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.
Then, just 11 months after The Thin Place premiered, Intiman abruptly closed its doors. Kate Whoriskey and her family returned to New York, but Russell stayed in Seattle. He’d forged relationships here, plus it was almost summertime, and the days were long and sunny.
When we met for lunch, Russell said he wanted to spend another summer in the Northwest before making any decision to relocate. Beyond the weather, he was still invested in Intiman. The theater’s board of directors was entertaining ideas for the theater’s future, and Russell had what he thought was a good one: a summer festival of four plays, to be performed by a repertory company of actors. Russell envisioned more than a festival. He wanted to form a loose coalition of Seattle artists working in a variety of platforms.
Although his festival would be steeped in Intiman’s foundation in the Western classics, Russell imagines work that would blur “the lines between performative forms of expression.” He wants to produce narrative work that incorporates music, theater, dance, and visual art.
The Callers would seem to fit that bill. It’s a bouncy musical, by Ella Dorband and Ali el-Gasseir, with music by Richard Andriessen. The play centers around two telephone-based enterprises: a phone-psychic named Viktor (el-Gasseir), and a phone-sex company staffed by two roomates (Kate Sumpter and Claudine Mboligikpelani Nako). Composer Andriessen plays an apprentice telephone- psychic who falls for one of the phone-sex workers (a terrific Nako). Complications, as they say, ensue. The cast of The Callers is uniformly energetic, and most of the tunes are catchy. But the story is muddled, and a twist near the end of the show comes out of the blue.
It's a far cry from The Thin Place, both in terms of content and aspiration, but the differences between the two indicate something of the breadth Russell is looking for as an artist, and for the new Intiman.
His plans for the 39-year-old Seattle institution scale back Intiman’s budget and its immediate artistic aspirations. Intiman had been operating on more than $4 million a year before it closed last spring. Russell’s festival would cost $1 million. Instead of using artists from outside the region, Russell envisions a wholly local venture. He estimates he talked to more than 100 artists before finalizing his plans for Intiman; everyone from Seattle Symphony Music Director Ludovic Morlot to Stranger editor and columnist Dan Savage, who will create a new show if Intiman raises the money to produce its festival.
Russell even flew to New York to consult with former Intiman Artistic Director Bartlett Sher, now an artist in resident at Lincoln Center. In 2006, during Sher’s tenure, Intiman was awarded a Regional Theater Tony Award, an acknowledgment of Intiman’s status in the national theater scene. Such plays as the Pulitzer Prize winning The Kentucky Cycle, along with The Light in the Piazza, and Nickel and Dimed got their start at Intiman, then moved on to productions around the country.
Someday, Russell would love to redevelop Intiman into an artistic launching pad, but that’s not his immediate goal. He wants to create theater that “warrants the gathering in a public space to watch it.” He’s proposed a production of Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabbler, that will include choreography by former Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancer Olivier Wevers, as well as a new piece by Savage that will “incorporate a live drag competition as a part of the narrative.”
Sher believes the proposed summer festival would be a wonderful thing for Intiman. And he thinks Russell has the temperament to pull it off. “It’s great,” he said, in a recent telephone conversation. “Andrew’s brave to do it. The budget he has, the amount, it’s incredibly reasonable.” But as of last Friday, Intiman was still about $200,000 short of its Feb. 1 goal of $1 million.
Despite the uncertainty over his future, Russell seems energized. He jokes it’s his obsession with yoga that’s kept him focused. But after the months of handwringing at Intiman, Russell says he’s thrilled that the theater has a tangible plan to work towards. “It’s better to be up in flames or down in flames,” he says, “because at least you’re in the flames.” And he won’t consider what happens if Intiman doesn’t make its goal. Would he stay in Seattle or move back to New York?
“I’m in the flames,” Russell jokes. “I can’t think about it now.”