In response to the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd and the false police report by Amy Cooper in Central Park this past May, the Black Lives Matter movement returned to the fore of the national stage. This led the theatre community at large to reconcile with acts of racism on its stages, as well as the diversity, equity, and inclusion (or lack thereof) on Broadway and across the nation. Amber Iman, one of the founding members of the Broadway Advocacy Coalition, noted during one of three June re-education sessions “Broadway for Black Lives Matter Again” that while some show casts are more inclusive than those of productions past, “it starts from the top.” If you want more Black artists onstage and backstage, you need Black directors, designers, choreographers, and casting directors. If you want more Black directors, designers, choreographers, and casting directors, you need Black producers.
“Producer” is a term that can mean many things. Typically, a lead producer is not only a primary investor or moneyraiser but the creative lead on the show. They put together the creative team for a production, often pairing writers with composer-lyricists or composer-lyricist teams and directors. Most importantly, a lead producer controls the message—how to market and advertise, final approvals on anything to do with the show. Producers at a lower level have varying degrees of creative input and varying degrees of financial commitment, depending on the show. The current demand for more Black (and Indigenous and POC) producers is a rallying cry for inclusion at every level.
Though there are not enough producers of color on Broadway, some have broken down barriers. This is the next installment in the series Spotlight on Black Broadway Producers. Of course, there are other marginalized communities that also need more representation in leadership positions; the Black community is a place to start. In this series, read these producers’ personal stories, hopes for what theatre looks like upon its post-COVID return, and individual approaches to producing for the stage. Next up: Blair Russell.
Slave Play producer Blair Russell has been busy since the Tony-nominated play by Jeremy O. Harris ended its limited run at the Golden Theatre in January. Like most producers, Russell found himself pivoting to technology during the pandemic during which he founded Resounding with Steve Wargo. The live and immersive audio productions have featured Broadway stars, most recently The Fantastical Tale of The Nutcracker and The Mouse King with Telly Leung and Storm Lever.
Read below for our Q&A.
What are the challenges you’ve faced as a producer of color?
Blair Russell: As a black producer, specifically a young black producer, I think people often don’t take me seriously. I have to prove myself in ways that my white peers don’t. If I’m not being ignored by other producers or artistic directors, then they’re ‘so impressed’ that I know pretty basic information about producing. Even when I introduce myself to artists who are looking for a producer, a lot of them quiz me and question my credentials and experience. Sometimes an audience member or even someone I employ asks me if I’m in the right place. And the real answer is “No,” I’m not supposed to be there—these spaces were not designed for me, but I’m there anyway.
How should people in the industry go about addressing the lack of representation behind-the-scenes?
BR: Just hire people. I know everyone thinks they need to go to a special training or form a committee, but it really starts with hiring the first POC in a position of power in your company and supporting and listening to them, and then hire the second, and then each of those people will bring someone and suddenly your company has completely changed and you haven’t had to do much work at all.
What is the one challenge all producers (not just BIPOC) face that you found the most surprising?
BR: I see big name performers say how they want to have scripts by more diverse writers or have more BIPOC representation on the producing teams. Well, a lot of those same performers also have agents who are the gatekeepers. For example, the agent of a Tony-nominated director, a director whose project I’ve been a producer for in the past, told me the director was “very busy”...in the middle of the pandemic. My project didn't even have a date, I just wanted to know if it was something he might be interested in. The involvement of these artists can be the thing that helps a project make it to the next level or get funding for a young producer like myself, but if their agents won’t even let them know I exist, it’s impossible for change to happen.
What’s your mission or artistic statement as a producer?
BR: I want to amplify great art. I’m first and foremost a fan of every single person whose work I produce. It’s really about creating the theater I hope to see in the world. New stories and new ways of telling those stories.
What advice do you have for young professionals who are interested in a career in producing?
BR: Keep looking until you find a great mentor who really cares about you. It’s tempting to try to get a job in the high-profile offices or for big name producers, but you’ll be much happier and honestly move quicker if you have people in your corner who respect, support, and appreciate you.
What do you want theatre to look like when it returns?
BR: From the outside it should look similar to how it was before: a group of passionate, energetic, and caring individuals working hard to make people smile, think, and feel all those great values we’re constantly expressing to the world. But inside, hopefully, it will look nothing like it looked before. There was so much that needed to change to make the values we practiced behind the scenes match the values we expressed on stage. I really hope to see new leadership and more risk taking. Also there should be a lot more women producing.
What projects are you currently working on?
BR: [In addition to Resounding], I’ve also started exploring the potential for live performance in new mediums as a producer for CRUX, a co-op of black technologists and artists working to uplift the voices of black storytellers in VR and XR. We created the Black Imagination Series to explore bringing theater into different virtual worlds. I just really hope to continue to create paid work for my fellow designers, directors, actors, and technicians, even in this rough time, and I hope the industry and audience members will support that work even if it looks a little different from what they're used to.
Stephen Byrd and Alia Jones-Harvey, Front Row Productions