Russell Emerson: Technical Director of Performance Studies retires today after 31 years

29 July 2011

"To be a good designer", says Russell Emerson, "you have to understand hands-on, the functions of every production department within a production group." Anyone who worked with Russell throughout his 31 years as Technical Director of Performance Studies, will know that he took that dedication to all aspects of theatre production very seriously.

Russell joined the University of Sydney in 1979 as a Drama Fellow of the Theatre Workshop unit, for which he received the princely sum of $75 per week. When he first started, the then Director of the Theatre Workshop Derek Nicholson, told Mr. Emerson that the position would be whatever he made of it.

"So, I did work as a stage manager and tech, lighting person, sound person, costume maker, cutter, I even learned how to sew, which was unusual for blokes in those days", said Russell. "I bought myself a sewing machine after I proved to my wife I could sew by making her a dress".

This hands-on attitude to his work saw Mr. Emerson taking to the challenge of finding a new theatre studio space, when use of the Seymour Centre was getting strained. Despite a couple of false starts, on which Russell had worked up full design briefs for the architect as well as functional analysis of space use, he was directed towards the Woolley Building, which had a space available. After initially inspecting the space, measuring it up, taking a hard look at the numbers, working out office space requirements, and drawing up another briefing document - he finally went to tender in 1993.

"After three years from the time I started I ended up with the keys in my hand. And there was the building. I didn't actually get a holiday for three years, because every time I went to take leave I'd get called back in to have meetings with the architects or builders", he said.

The theatre space in the Woolley Building has come to be the Rex Cramphorn Theatre, which was designed as a meeting place between theatre practitioners and academics. "The deal is we offer the practitioners the use of that space and in return they give is full access to their process in a sense that we can observe it, we can document it with video, sound pencil, paper, whatever, and we can query them about why they do what they do", says Russell. "The students fit within that, and they have a fantastic privilege of sitting inside the mechanism of theatre making".

The Rex Cramphorn Theatre has nurtured the creation of hundreds of theatre productions, and one of the standouts for Russell Emerson was a Jeremy Simms production of Hamlet that was performed at Belvoir. It was not the finished performance that was the highlight, however, but rather some of the work from rehearsal. "The best performance of a show doesn't occur in the theatre, it's actually in rehearsal", he states, "they work at a level that is not sustainable as a nightly performance, so you see an absolute distillation of passion and energy. Jeremy Simms did a soliloquy from Hamlet, and at the end of it everyone was in tears. It was sensational".

Russell Emerson has provided crucial expertise to Performance Studies, especially through his documentation of performance, which is now part of an archive of material that is constantly used in teaching and research, and will be a lasting testament to Russell's technical theatre skills.

Associate Professor Tim Fitzpatrick from the Department of Performance Studies has been working with Russell on their newest research project, an investigation of the Globe Theatre as it appears in a sketch done in the 1930's. He says "Russell has the capacity to marry traditional craft skills with new technology, and that's the main characteristic of his inquiring mind. We'll never find a replacement for Russell."

After 31 years at the University of Sydney, Mr Emerson reflects on his time here by saying "The University of Sydney is a remarkable environment to work in, and there are times when you feel incredibly privileged. The people are the best part. It's lovely to have the Quad and the sandstone and the splendid architecture of the new law building, but at the end of the day it is the people that re doing things here that make the University."

With his eminent departure approaching, the School of Letters, Arts and Media wasted no time in signing Russell Emerson up as an Honorary, and it is in this capacity that Russell will return from time to time. He says, 'I will have to come back every now and then to get a bit of dose'.

Contact: Kate Mayor

Phone: 02 9351 2208

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