Anna Russell '14 Brings A Community Together Through Theater
The new artistic and managing director at Allentown Public Theater aims to make theater for the people of Allentown and stage performances all over the small Pennsylvanian city.
When she took the helm as artistic and managing director at Allentown Public Theatre (APT), Anna Russell ’14 was clear that the plays she and her small ensemble of writers and actors produced would be for the people of Allentown.
“If you’re not making art that relates to the community you’re serving, then your art is less accessible to that community,” she says. “And if you only do art in one part of town, and someone doesn’t have a car to get there or can’t afford parking, that’s not accessible either.”
To overcome those barriers, APT stages its performances all over the place—in schools, churches, parks, museums, and other public spaces in the small northeastern Pennsylvania city. Recent APT performances have included The Island, about two South African political prisoners (with an underlying commentary on mass incarceration in the United States), while this summer’s children’s play is an adaptation of Peter Pan, set in Allentown, whose characters deal with poverty and single parenting. The group is currently working on a piece about heroin addiction, another relevant local issue, and a summer workshop for kids and monthly play readings are also on the schedule.
APT also had a world premiere at last year’s Philly Fringe Festival with Then Athena. A collaboration between Russell and four other theater artists, Then Athena weaves together the stories of 14 women characters to explore the fraught identity of the “heroine” in modern American mythologies.
APT was founded in 2008 to provide a working venue for actors in a place that had few professional theaters. Russell was hired in 2015 to manage the company, and in addition to writing, acting, and choosing three productions each year, she’s in charge of all business aspects of the organization. Since taking the helm, she has expanded APT’s mission.
“We’re trying to bring art to people who might not experience it otherwise,” she says. “I think that [theater] serves an important community function: to lift a place up.” It’s especially important, says Russell, in a place like Allentown, where poverty and unemployment rates remain high, despite some redevelopment successes.
Raised in Lancaster, Pa., surrounded by cornfields, Russell had never experienced professional theater before she came to Haverford. Originally focused on chemistry and engineering, Russell took a theater history course at Swarthmore and was hooked.
After graduation, she did a yearlong apprenticeship at Touchstone Theatre in Bethlehem, Pa., and was hired soon after at APT. “I always knew I wanted to have my own company and do this kind of work, but I certainly wasn’t anticipating having a company handed to me,” says Russell, smiling. “I’m still learning, but I have a good sense of what I’m doing, and a good network of people willing to help out.”