When Jerry Russell staged Edward Albee’s two-actor play The Zoo Story in his downtown Fort Worth sandwich shop in 1979, even he had to have been surprised by its rapid success.
In a story that his friends and colleagues say he loved to tell, every performance of that show, which he directed and co-starred in, doubled the number of audience members of the performance before it. What began as a handful of patrons on opening night was, within a few performances, standing-room-only for the small room with 50 some-odd seats, which had been expanded when he convinced his landlord to let him tear down a wall between the shop and an empty space next to it.
From the get-go, he sold subscriptions for the first season, 1979-80, which he had mapped out with an ambitious lineup that included not only challenging plays by writers known for smithing words and the spaces between them — Albee and Harold Pinter — but also a five-act play from 1933 ( The Drunkard), Alan Ayckbourn’s trilogy The Norman Conquests, Jason Miller’s Pulitzer Prize-winning basketball drama That Championship Season, and three musicals, one of them original. Counting each of the stand-alone plays in Norman, that’s 10 shows in one season — unheard of now for any theater, much less an upstart.
Those subscriptions sold, quickly solidifying his Stage West as a major arrival on the Fort Worth arts scene. From the start, it set itself apart in a scene that had previously been dominated by Casa Mañana and Fort Worth Community Theatre, and followed on the heels of Johnny and Diane Simons’ Hip Pocket Theatre, which opened two years earlier.
Russell sold his car and other belongings to finance Stage West’s first season, but the gamble would eventually pay off.
So perhaps it’s to no one’s surprise that 34 years later, Stage West is not only still going strong, but is on more solid footing than ever. Like any institution that incurs longevity, the organization has gone through its ups and downs, including moves into itinerant spaces and a merger that led to a too-close-for-comfort demise, but Russell was always there to guide his baby through the rough waters — even if it meant returning from his first retirement a decade ago.
Now the group is facing one of its biggest challenges ever: moving forward without Russell, who died unexpectedly in early September at age 77 after emergency abdominal surgery that led to pneumonia and other complications. Stage West’s 2013-14 season, its 35th, opens this weekend with a revival of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s 18th-century comedy of manners The Rivals.
It might be a bigger challenge if Russell, who retired a second time at the end of 2012, had not been readying the organization for the future.
“I think he wanted to make sure that there was a structure in place for the theater to go on without him,” says Jim Covault, who began working with Stage West in its first season and had served as artistic director for years before he was named co-producer with Dana Schultes upon Russell’s retirement. “I don’t think he expected to live forever. He had gone through some pains, along with the board, to set up a structure for [the theater to be successful].”
“He started doing that when he came back [on staff] in 2002 to help restructure the organization,” adds Schultes. “He was a major player in driving this organization from what was a half-million in debt to what now has a reserve fund and a growing endowment.”
What will be missed most, though, at least to those on the outside, are his considerable talents as a director and actor. He may have retired from the second word in the term “show business,” but there were no indications he would be slowing down in the craft that he had loved all his life, going back to his youth in his native Rhode Island.
When Russell was admitted to the hospital Aug. 17, he was in the third week of rehearsals as director of the theater group’s season-closing revival of Thank You, Jeeves, a show it first staged in 2001; he had adapted Shakespeare’s Macbeth for the group’s annual educational programming with Performing Arts Fort Worth; he helped plan moving the group’s 2012 hit Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins into the studio space at Addison’s WaterTower Theatre (where it would have a successful five-week run); and he was about to begin rehearsals for performing in Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys at Contemporary Theatre of Dallas.
Retiring in an official capacity from Stage West was one thing; retiring from the stage wasn’t going to happen.
Troupe on the move
Covault joined Stage West in its first season when he convinced Russell to let him direct a show. Although the Fort Worth native and Texas Christian University graduate had been threatening to leave Cowtown for bigger cities, or even England or Scotland — countries he had visited and loved for their support of theater — he stayed on, reveling in directing Shakespeare and the classics and being cast in roles that he might not have been chosen for in other markets.
“Stage West was always actor-centered, and focused on good scripts with good language,” Covault says. “That was what attracted me to it. Jerry found someone in me who could do several things, and he set me about doing them. And that was good for me.”
By the sixth of the second season’s eight shows, Russell and company moved from the sandwich shop into an old warehouse on Vickery Boulevard, between downtown and the hospital district. The first show there was the classic Kaufman/Hart comedy You Can’t Take It With You. After one Saturday-night performance, Russell married his third wife, actress Suzi McLaughlin, on the stage.
She was in the show but had known Russell since they met at an audition for James Goldman’s The Lion in Winter at Fort Worth Community Theatre in 1973, shortly after Russell’s job at National Cash Register had relocated him and his family to Fort Worth.
That family included his second wife and four children, one of whom is Texas Sen. Wendy Davis, who is running for governor in 2014.
“Back then you got your script, you stood in line, and you read when it was your time,” McLaughlin says. “Well, not Jerry. He got up with the script and moved all over the place and was talking to other people in the room and we’re all like, ‘Who is this guy?’”
That “force of personality” is what, after years of friendship, attracted her to Russell.
A passion and sense of civic responsibility is what led Russell, in the mid-’80s, to form the advocacy group Live Theatre League of Tarrant County. He was quickly joined in his mission to lobby for more arts funding from the city by Fort Worth Community Theatre founder William Garber and the founders of two theaters that started a few years after Stage West, Rudy Eastman of Jubilee Theatre and Rose Pearson of Circle Theatre. The group is still thriving and represents more than 25 area theaters.
In the late ’80s, when there were plans to expand Interstate 30 near downtown in a way that might threaten the buildings on Vickery, Stage West moved out. For two seasons from 1991 to 1993, the actors performed at Caravan of Dreams downtown. Then, for the beginning of the 1993-94 season, they moved into an old movie theater near the TCU campus, which they converted into an interesting in-the-round space with a smaller cafe area for riskier, smaller productions.
That’s when Schultes, an Arlington native and theater student at Texas Wesleyan University, discovered Stage West. She asked Russell about auditioning for a role in Stage West’s upcoming production of Sam Shepard’s Simpatico.
“He said, ‘You’re not the right age. You’re too young,’” she says. “I said, ‘There’s this little role, this bodyguard, I could play.’ He thought it was hilarious. I had an audition for Jim [Covault, the director] two days later, and got that role. … It was a three-hour play and I had two lines and spent the rest of the time changing sets.”
She had the lead in the next show, Scotland Road, and quickly became a staple at Stage West. She would join the staff as development director in 2004, a few years after Russell had rejoined the staff, post-retirement, to help the theater get back on track. Stage West had to leave the TCU building in 2003 because of a deficit caused, in part, by its merger with Shakespeare in the Park in the late ’90s to become Allied Theatre Group. That alliance didn’t work out, and the Shakes festival shuttered in 2001.
The final show at the TCU theater was, fittingly, a revival of Alfred Stieglitz Loves O’Keeffe, starring Russell and McLaughlin as the famous photographer and painter husband and wife. These were roles they first played together in 1993, only this time, the couple had separated.
For the 2003-04 season, Stage West moved into the Fort Worth Community Arts Center, using the Scott Theatre and the black box Sanders Theatre. As the group was getting back on its feet, aided by Russell’s restructuring, a search for a new space began. They found it in the Vickery building they had once inhabited; the I-30 project was completed and the structure had not been torn down. In fact, that whole neighborhood is undergoing revitalization.
Since Russell’s return after retirement, growth has been steady. The staff has expanded to nine salaried positions, including the latest full-timer, Mark Shum, who started as business manager in 2013. Including the part-time staff working the Ol’ Vic Cafe, which serves dinner before shows and is used as a gallery space, there are about 22 employees. The annual budget is more than $850,000, and artistic quality — something that has never been lacking at Stage West — has been especially high in recent seasons.
In 2011, the theater took over the warehouse next door, doubling the space to 18,000 square feet, adding workshop, storage and education space, as well as a small studio theater. So far, the only major production there came in April, when Russell played a role he had performed twice before: the title role in the one-man show Clarence Darrow, about the legendary lawyer. Russell has said it was a role he wanted to play one more time before he died.
An eye on the future
Russell died the week after Thank You, Jeeves opened. Davis, who postponed her announcement about running for governor when her dad was hospitalized, along with his biological and stage family, went into preparations for a memorial at the Scott Theatre, another standing-room-only occasion for the great theater-maker.
During the run of Jeeves, Schultes made a point of asking for support during the curtain speech before every performance.
“It became my job to reassure the patrons and to hug them and tell them he’s present through all of us and through this gift to community,” she says. “It was very important to me for every single one of those curtain speeches for the audience to give him a round of applause. They cheered and stood up every single night. … He left an indelible mark on all of us and this community, so no matter what, his presence will always be there. It’s a beautiful thing that his legacy feeds into what continues.”
After each of his retirements, Russell still directed several shows a season. So, for the upcoming season, Covault will pick up one or two more shows as director. Schultes will direct another, as she has been doing for several seasons, and they’ll pull in a guest director for another. One show, Avenue Q, comes directly from Dallas’ Theatre Three with cast, puppets and director intact — it’s another of the kind of cross-Metroplex collaboration that Stage West plans to continue pursuing.
Other initiatives that have begun at the Vickery space, such as the Playwriting Competition, a storytelling series and the Festival of the Kid, are going strong. And season subscriptions are selling “extremely well,” Shum says, including for first-time subscribers. The Jerry Russell Endowment Fund, set up after his death, has received more than $20,000, and a planned-giving initiative is being set up to keep it growing. Other tributes will be forthcoming — naming something significant for Russell, maybe a theater space, has been talked about.
“It’s hard to imagine the world without him, but he went to some lengths to make sure Stage West could go on without him,” Covault says.
As for the planning of future seasons, the model Stage West has stuck to for more than three decades, the one that had Covault excited from the outset, will continue — a healthy mix of plays, musicals, classics, new works and lesser-known titles.
Some works that Russell had turned down because he was slightly more business-minded than arts-minded, such as Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler — “He thought it was too depressing,” Covault says — might appear in a future season. As could any of the shows in which Russell played his dream roles, such as Death of a Salesman or Our Town.
He’s bound to have been proud knowing that, just like that production of The Zoo Story that started it all, his theater keeps growing, and the audiences keep coming.