The Tale of the StorytellerBy Brian Petty
Edits by Caitlin Womersley
In 2015 artist, singer, author and philanthropist, Donn Russell received the Founders Award from the Innovative Theatre Foundation. This honor was bestowed in recognition of his 50 years of service to the community. He has dedicated much of his life to discovering some truly exceptional and innovative artists and supporting their work. In addition, he has lived an incredibly bold and adventurous life, which could serve as inspiration for us all.
Russell’s art is so prolific and he is such an epic storyteller, that being assigned to write this article was a bit intimidating. Encapsulating a life’s work in a few words seemed a daunting mission. However, even the storyteller needs to have his story told, and an interview offered me the perfect way to break into that story.
From the start of our conversation, I could hear the searching in Russell’s voice—that hunger that only other artists recognize when they’re seeking inspiration. This particular hunger has given him quite the range. To explain, let’s go back to the beginning of his love for art—when he thought he’d be a singer. After one year of college, a favorite professor told him he had no vocal range and wouldn’t find work outside of singing at bat mitzvahs. That professor was wrong. Russell has range, across many of the arts. He can’t be confined to just music. From painting and sculpting to writing and performing, Russell has run the gamut of artistic expression. He has traversed the globe from Mexico to Japan, thirsting for inspiration and ultimately cultivating a breadth of cultural knowledge that is apparent in all the art he creates.
Russell has become a renowned author with five books under his belt. Avant Guardian: A Theatre Foundation Director's 25 Years Off-Broadway is an "informal, often irreverent account" of the early Off-Off-Broadway movement. It has been worked into curricula at the Yale Drama School and Berklee College of Music. When asked about his inspiration for this book, Russell offered up a story from his vault of personal narratives, and I must say, he is quite the storyteller.
He set the scene in the back of the house at La Mama on East 4th street between Bowery & 2nd Ave. He was sitting next to a lady he described as “probably close to his age” who seemed to be just as avid a theatre enthusiast as he. During intermission, Russell asked her if she attended La Mama often. He came to find out that she was a member of La Mama during its rise, and now her daughter was a member as well. Intrigued, Mr. Russell asked her how different it was now versus then.
“Oh that’s easy, now we wear clothes.”
This was an epiphanic moment for Russell. “In the beginning, there was an awful lot of nudity. People wanted to be one with their souls and their bodies and their bare asses,” he explained. He went on to highlight a time in the early '90s when there was a change in the theatrical realm. There was a new generation that wasn’t interested in the beginnings. In fact, it wasn’t beginnings at all, it was a different attitude and focus all together – bigger, showier, money-driven types of theatre. They were starting to go to foundations, “the biggies” as Russell referred to them, and started taking their money; and consequently, started taking their suggestions.
“The money talked” he resigned. His detest for the rise of corporate theatre and the idea that companies were no longer defined by their company, but by their venue. “The last couple of years we were basically sponsoring venues” he conceded. “I was more interested in the very beginnings, you know, the bare-ass stuff.”
Russell felt it was his job to combat this corporate theatre trend. He wanted to ensure that the Off-Broadway and Off-Off-Broadway theatre scene did not become a carbon copy of big Broadway. In a way, this turned him into a guardian of the avant-garde theatrical works being produced. An Avant Guardian, so to speak.
While Russell wasn’t excited about corporate theatre, he still remains excited about the industry’s future – especially technology’s role in it. “I think technology is improving theatre as long as it doesn’t take it over... It has to have some purpose” Russell said. While technology arguably dehumanizes us, it also allows us greater access to humanity. “The world has grown smaller because of computers. There is more culture available,” Russell told Sarah Teach during an interview. Since theatre crosses cultural boundaries as an art form, Russell truly believes that technology and theatre will positively coexist. “The combination is going to be very exciting to see,” he exclaimed. “I wish I was just starting.”
While Russell has a well established career, he still has a long and influential road ahead of him. Most artists only dream of getting to a place in life where they can give back to the arts that fueled them. For Donn Russell, that dream became a reality. After being faced with the untimely loss of his close friend Peg Santvoord, Russell was presented with the opportunity to establish a foundation in her memory. Today, the Peg Santvoord Foundation has committed itself to carrying out Santvoord’s mission to support non-traditional theatre. Since 1965, the charitable organization has widely influenced the industry. A few years ago, Russell became aware of the Innovative Theatre Foundation and its dedication to that same community. In 2015 Russell made a generous donation to the foundation, which has now established the Donn Russell Fund in his honor. Russell wants this money to impact many and “have it spread around.” It is his way of showing thanks to the bustling avant-garde community that has given him such inspiration throughout the years.
In reality, it is the community that is thankful for Donn Russell. This wide-ranged, multi-talented, tech savvy, Founders Award winning Avant Guardian has truly become a ‘Fucking Legend’ in the Off-Off-Broadway world. (That ‘Fucking Legend’ title comes with another one of those stories from that vault of personal narratives.) Not only is he a true Avant Guardian, but he’s the guardian of that vault as well. I am humbly honored to have been entrusted to take a peek inside that vault in order to share some of its contents. They are stories that remind us of “the beginnings” of Off-Off-Broadway and will continue to influence its trajectory well into the future and beyond.
Donn Russell 1972