect the work that the directors and choreographers do, and I love vibing with those friends. I want to call them friends because of how much I love and respect what they do.”

Auditioning  to Play Auditioners

The winner of nine Tony Awards and a Pulitzer Prize, A Chorus Line is an iconic musical with a narrative about a group of hopeful dancers going through the process of landing a spot on the chorus line of a show. While the commentary could be meta for people in the theatre world, Rizzo was drawn to the play because of its underlying question of whether to hold on or let go of your passion. 

“When I started, I had a very different opinion of the show then where I’m at now. I thought it romanticized what we do and was just a bunch of dancers trying to get a part and be in this ensemble [with] this mean director asking them about their Rosebud or their childhood. Yes, it’s about performers, but it’s a coming-of-age story about letting go or holding onto your dream, your passion, whatever it might be. I really learned to appreciate this more.” 

And then there’s the dancing, as the play is physically exhilarating and demanding for the performers. While Rizzo – again, not a dancer – was excited to portray Sheila, she knew it would be a large undertaking. 

“An OG of DC theatre, Holly Twyford, said in an interview, ‘If it doesn’t scare you, what are you doing?’ If I’m doing the same crap all the time, how is it making me a better artist? It’s also really great learning from all the people who are in the show and do this 24/7.” 

Apart from the physical demands, Rizzo was also drawn to the character of Sheila from an emotional perspective. One of the more seasoned dancers in the audition room, she’s entitled, tough and a little bossy.

 “I think she’s jaded,” she says. “There are definitely people in the industry who are that way – not in our show, but in shows I’ve done in the past. Sheila’s not villainous in any way, but she’s tough. I think playing that is always more fun than playing the congenial type.”

 For the show, Rizzo is joined by one of the largest casts in Signature Theatre history. With the number of bodies moving around onstage and behind the curtain, it’s hard not to get caught up in the energy surge, whether you’re a part of the cast or audience. 

“There’s something about big dance shows, like West Side Story or A Chorus Line, that creates camaraderie,” she says. “I enjoy a surge of energy. It’s a 5, 6, 7, 8 power punch and you’re just going.”

The Bug

Theatre was always the obvious career choice for Rizzo, as she “caught the bug” after portraying Fran in a grade school production of Once Upon a Mattress. Eventually, her childhood passion turned into her area of study at Catholic University before becoming her profession. 

“I think I knew when I was really young, and luckily I have really supportive parents, a supportive family, who would let me do and study the craft,” she says. “What’s been the best is being able to bring them to these great theaters, to show them the work we’re doing. It’s full circle.”

 Rizzo says people always ask her what she would be if not for her career as an actress, and lately, because of the subject matter of A Chorus Line, the query has been fielded even more. 

“That stuff comes up all the time when I look at my bank account,” she says, laughing. “That question is coming up a lot doing the show because it’s about learning to let go of love or hold onto love. I’m sure there is [something], but I just haven’t looked in that direction. When something brings you this much joy, it’s hard to look away from it.” 

Despite jokes about her bank account and her reflections on her currently meta role, Rizzo has no reason to shift focus. There’s little doubt Rizzo will be on many a DC stage in 2020, bringing sassy characters to life while continuing to challenge herself as an artist. 

“Everything you do presents challenges and glory in different ways, but at the same time, everything is also very fleeting. You can’t take anything for granted and you can’t throw too much of it away. I’m always looking for ways to make it better, or [find] what’s the next. I’m never satisfied.” 

A Chorus Line is currently sold out but for updates about the show, visit Follow Rizzo on Instagram @mariarizz9o.

Signature Theatre: 4200 Campbell Ave. Arlington, VA; 703-820-9771;