On September 26, Tony-nominated producer Blair Russell will be watching anxiously, waiting to see if the show he co-produced, “Slave Play,” wins the award for Best Game at the 74th annual Tony Awards. The play, written by Jeremy O. Harris, debuted on Broadway in October 2019 and ended in January 2020.
“It’s not my Tony to win,” said Russell, a 2012 graduate of Commonwealth University of Virginia with a bachelor’s degree in technical theater / stage management from the School of the Arts. “It’s thanks to the magic of the performers, the director, everyone involved.
“Slave Play” has received national attention and rave reviews since its first night on stage. Vox called it “Broadway’s most controversial show” and “a stimulating theatrical experience”. Writing in The New York Times the month “Slave Play” debuted, theater critic Jesse Green called it “one of the best and most provocative new works to appear on Broadway in years.” . He was nominated for 12 Tony Awards, a huge number for a non-musical one.
Russell, 30, has a varied theater experience ranging from fringe festivals to Broadway shows. As the owner of Blair Russell Productions, he specializes in the development of plays and musicals. He also produces live immersive audio dramas in his role as director of operations for Resounding, an immersive theater.
He has been producing full time since 2018 after having worked at different levels of the profession. While the work he does as a producer fuels the glitz and glitter of Broadway, his daily chores often keep him attached to his desk.
“Producing is modest work,” he said.
VCU ‘felt like this was the place for me’
A native of Leesburg, Virginia, Russell has always been interested in the world of entertainment. He has vivid memories of seeing his first touring show on Broadway when his family was on vacation in Toronto, Canada.
“It was so special,” he said. “I was delighted that this was a job that people could have. “
He started to appear as a duck in his first play in school when he was very young. He attended a summer art program at the age of 13 where he immersed himself in creative writing and acting. And he performed in the high school theater and in the community.
“What I loved about theater was that it was so focused,” he said. “Everyone was there to do the same thing: create something. “
Working in the theater is not about applause for Russell, but rather camaraderie.
“It feels like a full body, soul and spirit experience where you focus on one thing for two hours. It’s the closest thing to the church, a place where everyone comes together, ”he said.
Russell came to VCU in 2009 after an early acceptance. He chose VCU because of the “amazing theater program”.
“I didn’t go to be an actor. I learned stage management where I would work behind the scenes of design, marketing, etc.
The small size of the class – only five people in the technical theater / stage management program – was a real plus, he said.
“There was privacy. I immediately had friends, ”he said. “We started rehearsing for the first show shortly after we arrived. It was natural. I felt like this was the place for me.
“It feels like a full body, soul and spirit experience where you focus on one thing for two hours. It’s the closest thing to the church, a place where everyone gathers.
While in college, he worked on at least one stage show per semester, both on campus and at the Barksdale Theater in Willow Lawn.
“I was already learning what it was like to work for a professional theater,” he said, adding that he also worked with the Virginia Repertory Theater after college. “We had six weeks of performances, rehearsing from 6 to 11 p.m. every night.”
Two of his instructors at VCU – Kevin McGranahan, Stage Store Foreman and Facilities Manager in the Department of Theater, and Patti D’Beck, a Broadway veteran and former VCU Theater director and choreographer – were strong influences. “I won so many people from the School of Arts,” Russell said. “They treated me [and other students] like a professional and that prepares us for success.
From Cirque du Soleil to Broadway
After graduating from VCU, Russell worked as a stage manager for companies such as Cirque du Soleil, Santa Fe Opera, Goodspeed Musicals and Opera Santa Barbara.
“I was excited to start a career as a manager. I wanted to travel and see different parts of the country and the world, ”he said. “It wasn’t until I started working as a manager that I realized there was something more that I wanted to do six days a week, evenings and weekends. The work was nonstop. I knew this was not the life I wanted to have.
Still, he loved the job. One of his favorite aspects as a manager was the organizational aspect of the work. He took this skill with him to produce. “You have to think about the show as a whole and make it an experience for people,” he said. “It’s an extension of the same skills.
While working in Connecticut at Goodspeed Musicals (a two-time Tony Award-winning regional theater), he helped producers manage the seasons of the main stage Opera House and The Norma Terris Theater, managed operations daily of the annual Goodspeed Festival. of New Musicals and helped with the Johnny Mercer Writers Grove.
“I started as a manager and they were looking for an assistant. I didn’t have the experience, but I had the passion, the desire and the will to try anything, ”he said. “I had about two years of transition into production.
“After Goodspeed, I felt like there was a lot that I needed to learn if I wanted to start producing. I wanted to go out into the world and find out more about the company,” a he said. “I worked in real estate, for example, because it is important to know who owns the theater. I traveled to discover the landscape of the theater industry.
Once he felt he had learned enough, he moved to New York City, where he now resides. He joined Jujamcyn Theaters, where he oversaw the day-to-day operations of the President’s office before moving to the Theater Operations Department and helping manage five Broadway theaters.
When he started producing his own work, Russell contacted writers he had established relationships with at Goodspeed. Since 2018, he has appeared on up to 15 shows, but not all of them as a lead producer. He has also worked with his business partner at Resounding, producing what he calls a “Podcast Meets Radio Play Meets Broadway”.
The production company produces a variety of immersive live performances that generally focus on audio as the defining characteristic.
“I started the business with my friend Steve Wargo, who is the creative director,” Russell said. “I came up with this idea to bring the classic radio play back live but to do it for the 21st century.”
They started the show virtually but also performed live shows.
“We had the idea of a drive-in with sound in vehicles. Everyone gets special headphones. They can listen and have the same experience live, ”he said. “We have produced remote work, in-person binaural radio pieces, and are working on site-specific and immersive in-person performances for this winter and spring.”
With everything he works on, time is a precious commodity. Russell’s calendar is always filled with projects. He is currently the lead producer on four projects and is also involved in smaller, limited-run shows.
Working in the theater is hard work, he said.
“Everyone who works in the theater knows that you are always trying to do the best thing. You challenge yourself. I don’t know if there will be a day when I can say that I have accomplished the great thing, ”he said. “But the day that makes a difference to people around the world, I think I’ll be fine.”
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