Russ Nelson is one of those behind-the-scenes guys who makes the theater, dance and musical productions he works on look as professional as big-city shows. He joined Whatcom Community College's staff full-time this year, and he's currently involved in "The Spitfire Grill," a play directed by Shawn Fuller about a feisty parolee who takes a job at a small-town eatery that is in competition for a best-restaurant essay contest, on stage Thursday, Nov. 15, through Saturday, Nov. 17, at the college's Heiner Center Theatre.
Question: What brought you to Bellingham?
Answer: My mom, sisters and I moved to Bellingham in about 1972. I'm a little foggy on the exact date; I attended eight grade schools before we settled in Bellingham. I went to Whatcom Middle School and graduated from Bellingham High in 1983; my daughter just graduated Bellingham and my son attends there now.
In high school I was active in drama club, school plays and stage crew. I was cast in many school plays and I joined stage crew my sophomore year. Once upon a time I had aspirations of being an actor; my senior year I was asked by a scout to audition for Cornish College in Seattle, but I already had plans and felt if I did audition and was accepted, well, that would just muddy the waters.
Q: And after high school?
A: I attended Multnomah Bible College in Portland for a year right out of high school and then came back to Bellingham. I earned my associate's degree from Whatcom Community College and transferred to Western Washington University to study broadcast communications. I took a number of technical theater classes; at that time I worked at Bellingham High as a stage technician and ran the AV department.
What I learned at Western went directly to my student crews. For a number of years I was able to direct Bellingham High's spring plays. While attending WCC I was lucky enough to take acting classes from Jane Kindred; I count her as a mentor.
I loved working at BHS; I had a real mix of students from many different social groups. It's pretty cool when a diverse group of students, who wouldn't normally socialize with each other, come together and form a cohesive team.
Q: What projects have you worked on in Bellingham?
A: I started working with Nancy Whyte and the Mt. Baker Ballet Company in 1987. Each year we produced our "Nutcracker," the company's Dance into Spring event and the school's themed recitals. Nancy was the first person to use my video experience and incorporate it into live performance. We did some really fun stuff. I worked with Nancy for 22 years.
After graduating from Western I was hired by TCI (now Comcast) as a production technician. I taught public access TV classes and produced local programming. Later I was promoted to studio manager.
I was with Comcast for 15 years; some of our work was featured on The History Channel, Fox Sports Northwest, Outdoor Life Network and MTV2. While with Comcast I won two regional Emmys and a handful of other production awards.
As technology changed, so did my job. At first we produced local programming for Channel 10, then 26, and finally exclusively for On Demand. Comcast treated me very well, but in December 2008 they shut three of their four Washington studios, including the one I ran.
Q: What theater projects have you enjoyed?
A: I've picked up some work at Mount Baker Theatre as a stagehand. It's pretty cool being able to work the larger shows that come through and see what the big boys are using. Bellingham is lucky to have such a talented base of local stagehands.
Reality is, it's never a single person that makes a great show. The men and women at MBT know their stuff, and I'm lucky to be able to work with them.
I've designed a number of sets and special effects for the Bellingham Theatre Guild. I was first recruited by Shawn Fuller for one of her shows; she also recruited me for WCC. My friend, Richard Valentine (Valentine Entertainment), let's me work on his independent films; usually I build props or design special effects.
For the last couple of years I've been working Dance for Joy's shows and just recently worked with Whatcom Symphony Orchestra doing visual effects for its "Hooray for Hollywood" concert.
This year I joined Whatcom full time as a stage technician; I'd been part time for the previous two years. I work for conferences and events at the college, so most of my time is spent with smaller internal events and outside rentals; usually just a couple of mics and PowerPoint.
I get to do lighting and set design for Whatcom's Drama Department, currently for "The Spitfire Grill." It's a charming musical that follows a woman's journey as she's released from prison and starts over in rural Wisconsin.
Q: Who inspired you in your work?
A: I owe a lot to my grandfather, Howard Sawyer. He was a mechanic in Anacortes; that man could fix anything. I really appreciate that, when, as a kid, I would have some wacky idea for something to build and he never brushed me off. We'd sit down and figure out how to build whatever it was, then we'd build it. He was a mechanical genius.
Reach MARGARET BIKMAN at firstname.lastname@example.org or 715-2273.