Jerry Russell contributed greatly to keeping Fort Worth theater vibrant and relevant

Posted Friday, Sep. 06, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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As the iconic theater masks representing comedy and tragedy suggest, Jerry Russell could make you laugh and cry.

Through his onstage performances, offstage tutoring and keen directorial skill, Russell had an artistic touch that could move audiences, challenge fellow actors to improve their craft and inspire promising young artists to achieve beyond their often self-imposed limitations.

His death Thursday at age 77 leaves an incredible void in Fort Worth’s theater community, but his exit from this life is more bearable because he leaves behind a living legacy in Stage West, the theater he founded, and a body of work that will not soon be forgotten by those who ever experienced his talents on display in any form.

From the time he came to Fort Worth in 1973 as an employee of the National Cash Register Co., Russell was drawn to the theater, which had captured his heart as a teenager growing up in West Warwick, R.I. He started Stage West in 1978, producing season after season of provocative, heartwarming, moving and inspiring plays.

Audiences loved it when he came from behind the scenes to appear in a role onstage, demonstrating a versatility that few actors could ever achieve. From the real-life character of Clarence Darrow, which he performed in a one-man show of the same name, to the fictional Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, Russell had a way of embodying a role so profoundly that even those who knew him well were transfixed by his portrayals.

What made Russell extra special was that he wasn’t concerned just about Stage West. He cared about all theaters and wanted to see them flourish.

As far as he was concerned, he was not in competition with others but in collaboration with them to make them all more relevant and vibrant.

And, to a great degree, he succeeded.

One thing is for sure: The Fort Worth arts scene in general, and live theater in particular, would not be as lively as it is today had Jerry Russell not come to town 40 years ago.

He was indeed a tour de force.

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