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Susan Russell: Impacting Penn State Through Dialogue, Dignity, And Education

Dr. Susan Russell is a woman of many trades, leading lives as an actor, laureate, playwright, public speaker, and professor at Penn State’s School of Theatre. You might be familiar with the festival Russell founded, Cultural Conversations. Maybe you’ve attended a stop on her Dignity Tour. Or perhaps you’ve listened to the lecture she gave at New Student Convocation. Her career has spanned cities, stages, offices, and campuses nationwide. No matter the medium, though, Russell’s work utilizes its result as a method for social change.

“I’ve always known that storytelling was the way in to a kid and an adult, whether it be through poetry, through a play, through a song, through a narrative. Storytelling is who we are,” Russell said, and her works embody that. We sat down with her to catalogue the life and career of one of Penn State’s leading women.

Early Life

Russell was born in 1959 in Greensboro, North Carolina to an opera singer and a World War II veteran. “I was born in a rehearsal room,” Russell said. “I was raised with music all around me.” Her mother owned an opera company, and her father designed lingerie.

“Entertainers are the core cultural fabric of every town,” she explained. “Everyone sings, everyone speaks, everyone thinks. It would be hard to find a community that is not built around music and theatre.”

“I had a pretty extraordinary upbringing at a very difficult time in this country,” Russell said. The Civil Rights Act was not signed into law until 1964, and the Voting Rights Act in 1965. For a portion of Russell’s adolescence, racial segregation was legal, and mandated in public facilities by Jim Crow laws. The Tar Heel state was one of 11 still heavily under the influence of Civil War-era politics.

Russell's hometown was home to the famous Greensboro sit-ins
Russell’s hometown was host to the famous Greensboro sit-ins. (Photo: Smithsonian)

“I was raised in the rural South by very forward-thinking white adults who did not believe in the kind of world that had defined our country prior to the Civil Rights movement. It was difficult in the South to be the children of forward-thinking adults.”

Considering her liberal parents and current success in a rather lively field, I envisioned Russell as a boisterous youth, on the yard organizing a performance and directing actors. However, she described her upbringing as “nondescript.” The self-described introverted underachiever was not involved in her school, and had no obvious interest in the arts. She did sing in the church choir and play piano, but she spent much of adolescence outside, on the farms or in the mountains. “I was a typical teenager in a situation where I was not interested in what was being taught to me,” she said.

However, Russell’s nonchalant attitude only lasted until her sophomore year of high school. Her high school drama teacher handed her a play by Ayn Rand titled Night of January 16th, a courtroom drama. “I was antagonistic, I was a poser, I was a tough kid and I didn’t want to do a stupid play,” she said, but upon reading it, she caught herself laughing out loud.

“There was a funny character,” she remembered, a witness named Roberta. The drama teacher offered Russell the part, “and I was done.”

Her love for theatre grew, and Russell began working professionally at 16 years old. Her mother would drive her to local auditions, and during the summer, she would go away for “summer stocks,” shows that were produced only in the summer. “I had both the guidance and the protection of my mother, who was a professional in the field,” she said, “and if I wouldn’t listen to her, she would find mentors for me that I would listen to.”

Russell graduated high school in 1975 and enrolled at St. Andrews Presbyterian College, a small liberal arts school in North Carolina. The only theatre major in her class of 75 students, she participated heavily in the school’s productions. She recalled that “there was a vibrant theatre program, but everyone did the theatre program. Soccer players, chemical engineers, computer people, French majors, everybody did the theatre at this school. I just took a specialized course of study that would allow me to have the rigorous academic background I needed.”

St Andrews in 1967
St Andrews in 1967 (Photo:

Upon her graduation from St. Andrews in 1979, Russell attended graduate school at Florida State University. Much like her undergraduate experience, Russell was the only graduate student with the intention of studying theatre. FSU’s MFA musical theatre program was created by Russell’s mentor, Richard Fallon, specifically for her. “That’s how we used to roll in education,” she said. Never one to follow the beaten path, Russell left school on the cusp of graduation in 1981. “I decided to move to New York, and be a star.”

Acting Career

At 22 years old, Russell drove to New York City and began auditioning for shows. The odds of making it in the city on Broadway are as slim as can be, so in an effort to support her acting career, Russell picked up various office jobs. Somewhat surprisingly, she found great success in the corporate world. “Because I had a degree in theatre, I was a commodity,” she recalled. “People fought over me in my temp jobs.” Eventually, Russell was hired full time as an office assistant and stopped acting. “Those jobs are taken, and somebody has to make a move for you to slip in.”

In addition to her career aspirations, The Big Apple also took a toll on her mental health. “I could not survive in there. It made me nervous, it made me anxious,” she said. “I was not happy. I was just living a life I was not prepared to live yet.” And so, after eight months in New York, Russell decided to try her luck in Atlanta, Georgia.

The theatre world in the South was less competitive, and Russell was capable of making a living without having to work a full time desk job. During her time in Atlanta, she frequently traveled to Florida, and officially moved to Tallahassee, home of her would-be alma mater, in 1987.

In the Sunshine State, Russell continued to sing and act for a number of years through the early 1990s, but also began working in the school systems, teaching behaviorally challenged students. She would use Shakespeare’s Hamlet to “help them speak their truths.”

Russell’s acting in Florida was consistent, but like any actor, there were a few blunders along the way. While living in Florida, she had her most embarrassing on-stage experience in Jeff Daniels’ Shoe Man. “It was so bad,” Russell said, talking about how she struggled with the portrayal of her character, a mentally unstable gold wife.

“I couldn’t ever figure her out, so I began doing tricks of the trade to distract from the fact that I didn’t know what in the heck I was doing,” she said. Things wouldn’t have been so bad though, had Daniels, the playwright and movie star, not came to see it. “He came up to me after the show and he shook my hand and he said ‘I’ve never heard anyone talk so fast before in my life,’ that’s all he said. I’ve carried that with me for years.”

Courtesy of the Boca Raton News
Photo: Boca Raton News

The Great Broadway Story

Though Russell’s turn in Shoe Man was a low point, she continued to practice acting unfazed. In the late 1990s, Russell decided to start working again towards her original goal. “I decided that I wanted my big dream, to do Phantom of the Opera, on Broadway,” she said.

She traveled to New York to take a year off and prepare, and when it came time for the audition, she nailed it, and got the part. The initial job was for Phantom’s San Francisco company, so Russell spent a year in California in 1998. But by the end of 1999, Russell was officially cast as one of three understudies for the lead in Phantom’s New York theatre.

Russell moved back to the East Coast and began rehearsing as Carlotta, the opera diva. On opening night, January of 2000, the principal and the two other Carlotta understudies fell through. The stage manager, Craig Jacobs, called Russell into his office over the loudspeaker. “Craig looked at me and said very calmly, ‘So, shall we do this?’ He showed no fear, only confidence in me. I looked at him in his strength and said ‘Absolutely.’ I had to go on.”

“It’s the great Broadway story,” she said. In under three hours, wigs were made and costumes pulled in preparation for her Broadway debut in New York’s Majestic Theatre. With only one rehearsal under her belt, “like a nightmare inside a dream,” she stepped out on stage. “The orchestra started and I’m the first thing they see, and I began the greatest two and a half hours in my life,” she said.

Screen Shot 2015-04-12 at 9.20.16 PM
Theatre World: 2002-2003

“All I could do was say the words, sing the notes, and stay in the present tense.”

Russell, the “little sister” of the theatre, shared her excitement with the entire Phantom family. ”All the air had been sucked out of the theatre ‘cause they were there with me, and we were swimming in untold seas. There were men on the fly rail two stories up, hanging over giving me these high fives, in silence. There were ballerinas twirling in the wings in happy support. By the end of the show the company was manic with excitement,” she said.

At curtain call, after Russell had already bowed, the lead, Phantom, “came walking out for his final bow and he walked over and got me and brought me down. That’s probably still the best night of my life.”

From Performance to Service 

Russell continued to work with the Broadway show until the entire city was put on hold after 9/11. She witnessed the transition New York City went through in the aftermath of the attack, and what she saw was life changing. “What isn’t talked about a lot is the great humanity that that city showed all of us,” Russell said. “It was an extraordinary moment for Manhattan.”

“We were in such a state of shock that we forgot to be afraid of each other,” she recalled. “People would stop and sob in the street and strangers would come and put their arms around them. Cab drivers would give you a ride for free anywhere you wanted to go. People lining up to give blood, people going downtown to the site to sing to the first responders. I have never seen anything like it in my life.”

“I saw an example of us at our worst standing right next to us and I began staring at New Yorkers and going, ‘This is what we do the best. We help each other.’”

Russell reconsidered her life on Broadway, and reassessed her goals as an artist. “I began wondering how I could serve, as apposed to how I could preform,” she said.

Her transition would be halted, however, when in November of the same year, Russell suffered from a stroke. Back in Tallahassee, she fought to recover by practicing more low-key activities. “I am 100 percent recovered but I’m also 100 percent different,” she said. “When you have been at the edge of the chasm, what’s there to phase you?”

Russell had her health back, but the stroke took her ability to sing. Her mindset had already pivoted two months earlier after the nation’s tragedy, but her choices had now narrowed.

The Road to Penn State

In early 2002, Russell officially left the Majestic Theatre and decided to dedicate her life to service. More specifically, she wanted to serve by doing what that she had loved to do since her twenties: teach. Russell went back to Florida State University and, in 2008, earned her MA PhD in Theatre.

By April 2006, Russell had completed the bulk of her work at the university, with the exception of her dissertation, and was searching for teaching opportunities. She was invited to speak at a ceremony that celebrated her former mentor, the director of FSU’s School of Theatre, Richard Fallon. Also in attendance at the ceremony was Dan Carter, Director of Penn State’s School of Theatre.

After Russell’s speech, Carter approached her: “He said ‘Hi, you talk like we teach, I wish I had a job for you.’” Two weeks later, Carter called Russell and offered her a year-long appointment with the musical theatre department.

Russell visited University Park, and “fell in love with the campus, fell in love with the faculty, fell in love with all of it.” Russell took the position, and applied for a tenure position within her first year. After going “through the rigors of every application in academia,” Russell was accepted.

“This was the longest audition of my life,” Russell said. She received tenure in 2013, her seventh year at Penn State.

After moving to State College, Russell began looking for ways to begin serving the community. She noticed that there was not “an engagement with new work that dealt with the social issues of the students on a day to day basis.” In an effort to provide these conversations, Russell created Cultural Conversations in 2007. The festival is the only one of its kind, utilizing various methods of storytelling to foster new works that promote and encompass themes of diversity.

College of Arts and Architecture's, Cultural Conversations
College of Arts and Architecture’s, Cultural Conversations

Penn State’s Laureate and the Dignity Tour

In March of 2014, Russell was named Penn State’s Laureate for the 2014-2015 school year. The position, established in 2008, exists to bring greater visibility to the arts at the university.

Russell’s challenge as a laureate was to choose a trait that everyone desired. “The word ‘dignity’ has brought students, faculty, staff, administration, community members, of every generation into rooms, where we have all sat together in peace,” she said.

In accordance with her work as laureate, Russell travels to various Penn State campuses and Pennsylvania communities on her “Dignity Tour.” The tour, bringing together groups as small as ten and as large as five hundred, empowers participants to recognize the potential they have as contributors in the human experience.

“My job as an educator and speaker is to help you change the comment-based culture you live in, to one that contributes to the health and the welfare of everyone on the planet,” Russell said. And while she admits that this “sounds like a giant task,” she breaks it down very simply: “It is really a moment-to-moment attention to how you are living your life.”

The first step in this undertaking is participants having the willingness to listen to one another and communicating “the things we need to feel dignified.” In addition, she encourages attendants to make eye contact with others and to remove the use of derogatory language from personal usage. These behavioral methods remind the engaged that we are all human, and that “we are all in it together.”

Russell working with Schreyer students on her Dignity Tour, courtesy of
Russell working with Schreyer students on her Dignity Tour, courtesy of

“We are attracted to separating ourselves from the very person sitting next to you. We have forgotten the essential things that have brought us together,” she said. “This tour is about reintroducing the possibilities to being human, and human requires connection to people.”

The current generation of college students are in a very unique position in the context of Russell’s work. There is an increasing number of barriers that “separate” us, specifically the integration of technology in our daily lives — but, we can also make this work to our advantage.

“Your generation is extraordinarily powerful, because you have taken the glacial pace of cultural change, and sped it up to the speed of technology,” she said.

Russell cited various protests that Penn State students have organized as a focal point that defines our generation. “The people standing in front of Old Main saying, ‘This is how we will define ourselves in the 21st century,’ that’s what’s great about what’s happening here,” Russell said. “And the power that you have as students is the power you will create your culture with.”

“The experiment called the United States of America runs 24/7, with our without your conscious collaboration. Why not experiment with contributing to your culture instead of letting it choose for you.”

What’s To Come

Just this past February, Russell staged 2015’s student-driven Cultural Conversations, the topic of which was “Who Am I To Judge?” The festival will return in 2016, themed around global health.

Russell has plans to continue her Dignity Tour to the end of this academic school year. In addition to being the laureate, Russell is also an accomplished playwright and has a play in the works that will debut at the Penn State School of Theatre in 2018.

“Let’s create the world we are really capable of living in,” Russell said, “which is as peaceful, as supportive, as possible.”

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About the Author

Claire Marchon

Contributor for Onward State, from the San Fransisco, Bay Area. I am probably the biggest Simon & Garfunkel fan you've ever met; I might also be the only Simon & Garfunkel fan under 50 you've ever met. Either way I think it is very important you know I love Simon & Garfunkel.

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