Stephen Terrell, a beloved stage director, choreographer, dancer, actor and singer who was, for a number of years in the 1990s, one of the busiest theater talents in the Seattle area, died July 30 in Milton, Massachusetts, at age 63. The cause of death was a hemorrhagic stroke.
A native of Longview, Texas, Terrell built on such formative experiences as becoming co-founder and resident director of the Texas Shakespeare Festival, a partner with Seattle composer Scott Warrender on staging the off-Broadway spoof “Texas Chainsaw Manicurist,” and a chorus member in Michael Bennett’s original Los Angeles production of “Dreamgirls” to become one of the most sought-after directors and choreographers in the area.
Terrell mounted much-praised productions of “My Fair Lady” and “The Pirates of Penzance” for Village Theatre, “A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine” at the 5th Avenue Theatre, and “Oh, Coward!” at Seattle Repertory Theatre.
“He had such a depth of knowledge” about musical theater, said Richard Gray, a Seattle composer and musical director who collaborated with Terrell on shows at ACT, Seattle Group Theatre and Tacoma Actors Guild, among other companies. “He wore so many hats. He understood music, dancing, acting, design. He knew every element.”
A chance introduction between Warrender and Speight Jenkins, former general director of Seattle Opera, at a dog park led to Warrender writing the Wagner parody “Das Barbecü,” directed by Terrell. That opened more doors for the latter to direct operas in Seattle and other cities.
In 2003, Terrell became head of the musical theater program at Boston’s Emerson College. As tributes on social media by former students and colleagues in Seattle and elsewhere attest, he was among the kindest and most generous of leaders, with a special gift for making casts and crews feel like family.
“He made everybody feel like they were part of creative decisions,” says Gray. “He was one of the most gracious directors I’ve ever worked with.”
“Students have been posting and writing to me about how he changed their lives,” said Neal Lee, Terrell’s husband. “Not just change them as performers, but in how influential he had been on the people they’d become.”
Born April 8, 1957, Terrell was the third of five children, all boys, of Robert and Kathleen Terrell. His father, a veterinarian, frequently appeared in community theater musicals while his mother, a homemaker, painted sets. It was while seeing his father in “Oklahoma!” that young Stephen first became excited about the stage and decided to pursue it. In later years, he directed his father in a production of “Guys and Dolls” for the Texas Shakespeare Festival, an emotionally rewarding experience for both men, Lee said.
Terrell met Lee in 2000, when Lee auditioned for him in New York City. They were married in 2004 in Boston.
“His mother always said the tempo would pick up whenever Stephen came into the room,” said Lee. “It was palpable. There was a magic about him.”
Besides Lee, Terrell is survived by his father and brothers George, Paul, Michael and Russell. Plans for memorials in Longview, Texas, Boston and Seattle are in development. The family requests that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to Massachusetts General Hospital Frontotemporal Disorders Unit (giving.massgeneral.org/ftdunit) or The Actors Fund (actorsfund.org).