‘Slave Play’ could bring VCU alum Blair Russell his first Tony Award

Russell, a School of the Arts graduate, has a varied background in theater that ranges from fringe festivals to Broadway shows.

By Joan Tupponce, VCU News

On Sept. 26, Tony-nominated producer Blair Russell (BFA ’12) will be watching anxiously, waiting to hear if the show he co-produced, “Slave Play,” wins Best Play at the 74th annual Tony Awards. The play, written by Jeremy O. Harris, opened on Broadway in October 2019 and closed January 2020. 

“This isn’t my Tony to win,” said Russell, who graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University in 2012 with a bachelor’s degree in technical theater/stage management from the School of Arts. “It’s due to the magic of the performers, the director, all the people involved.” 

“Slave Play” has received national attention and critical acclaim since its first night on stage. Vox called it “the most controversial show on Broadway” and “a challenging theatergoing experience.” Writing in the New York Times the month “Slave Play” debuted, theater critic Jesse Green called it “one of the best and most provocative new works to show up on Broadway in years.” It has been nominated for 12 Tony Awards, a huge number for a non-musical.

“Slave Play” marquee. (Courtesy of Blair Russell)

Russell, 30, has a varied background in theater that ranges from fringe festivals to Broadway shows. As owner of Blair Russell Productions, he specializes in the development of plays and musicals. He also produces live, immersive audio dramas in his role as director of operations for Resounding, an immersive theater. 

He has been producing full time since 2018 after working through different levels of the profession. While the work he does as a producer fuels the glitz and glitter of Broadway, his daily tasks often keep him desk bound. 

“Producing is modest work,” he said. 

Blair Russell.

VCU ‘felt like it was the place for me’ 

A native of Leesburg, Virginia, Russell has always been interested in the world of entertainment. He has vivid memories of seeing his first Broadway touring show when his family was on vacation in Toronto, Canada. 

“It was so special,” he said. “I was excited that this was a job that people could have.”

He started out appearing as a duck in his first play at school when he was very young. He took part in a summer arts program at age 13 where he delved into creative writing and theater. And he performed in high school theater and in the community.

“What I loved about theater was that it felt so focused,” he said. “Everybody was here to do the same thing: create something.”

Working in theater isn’t about the applause for Russell, but rather the camaraderie. 

“It feels like a whole body, soul and spirit experience where you are focused on one thing for two hours. It’s the closest thing to church, a place where everyone is gathering,” he said. 

Russell came to VCU in 2009 on early acceptance. He chose VCU because of the “amazing theater program.” 

“I didn’t go to be an actor. I learned about stage management where I would be working behind the scenes in design, marketing, etc. I thought ‘that sounds like something I would like,’” he said.

The small class size — only five people in the technical theater/stage management program — was a real plus, he said.

“It had intimacy. I immediately had friends,” he said. “We started rehearsing for the first show soon after we arrived. It felt natural. It felt like it was the place for me.”

During college, he worked on at least one main stage show a semester, both on campus and at Barksdale Theatre at Willow Lawn.

“I was already learning about what it was like to work for a professional theater,” he said, adding that he worked with Virginia Repertory Theatre after college as well. “We had six weeks of performances, rehearsing from 6 p.m. to 11 p.m. every night.”

Two of his instructors at VCU — Kevin McGranahan, scene shop foreman and facilities manager in the Department of Theatre, and Patti D’Beck, a Broadway veteran and former Theatre VCU director and choreographer — were strong influences. “I gained so much from the people in the School of Arts,” Russell said. “They treated me [and other students] like a professional and that sets us up for success.” 

Read the full article here.

Lead Image: Paul Alexander Nolan and Joaquina Kalukango in “Slave Play.” (Matthew Murphy)