Washington Ensemble Theater was sold out for a recent Monday performance of its latest show, The Callers. For WET sold out means about 50 patrons filled the tiny theater located in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. Just before showtime, a dark, curly-haired young man dressed in the neighborhood uniform of jeans and a parka slipped into a seat in the back row. Although he was barely distinguishable from the gaggle of community college theater students who made up the majority of the evening’s audience, this young man was Andrew Russell, the show’s director.
I first met Andrew Russell almost three years ago, before he moved to Seattle to work with Kate Whoriskey at Intiman Theater. He’d phoned me out of the blue one summer day in 2009, to invite me to meet him for coffee. When we sat down at a lower Queen Anne café, Russell asked if I’d be interested in conducting a series of interviews about religion and spirituality that would form the basis for a show he was putting together for Intiman the following spring.
He'd heard a "This American Life" essay by Seattle writer Dan Savage, in which he analyzed a religious epiphany he had while sitting at his dying mother’s bedside. That episode struck Russell. He’d read about Seattle’s reputation as the least-churchgoing city in America, and in light of Savage’s revelations, Russell wondered about the relationship between churchgoing and people’s private attitudes toward religion.
My job was to find and interview everyone from devout Christians, to Native American spiritual leaders, to atheists. I agreed, both because the subject matter was interesting, and because Russell himself was so compelling. He’s got a way of looking you in the eye, and reminiscent of Seattle Opera impresario Speight Jenkins, Russell’s passion for his projects is infectious.
As a young man in Indiana, Russell made his theater debut in church plays his mother directed. He got hooked, studying acting and directing at Carnegie Mellon, and then moved to New York. In 2009 he was still there, working as an assistant to playwright Tony Kushner, the award-winning author of Angels in America, among many other works. Russell was 27 when I met him, but with his slight frame and mop of curls, he looked even younger. Despite his youth, Russell already had a wealth of theater experience.
In addition to his job with Kushner, earlier that year Russell met Kate Whoriskey, Intiman’s then-new Artistic Director, when he worked with her on the Manhattan Theater Club production of Ruined in New York. Whoriskey told me she brought Russell to Seattle with her because he was one of the most intelligent and personable theater artists she’d ever met.
Where most aspiring directors might choose to stay in the nation’s artistic hub, Russell was enthusiastic about moving to Seattle. Our conversations about the city, its attitudes toward organized religion, and politics, continued over the phone for the six months before he moved to the Pacific Northwest. I would send him the recorded interviews I’d conducted, and we’d talk about the people I met, and the kinds of people he wanted me to interview. Russell was always curious and insightful, but above all, open to new ideas.
When he moved to Seattle in the winter of 2010, it seemed to fit. Even though Russell was immersed in his own project, he also immersed himself in Seattle’s cultural scene, taking in everything from opera productions to fringe theater. He embraced the Northwest’s outdoor, active lifestyle. Not long after he arrived in the city, his car broke down. He never replaced it. His bicycle is still his main form of transportation.
The Thin Place, the play that ultimately grew out of our conversations, and more than a dozen interviews, was a docu-drama for one actor, Gbenga Akinnagbe. Russell directed and shaped the material with a young playwright, Sonya Schneider. The play opened in May 2010. Although the audience response was strong, Seattle critics gave it tepid reviews. Still, the critical response to his inaugural work in Seattle didn’t seem to dampen Russell’s enthusiasm for his new home or his job at Intiman. He got an apartment on Capitol Hill, and Whoriskey assigned him other directing gigs.
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