The Artistry of Being Human

Associate Professor of Theatre Susan Russell's contributions as the Penn State Laureate have opened a dialogue among Penn Staters and beyond about dignity and humanity.

After a yearlong nomination and selection process, Susan Russell, associate professor of theatre in the College of Arts and Architecture, was named the 2014-15 Penn State Laureate. To serve as the University Laureate means to commit to a full academic year of spreading a message to students, faculty, and staff across the University and the state of Pennsylvania. 

With a focus on the concept of dignity, Russell has committed to sparking conversations among diverse cultures and disciplines. By the end of the academic year, she will have visited all campuses in the Penn State system as part of her Dignity Tour. As the laureate, she also works with the Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence, the Penn State Commission for Women, and other groups on campus.

Penn State Laureate Susan Russell speaks with an audience.

Susan Russell speaks with an audience

Susan Russell talks to attendees at a Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence event. This is just one of the many events, in addition to her campus Dignity Tour, that connects her with the Penn State community. 

Image: Michelle Bixby

Q: The description of the Penn State Laureate's position is to "bring an enhanced level of social, cultural, artistic, and human perspective and awareness." What exactly does that mean to you?

Susan Russell: I think the greatest challenge for a culture is to decide how the artistry of being human integrates itself into conversations about race, gender, sexuality, sexual orientation, politics, religion—all the 'isms' that we face on a daily basis. The artistry of being human is the highest form of art that we can practice. To be able to take this kind of artistry of living on a moment-to-moment basis with people who look different than you, who speak differently than you, or who are from different backgrounds, this has been my goal as laureate this year.

Q: What inspired you to accept the nomination and make the commitment to the role of laureate? 

SR: My life on this campus has been about outreach. I've used my skills as a communicator to talk about very difficult issues. To be afforded the opportunity, the privilege, to continue that work across all Penn State campuses—it was like being handed the dream. We have the potential at this University to create a template for how people all over the world live together. 

"We have the potential at this university to create a template for how people all over the world live together."—Susan Russell

Q: The theme of your time as Penn State Laureate is "dignity"; how do you define that? 

SR: The concept of dignity, to me, means coming to the truth that we are all in this together. The practice of that dignity begins with three parts, and I call this The Assignment. The first part is to make eye contact with everyone walking toward you. From eye contact, you risk to say hello. And when you're standing in line or sitting next to someone, actually dare to ask them a question about themselves. The second part is to remove all denigrating and defamatory words from your language. Watching what words fill those places has changed people's lives. And the third part of The Assignment is to choose, as often as you can, not to go to war—with anyone, anywhere. With enough people experimenting in this way, in this University, Penn State will change radically. Every movement of social justice began with a small group of people in a room deciding to change.

Q: In your TEDxPSU talk and elsewhere, you talk about the power of storytelling. How does that relate, for you, to your work around the concept of dignity? 

SR: Everything begins with a story. A story is an equation about circumstances, behaviors, and actions that cultures and people tell in order to let us know who they are. The story of dignity in our country, in race, gender, sexuality, sexual orientation, politics, religion, had a beginning when this country decided that we were based on equality. But dignity is a way of living, and ways of living cannot be legislated. Ways of living are passed down and illustrated by actions we take, and they are maintained by the stories we tell. 

Susan Russell speaking at the Penn State Forum

Susan Russell speaks at Penn State Forum Speaker Series

Susan Russell, associate professor of theatre and 2014-15 Penn State Laureate, spoke Feb. 11 at the Penn State Forum in The Penn Stater Conference Center Hotel. Penn State Forum events are attended by Penn Staters as well as members of the community.

Image: Bill Zimmerman

Q: What purpose does your DIGNITY website serve? 

SR: It is, in action, the change that I'm trying to make, and it will live forever visually as a representation of people all over the world coming together to create a video library of images of us at our best. There are so many images available for young people to see us at our worst. So you come to my website and you'll actually see people at their best, talking about who we could be at our best. I want us to show the planet what we all look like at our most generous, at our most empathetic, at our most loving. 

Q: As you participate in the many activities of the Penn State Laureate, what is the one message that you hope the people in your audience or in your classes take away with them? 

SR: We're all in this together. Obstacles to peace and possibilities are opportunities to look at how we have agreed to live. An obstacle is an agreement. If you have a problem with someone because they have a different color skin, you really have agreed somewhere along the line in your life that that was going to be a problem. If you have a problem with me because I'm gay, you have agreed somewhere along the line that was going to be a problem. Any obstacle you have to someone based on their difference from you is an opportunity for you to look at how you have built your life. 

"I've never been more hopeful that we're about to commit to a way of living on this planet in which we're all going to begin taking care of each other."—Susan Russell

Q: What are the most pressing societal issues today, from your perspective, that you hope Penn State students will help address in their lifetimes? 

SR: I can really whittle it down: it's the attraction to separation. If I can separate myself from you, I can make you so different that you have nothing to do with my life. Lack of communication, racism, gender inequality—all of these things are based on our constant separation from each other. This whole project of dignity is about reconnection. 

Q: How do you respond to cynicism? 

SR: Cynicism is a learned behavior. Come along and learn something different, because cynics are really just scared. They're just uncomfortable. It's my job to make you more comfortable in your own skin. To look at you and say, 'You might just be afraid that you can't do this. Let me show you that you can.' If there's a cynic in my class, that lasts about thirty seconds. The truth about the world is that we are really optimistic. Cynics get their moment, but optimists create cultures.

Susan Russell speaks at a podium in full academic regalia.

Susan Russell welcomes first-year students

Penn State laureate Susan Russell, an associate professor of theatre, provided words of encouragement to the freshman class during the 2014 President's New Student Convocation held Aug. 23 at the Bryce Jordan Center.

Image: Patrick Mansell

Q: Is there anything else you'd like to add? 

SR: I have never been more optimistic, ever, about our possibilities as a species. Because every day, regular people are stepping into their best possible selves and saying, 'We can do better. We can treat people better. We can treat ourselves better.' The rules of life are really simple: if you love yourself, you're going to love other people. I've never been more hopeful that we're about to commit to a way of living on this planet in which we're all going to begin taking care of each other. 

About Susan Russell

Susan Russell, associate professor of theatre in the College of Arts and Architecture, uses her skills as an actor, stage director, playwright, author, and speaker to advocate for human rights. Shortly after joining the Penn State faculty in 2007, she founded Cultural Conversations, a festival devoted to issues of local and global diversity. 

Russell holds a doctorate in theatre studies from Florida State University and an undergraduate degree in theatre from St. Andrews Presbyterian College. Between educational pursuits, she had a 25-year career as a professional actor on and off Broadway—including five years in the Broadway production of "Phantom of the Opera." 

Russell, who teaches playwriting, history of American musical theatre, women in theatre, and graduate literature and criticism seminars in ancient theatre, won the Penn State Commission for Women's Achieving Woman Award in 2012 and the Centre County Youth Service Bureau's Dr. Edward Vogelsong Professional Excellence Award.