Find Your Passion: Lights, Camera, Russell

Russell Stephens At home on stage, Russell Stephens also enjoys arranging music.(Photo by Samantha Hernandez)

By Sarah Caroline Willcox

In the 8th grade, Russell Stephens had an epiphany that would change his life. It came after the final curtain call in a local production of “Rag Time,” when he realized he was destined for the spotlight. The lights, applause and thrill of the stage continue inspiring Stephens, a sophomore at The University of Alabama and self-proclaimed “theater geek.”

When he was just 3, Stephens’ mom took him to see his first play at Fantasy Playhouse Children’s Theater in Huntsville. He participated in his first production at age 10 and continued to act through middle and high school. Stephens says he has seen 30 Broadway plays so far.

“I can’t call a favorite, but I’ve seen ‘Cats’ and ‘Wicked’ four times each,” he says. “If it’s not the first thing you think of when you wake up in the morning, you need to find something else to do.”

Passionate about theater for most of his life, Stephens decided on a theater major with a built-in minor in music and dance his freshman year at UA. Halfway through his first semester, he discovered something else about his love for show business—his ability to arrange music.

“I started [arranging music] last fall when I wasn’t happy about some piano songs I was doing in voice. So, I used music editing software to change them myself,” Stephens says. “Basically, I adjusted the songs to my taste.”

Russell Stephens Russell Stephens was only 3 when he first sat in the audience to watch a play. (Samantha Hernandez)

He began his second arrangement while recovering from wisdom teeth extraction during Christmas break. With post-surgery time on his hands, Stephens developed the idea to adapt his own version of a play in addition to arranging the music—he chose renowned musical, “A Little Night Music.”

“It’s a very complicated musical in every aspect,” Stephens says. “I wanted to make it more approachable for a modern audience—to take some of the colloquialisms that were specific to that time and modernize them.”

“Night Music,” with music and lyrics written by composer Stephen Sondheim, is well-known for its song, “Send in the Clowns.” It was this song from the play that Stephens focused on adapting. By January of 2009, Stephens had rewritten a cello piece for “Clowns” and was able to perform it for his peers in the theater department.

Although Stephens never implemented his final script changes to the play, the preliminary stages of adapting a musical were valuable experiences for him, he says. Dissecting the show and studying the transition of a classic script to a modern audience is something he says he will use in upcoming projects.

Seth Panitch, assistant professor in the theater department, says it is impressive that a student would already be attempting such a project so early in his career. Panitch has worked with Stephens through his time so far at UA.

“Stephens is a very mature student in the department. Very daring with his acting work,” Panitch says. “To work on challenges now helps not only with his work today, but he has already established projects that he can revisit later in his career.”

Currently, Stephens has adapted a new project to utilize his creative energy. A sort of “senior project” he will work on throughout his next two and a half years at UA, Stephens will prepare a condensed version of the chamber musical “ADD1NG MACH1NE.”

Joshua Schmidt, composer of “ADD1NG MACH1NE,” has given Stephens legal permission to produce his own version of a scene to perform at UA. His version will include a seven-person cast and three-piece orchestra.

“The actor who is able to construct their own vehicle is the actor who is going to be seen and eventually hired due to that higher visibility,” Panitch says.

And Stephens is gaining that higher visibility every day.

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Sarah Caroline Willcox is a senior at The University of Alabama, majoring in public relations, with a minor in English. She is from Birmingham.

This story is part of the Find Your Passion feature section of the UA home page. For more stories, please visit Find Your Passion or Crimson Spotlight. To learn more about how you can find your passion at The University of Alabama, please visit UA Undergraduate Admissions.