He had decided early in his secondary years he was going to get out of the suburbs, follow his passion and work in theatre and performance.
In the 1970s, he co-founded the Why Not Theatre Company, which produced community-based youth theatre, and was a member and company manager of the Mushroom Troupe, another independent touring troupe performing for young people and community audiences based in inner-metropolitan Melbourne.
Innovative theatre was produced on a shoestring and this period of work laid the foundation for Russell’s expert production management as a visionary and pragmatic creative producer.
With his infectious drive and wildly innovative ideas, Russell engaged Melbourne’s creative community to present festivals, cultural events and outdoor entertainment that brought joy to millions and fuelled Melbourne’s reputation as Australia’s major-events capital.
Many will remember digging their toes into the sand at the Iconic Aussie Beach on the Arts Centre lawn during the Melbourne 2006 Commonwealth Games. It was ideas like this that set Russell’s work apart: he was dedicated to delivering extraordinary projects.
He led teams that created film festivals, food and wine events, DanceSport championships, visual art installations, cultural and indigenous festivals, inspiring hundreds of thousands of locals and visitors to get out and enjoy all Melbourne had to offer.
The City of Melbourne’s Summer Fun in the Parks was a must-do program of free entertainment in the city in the 2000s, while Southgate’s promenade entertainment culminating in massive New Year’s Eve celebrations was developed by Russell along the riverside.
In 2012, he delivered the spectacular The Gladdies bouquet and outdoor illuminations for Arts Centre Melbourne’s re-opening of Hamer Hall.
A career highlight was touring Cho Cho San, the first home-grown Australian musical to reach China. This large-scale puppetry production was originally devised by Handspan Theatre with whom Russell collaborated in his early Mushroom Troupe days.
Russell toured projects and productions throughout Europe, Asia and Australia for Playbox, Strange Fruit, Arts Centre Melbourne and the City of Melbourne. He also delivered a kite festival in Kabul, Afghanistan, indigenous showcases and incubated Melbourne Sister City celebrations with Osaka, Japan, and Tianjin, China.
Through his many overseas connections particularly around Europe, he strove to bring new ways of seeing to his community. A highlight was bringing Belgium physical theatre and musical company D’Irque and Fien to the attention of local audiences and the Australian circus community.
Russell held a graduate diploma in arts and entertainment management from Deakin University and was a member of several boards and panels, including the Polyglot Puppet Theatre Board, Arts Victoria Presenters’ Committee and the City of Port Phillip’s Cultural Development Fund.
In 2014, at just 59 years of age, Russell was diagnosed with posterior cortical atrophy (PCA), a form of dementia. The diagnosis abruptly forced his career to take a back seat and he redirected his energy into advocacy for others. He committed to increasing the community’s awareness and understanding of dementia by sharing his lived experience.
Russell dedicated more than 200 volunteer hours applying his extensive professional background in event management to support Dementia Australia’s activities. He was a member of the 2017 Dementia National Conference “Be the Change” planning committee, the Augmented Reality Project reference committee, the Pitch Project steering committee, the Walking Group planning team and the Dementia Advocates program.
Russell was also an active member of the Lovell Foundation, a younger-onset dementia consumer advocacy organisation. He regularly shared his experience of dementia as a speaker at conferences, summits, and events, and supported others with dementia to have the opportunity to be more independent, physically active and socially connected.
He combined his two worlds as a research consultant for Fremantle Media’s Wentworth scriptwriters and star, Celia Ireland, when her character Lizzie developed symptoms of dementia.
His volunteer and advocacy work contributed to dementia training programs for community aged-care workers and the planning for events and activities to take place in dementia-friendly environments, ensuring the experience was as inclusive as possible for those with dementia.
Russell was a role model for living positively with dementia, demonstrating how individuals with dementia can use lifelong skills and knowledge to continue to contribute to their communities.
In everything he did, Russell was a man of intelligence, integrity, passion and determination. He was committed to making the arts accessible. He remained dedicated to his family, including late parents, siblings, nephew and nieces and partner Suzanne. A much-loved uncle, Russell was focused on care and fun for his extended family and all his friends. This is why he was loved and what he will be remembered for.
Suzanne Olb and Russell Field’s friends contributed to this tribute.