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Stage West Founder Jerry Russell’s Legacy

Seaf732 Jerry Russell as the demonic Lockhart, trying to convince Sharky, played by Matthew Tompkins, that he deserves only hell — in Conor McPherson’s The Seafarer at Stage West

A founding figure in Fort Worth theater died early Thursday morning. Jerry Russell established and ran Stage West for 35 years. He was also the father of state Senator Wendy Davis. KERA’s Jerome Weeks reports.

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By 1979, Jerry Russell had moved to Fort Worth from Rhode Island, his first marriage had broken up and his employers at National Cash Register didn’t want him wasting his time on theater anymore (he’d been acting at the Fort Worth Community Theatre). So Russell quit his job and started Stage West. He wanted to create the kind of professional theater that Fort Worth really didn’t have then, one that did major dramatic classics as well as riskier new plays. He brought on serious, high-quality dramas, paid his actors and provided a great deal of wisdom and guidance — while working non-stop to keep everything going.

Thirty-five years later, Stage West is a mainstay of the North Texas theater scene. Along the way, the company and Russell had a huge impact on audiences and artists.

Suzi McLaughlin was married to Russell – and has acted and worked at Stage West. She points to the responses on Facebook — to “how many people said, ‘Jerry gave me my first role in professional theater. Jerry was like my teacher. I learned from him what it means to be an actor.’”

In fact, Russell was a talented actor and director – and business manager. Starting out, he didn’t trust the stage to provide a steady livelihood. So he opened a sandwich shop next door. Today, Stage West still serves food and wine.

Dana Schultes is Stage West’s co-producing director. She says Russell had a rare combination: “First, Jerry was fiercely intelligent. But to have also the artistry and the love and the passion that goes with it. That is not that common, I believe, in the arts industry.”

Nov67Sherry Jo Ward, Jerry Russell and Jim Covault in David Mamet’s November

Russell went into Harris Methodist Hospital two weeks ago because of abdominal pains. McLaughlin says, he was operated on successfully to remove a blockage. But then pneumonia and other complications set in.

Because of his illness, his daughter, state Senator Wendy Davis, postponed any announcement concerning a possible campaign for Texas governor. Early Thursday morning, she posted on her Facebook page that Russell had died peacefully with his family there.

McLaughlin, Davis’ step-mother, says Russell was fiercely proud of her — and his other three children. “Oh good grief, he was so proud of her he could hardly contain himself,” she says “But he was just proud of what kind of an adult she had become. Of course, he was also hoping to see what she would get up to next.”

On stage, Russell’s most successful performances were the ones he clearly relished. He seemed to draw life from the story-tellers, the rascals, the cagey survivors  — from Roy Cohn in Angels in America and the Satanic visitor in the Irish drama, The Seafarer, to famed defense attorney Clarence Darrow, a role he played three times. Russell actually retired twice from running Stage West, turning over the day-to-day duties to both Dana Schultes and Jim Covault. But he continued to act and continued to be involved in Stage West’s future. In a 1989 interview, Russell said he’d fulfilled his original goal, to stage something worthwhile. But now he had a longer-range hope.

“There’s a side of me,” he said, “that wants to build something in this city that’s important. Something that will be there long after I’m gone.”

Schultes says Russell more than fulfilled that wish. She recalls how Stage West bounced from location to location until six years ago, when it moved back to its home in a former warehouse on West Vickery. While the small company continued to present plays at TCU, Russell and others re-built the warehouse by hand into a working theater space. It was a labor of love.

“And this was all with help of board of directors and volunteers,” Schultes says. “But Jerry and I essentially put this thing together from tiling the dressing rooms to installing the seats and the stage and everything. I look at that space and I see and feel Jerry and myself and a close community that made this place possible. And it is such a gift.

“It is a tremendous gift.”

And finally, a personal appreciation:

In the late ’80s, I saw Russell perform Clarence Darrow for what was his second time. A year later, George C. Scott came through the Majestic in Dallas on a tour with the old warhorse of a play. In it, Darrow describes his defense of Eugene Debs, the head of the American Railway Union — he was arrested over the violence that attended the 1894 Pullman Strike, one of the landmark moments in American labor history. Darrow expresses his outrage over the United States government sending federal soldiers against the strikers. In Scott’s staging, there was smoke, and the ironic sound of a band playing patriotic tunes. “Do you know what day it is?” Scott thundered. “It’s the Fourth of July!”

The problem with Scott’s interpretation is that it misplaced Darrow’s fury — he made the lawyer seem more upset that people were being shot on Independence Day. At Stage West, Russell put the emotional vortex of that scene on the first line: I cannot believe, he cried in anger and in sorrow, I would see the day the United States government sent troops against its unarmed citizens. In Jerry’s hands, Darrow’s announcement of the date became a bitter little coda, a dying fall into pathetic irony: It’s the Fourth of July.

It was a miniature lesson in what an actor can do to make a scene truly work. Jerry Russell had it right, not Scott.

Here are the funeral arrangements, as announced by Sen. Wendy Davis:

My family would like to welcome members of the theatre, Fort Worth, and greater community to join us for a tribute in Jerry’s honor on Sunday, September 15, 2013 at 6:30 pm at the Fort Worth Community Arts Center located at 1300 Gendy Street in Fort Worth.

In his honor the family has established the Jerry Russell Endowment Fund at Stage West to ensure that the quality programs Jerry set out to produce when founding Stage West over 33 years ago will continue long after his death. In lieu of flowers, please consider making a donation to the Jerry Russell Endowment Fund at Stage West. Donations can be made online at www.stagewest.org/donate or by check sent to Stage West, c/o Jerry Russell Endowment Fund, 821 West Vickery Boulevard, Fort Worth, TX 76104.

Statement by Sen. Wendy Davis on the Passing of Her Father, Jerry Russell

It is with great sadness that I share that Jerry Russell, my dearly loved father, died early yesterday morning surrounded in love and prayer by our extended family and so many who share our love for Dad.

My family would like to welcome members of the theatre, Fort Worth, and greater community to join us for a tribute in Jerry’s honor on Sunday, September 15, 2013 at 6:30 pm at the Fort Worth Community Arts Center located at 1300 Gendy Street in Fort Worth.

In his honor the family has established the Jerry Russell Endowment Fund at Stage West to ensure that the quality programs Jerry set out to produce when founding Stage West over 33 years ago will continue long after his death. In lieu of flowers, please consider making a donation to the Jerry Russell Endowment Fund at Stage West. Donations can be made online at www.stagewest.org/donate or by check sent to Stage West, c/o Jerry Russell Endowment Fund, 821 West Vickery Boulevard, Fort Worth, TX 76104.

– See more at: http://artandseek.net/2013/09/06/wendy-davis-asks-in-lieu-of-flowers-donations-to-the-jerry-russell-fund/#sthash.MBaN8igl.dpuf

Statement by Sen. Wendy Davis on the Passing of Her Father, Jerry Russell

It is with great sadness that I share that Jerry Russell, my dearly loved father, died early yesterday morning surrounded in love and prayer by our extended family and so many who share our love for Dad.

My family would like to welcome members of the theatre, Fort Worth, and greater community to join us for a tribute in Jerry’s honor on Sunday, September 15, 2013 at 6:30 pm at the Fort Worth Community Arts Center located at 1300 Gendy Street in Fort Worth.

In his honor the family has established the Jerry Russell Endowment Fund at Stage West to ensure that the quality programs Jerry set out to produce when founding Stage West over 33 years ago will continue long after his death. In lieu of flowers, please consider making a donation to the Jerry Russell Endowment Fund at Stage West. Donations can be made online at www.stagewest.org/donate or by check sent to Stage West, c/o Jerry Russell Endowment Fund, 821 West Vickery Boulevard, Fort Worth, TX 76104.

– See more at: http://artandseek.net/2013/09/06/wendy-davis-asks-in-lieu-of-flowers-donations-to-the-jerry-russell-fund/#sthash.MBaN8igl.dpuf