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Paul Alexander Nolan and Joaquina Kalukango in \"Slave Play.\" [View Image] Paul Alexander Nolan and Joaquina Kalukango in "Slave Play." (Matthew Murphy)

‘Slave Play’ could bring VCU alum Blair Russell his first Tony Award

Russell, a School of the Arts graduate, has a varied background in theater that ranges from fringe festivals to Broadway shows.

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On Sept. 26, Tony-nominated producer Blair Russell will be watching anxiously, waiting to hear if the show he co-produced, “Slave Play,” wins Best Play at the 74th annual Tony Awards. The play, written by Jeremy O. Harris, opened on Broadway in October 2019 and closed January 2020. 

“This isn’t my Tony to win,” said Russell, who graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University in 2012 with a bachelor’s degree in technical theater/stage management from the School of Arts. “It’s due to the magic of the performers, the director, all the people involved.” 

“Slave Play” has received national attention and critical acclaim since its first night on stage. Vox called it “the most controversial show on Broadway” and “a challenging theatergoing 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 show up on Broadway in years.” It has been nominated for 12 Tony Awards, a huge number for a non-musical.

Russell, 30, has a varied background in theater that ranges from fringe festivals to Broadway shows. As 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 working through different levels of the profession. While the work he does as a producer fuels the glitz and glitter of Broadway, his daily tasks often keep him desk bound. 

“Producing is modest work,” he said. Russell with classmates at VCU. “It had intimacy. I immediately had friends,” he said of the stage management program. “We started rehearsing for the first show soon after we arrived. It felt natural. It felt like it was the place for me.” [View Image]Russell, back right, with classmates at VCU. “It had intimacy. I immediately had friends,” he said of the stage management program. “We started rehearsing for the first show soon after we arrived. It felt natural. It felt like it was the place for me.” (Courtesy of Blair Russell)

VCU ‘felt like it 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 Broadway touring show when his family was on vacation in Toronto, Canada. 

“It was so special,” he said. “I was excited that this was a job that people could have.”

He started out appearing as a duck in his first play at school when he was very young. He took part in a summer arts program at age 13 where he delved into creative writing and theater. And he performed in high school theater and in the community.

“What I loved about theater was that it felt so focused,” he said. “Everybody was here to do the same thing: create something.”

Working in theater isn’t about the applause for Russell, but rather the camaraderie. 

“It feels like a whole body, soul and spirit experience where you are focused on one thing for two hours. It’s the closest thing to church, a place where everyone is gathering,” he said. 

Russell came to VCU in 2009 on early acceptance. He chose VCU because of the “amazing theater program.” 

“I didn’t go to be an actor. I learned about stage management where I would be working behind the scenes in design, marketing, etc. I thought ‘that sounds like something I would like,’” he said.

The small class size — only five people in the technical theater/stage management program — was a real plus, he said.

“It had intimacy. I immediately had friends,” he said. “We started rehearsing for the first show soon after we arrived. It felt natural. It felt like it was the place for me.”

“It feels like a whole body, soul and spirit experience where you are focused on one thing for two hours. It’s the closest thing to church, a place where everyone is gathering.”

During college, he worked on at least one main stage show a semester, both on campus and at Barksdale Theatre at Willow Lawn.

“I was already learning about what it was like to work for a professional theater,” he said, adding that he worked with Virginia Repertory Theatre after college as well. “We had six weeks of performances, rehearsing from 6 p.m. to 11 p.m. every night.”

Two of his instructors at VCU — Kevin McGranahan, scene shop foreman and facilities manager in the Department of Theatre, and Patti D’Beck, a Broadway veteran and former Theatre VCU director and choreographer — were strong influences. “I gained so much from the people in the School of Arts,” Russell said. “They treated me [and other students] like a professional and that sets us up for success.” 

From Cirque du Soleil to Broadway

After graduating from VCU, Russell worked as stage manager for companies such as Cirque du Soleil, the Santa Fe Opera, Goodspeed Musicals and Opera Santa Barbara.

“I was excited to start a career as a stage manager. I wanted to travel and see different parts of the country and the world,” he said. “It wasn’t until I got to working as a stage manager I realized there is something more I want to do six days a week, nights and weekends. The work was nonstop. I knew that it wasn’t the life I wanted to have.”Blair Russell. [View Image]Blair Russell.

Still, he enjoyed the work. One of his favorite parts of being a stage manager was the organizational aspect of the job. He took that skill with him to producing. “You have to think of the show as a whole and make it an experience for people,” he said. “It’s an extension of the same skills.”

When he worked in Connecticut at Goodspeed Musicals (a two-time Tony Award-winning regional theater), he assisted the producers in managing the seasons at the main stage Opera House and The Norma Terris Theatre, handled the daily operations of the annual Goodspeed Festival of New Musicals and assisted with the Johnny Mercer Writers Grove.

“I started as a stage manager and they were looking for an assistant. I didn’t have the experience but I did have the passion, desire and willingness to try anything,” he said. “I had about two years of transitioning into producing.

“After Goodspeed, I felt like there was a lot I needed to learn if I wanted to start producing. I wanted to get out in the world and learn more about the business,” he said. “I did work in real estate, for example, because it’s important to know who owns the theater. I traveled so I could learn the landscape of the theater industry.”

Once he felt like he had learned enough, he moved to New York City, where he now resides. He joined Jujamcyn Theaters, where he oversaw the daily activities of the office of the president before moving into the theater operations department and assisting with the management of five Broadway theaters.

When he started producing his own work, Russell reached out to writers he had formed relationships with at Goodspeed. Since 2018, he has been involved with up to 15 shows but not all as lead producer. He’s also been working 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 their defining characteristic.

“I started the company with my friend Steve Wargo, who is the creative director,” Russell said. “He came to me with this idea to bring back the classic live radio play but to do it for the 21st century.”

They started the show virtually but have also presented shows live.

“We had the idea of a drive-in venue with the sound in the vehicles. Everyone gets special headphones. They can listen and have the same live experience,” he said. “We have produced remote work, in-person binaural radio plays, and are working on site-specific, and immersive in-person performances for this winter and spring.”\"Slave Play\" marquee. [View Image]"Slave Play" marquee. (Courtesy of Blair Russell)

With all he is working on, time is a precious commodity. Russell’s schedule is always packed with projects. He currently is the lead producer on four projects and also is involved in some smaller shows that are on limited runs. 

Working in theater is a hard job, he said. 

“Everyone that works in theater knows that you are always trying to make the best thing. You are challenging yourself. I don’t know if there will be a day when I can say I have accomplished the big thing,” he said. “But the day it has made a difference to people around the world I think I will feel good.”

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