Not many hours after my friend and mentor Russ Tutterow’s passing, I got a request from American Theatre magazine to write this tribute. That was two weeks ago, and I have struggled to write this every day since. In my home office, in restaurants, coffee shops, it didn’t matter—all I seemed to be able to do was cry.
A few mornings ago, I texted a fellow playwright and Russ mentee and confessed that I’d still not been able to write and was in a coffee shop, crying. She texted back, “Be there in a few.” And there she was, and we sat and cried together. She left me with words of wisdom and encouragement, and now it’s several days later.
I am bereft, not just because I miss my friend with the giant hugs and words of wisdom and encouragement. I am bereft for all of us in Chicago, for the loss of this lovely man who created an ecology in our theatre community that nurtures and grows new plays, and with them legions of theatre artists who know not only the value but have developed the skills for developing new work. For that we are all so grateful, and for his absence we grieve.
For 30 years, Russ Tutterow was the artistic director of Chicago Dramatists, a theatre that is small only in size, for its reach is expansive, and an institution devoted to giving writers a safe space for creating new plays. Every Saturday at 2 p.m. a public reading of a new play was (and still is) held. Equity and non-Equity actors were given eight hours of rehearsal with the playwright and a director, often Russ; then they shared that work with an audience of theatre professionals, neophytes and civilian regulars and walk-ins. At the beginning of each reading Russ had a speech. We all remember it well:
For the last 35 years, Chicago Dramatists has presented a new play in process. Remember, folks, this is a script-in-hand reading, so you will have to imagine the play with full set, lighting and costumes…After the play, stick around, as there will be a discussion with the playwright and we want to hear your thoughts on the play.
Before the talkback Russ would say:
The playwright is not here to answer questions or defend what they wrote. Rather, we want to hear your thoughts. Your job is to give what you experienced back to the playwright. We always like to start with the things you liked best—the things you find memorable.
Something extraordinary happened in the months leading up to Russ’s exit. Though he had no remaining blood relatives, Russ had made for himself a family. During his decline—which felt excruciatingly long but, in retrospect, was but a small bit of real estate in the stretch of his vibrant life—the community galvanized in a way that I am still struggling to find words to communicate. In the most organic way, a small group of theatre artists vigilantly managed his health care and day-to-day needs, at home, in hospitals, and eventually in hospice.
As his needs became greater, and more help was needed, the numbers never wavered. In fact, much energy was put into the managing of the unending stream of volunteers to provide food, rides to dialysis, care for his cats, personal care, etc. There was a lot of online buzz, a recognition that something spectacular was happening; there were expressions of encouragement, and lot of, “Wow, it’s amazing what you guys are doing.” The thing was, it was our privilege. There was no martyrdom, no performance of generosity, only a desire to give just a little bit of what we’d gotten back.
Russ bestowed upon us all dramaturgical wisdom, directorial brilliance, kindness, laughter, wit and a generosity of spirit that’s unquantifiable. Warmth, rigor and humor emanated from Russ and permeated every inch of our theatre. From him I learned things as practical as how to be a collaborative playwright in a rehearsal room (i.e., how to behave well, know that everyone’s working as hard as you to serve your play, when and how to be heard—and when and how to shut up); how to really hear a play in progress, regardless of the success or glorious failure of a public or private reading; how to tease out a helpful note from maybe the most unhelpfully prescriptive critique; how to rewrite bravely, and when to put the play down and write the next one; how to write a synopsis or blurb; what was a worthwhile blind submission and when to save the postage.
The most valuable lessons were not as tangible, but I owe my career to them: how to move through the world gracefully as an artist; how to embrace my identity as a playwright with tenacity, vigilance and a commitment to excellence always; how to articulate and protect my aesthetic imperative. I learned the value of community. I learned that ambition is great, but the making of the highest quality work always wins. I learned: What’s the point if we’re not having fun? I learned that the next play will always be better.
Now, two weeks since our beloved Russ departed, on a Monday (of course he would leave while the theatre is dark and the legions of colleagues, friends and fans could take a moment to tend to the thing at hand, and begin the difficult process of moving forward), I can begin to think about his legacy. In Chicago Dramatists, Russ leaves a thriving institution devoted to helping playwrights flourish, an institution that interacts with and regularly employs legions of Chicago’s best artists. In the bones of our theatre community Russ leaves a great respect for the business of creating plays that will continue to contribute significantly to the fabric of the American theatre. And to that American theatre, Russ leaves artists and works that speak to the human condition, entertain, enrich and inspire our cultural landscape.
Thank you, Russ. We will try to remember to start with what we liked best. We will endeavor to make you proud.
Lydia R. Diamond is a nationally known playwright and a longtime resident writer with Chicago Dramatists.