Russ Tutterow, champion of playwrights (1946-2015)

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Russ Tutterow was not a man to seek the spotlight, but under the right circumstances his quietly bemused and avuncular gaze was known to give way to a display of rapier sharp wit.

Yet for the most part, Tutterow seemed to prefer that others — playwrights, to be specific — had all the glory. He was the godfather of many new plays whose gestation took place in Chicago. And during his long tenure as artistic director of Chicago Dramatists — the teaching and producing organization devoted to the nurturing of writers for the theater — he mentored hundreds of playwrights, and watched as many of them moved to prominence.

For nearly 30 years, beginning in 1986 when he became the artistic director of Chicago Dramatists, Tutterow workshopped and directed countless new plays in full productions and readings, and nurtured the art and careers of such playwrights as Rebecca Gilman, Tina Fey, Sarah Ruhl, Lydia R. Diamond, Tanya Saracho, Brett Neveu, Rick Cleveland, Cheryl Coons, David Barr, Jon Steinhagen, Andrew Hinderaker, Roger Rueff and Laura Jacqmin. The list goes on and on, and includes Keith Huff, whose play, “A Steady Rain,” was first staged at Chicago Dramatists in 2007 and had a 2009 Broadway production starring Daniel Craig and Hugh Jackman.

Tutterow went on medical leave from Chicago Dramatists in August, 2014, to undergo treatment for the kidney cancer that led to his death on the morning of May 4, at the age of 68. Throughout his time in the hospice wing of Weiss Memorial Hospital he was surrounded by a constant stream of friends — many of them the playwrights he had mentored, as well as by Ann Filmer, the artistic director of the 16th Street Theatre in Berwyn who first met him in 1998 and served as his producing director at Chicago Dramatists from 2000 to 2004.

“Russ and I shared a love of playwrights and he was ‘Uncle Russ’ to my daughter,” said Filmer.

In February of this year, Tutterow stepped aside as artistic director and was named “artistic director emeritus” of Chicago Dramatists. Meghan Beals, the Chicago-based independent director who had served as his associate artistic director from 2010 to 2012, stepped in as interim artistic director.

Born in central Indiana, Tutterow earned his BA from Ball State University, and held an M.A. in Theater from Northwestern University.

Describing Tutterow’s role in Chicago theater playwright Lydia R. Diamond ( “Stick Fly,” “Voyeurs de Venus”), said:

“Russ’s influence was bigger than there are words to communicate. He bestowed upon us all dramaturgical wisdom, directorial brilliance, kindness, laughter, wit, and a generosity of spirit that is unquantifiable. From him I learned things as practical as how to be a collaborative playwright in a rehearsal room; 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 unhelpful prescriptive critique; how to re-write bravely, and when to put the play down and write the next one.”

Diamond added: “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. I learned how to write a blurb from Russ. I learned how to respect and work collaboratively with actors, directors, designers, and crew. I learned to articulate and protect my aesthetic imperative. I learned the value of community. It goes on and on. I owe so much of who I am as an artist in the world to Russ, my mentor/uncle/friend/colleague.”

Rebecca Gilman, an associate professor at Northwestern University whose play, “Luna Gale,” enjoyed great success at the Goodman Theatre and in Los Angeles in recent seasons, noted:

“I think Russ has been the first, best advocate for scores of Chicago playwrights, including me. When I moved here, the playwright Charles Smith told me Russ was the first person I should meet. And Charles was right. Russ really wanted to help playwrights see their work produced. He sent our plays everywhere. He talked us up. And it wasn’t out of any self interest. His first love has always been Chicago theater and he wanted to share that love. But above all he was a kind and generous friend.”Among the many plays Tutterow directed at Chicago Dramatists were “Blizzard ’67” by Jon Steinhagen; “Hickorydickory” by Marisa Wegrzyn; “Water” by Alice Austen; “Heat” by Marsha Estell; “Drawing War” by Brett Neveu and “Voyeurs de Venus” by Diamond.

Tutterow was the recipient of the 2005 League of Chicago Theatres Artistic Leadership Award for his “outstanding achievement in developing new plays and his long time contribution to Chicago theater.” Her also received the 2007 Achievement in Theatre Award from the Illinois Theatre Association, and the 2010 Actors’ Equity Spirit Award for his commitment to non-traditional casting and diversity.

In 2011, to honor his 25th year as artistic director, and his contribution to the cultural life of Chicago, May Street (adjacent to Chicago Dramatists) was proclaimed “Russ Tutterow Way” by the City of Chicago.

Tutterow also directed, managed or taught for such Chicago theaters as the Goodman, Victory Gardens, the Royal George, the Mercury, Briar Street, Prop, Zebra Crossing, Igloo, and Cullen, Henaghan & Platt Productions, as well as Café LaMama Hollywood. He served on the 2005 First Look Council at Steppenwolf Theatre and held positions as adjunct associate professor of Theatre at the University of Wisconsin and Director of Theatre at Lake Forest College.

Tutterow leaves no immediate survivors and requested no formal funeral. According to Filmer, a memorial/celebration is being planned for this summer.

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