Theatre Professor Susan Russell named Penn State laureate for 2014-15

By Amy Marshall
March 04, 2014

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Susan Russell, associate professor of theatre, has been named the Penn State laureate for the 2014-15 academic year. She succeeds 2013-14 Penn State Laureate Kenneth Womack, senior associate dean for Academic Affairs and professor of English and integrative arts at Penn State Altoona.

The Penn State laureate, an honorary position established in 2008, is a full-time faculty member in the humanities or the arts who is assigned half-time for one academic year to bring an enhanced level of social, cultural, artistic and human perspective and awareness to a broad array of audiences. The individual appears at University events at Penn State campuses and throughout the state at various community programs in hopes of adding a more human dimension to the conduct of the usual affairs and business of these locations.

As laureate, Russell plans to highlight, promote and enhance the programs at Penn State and in surrounding communities that work to address the many social challenges faced by young people.

“I will speak about various languages of creativity, and how these languages can bridge communication gaps between diverse cultures and disciplines,” she said. “And I will work diligently to open dialogues between our campuses and communities that will foster, promote and maintain an environment where everyone — students and citizens alike — learns, experiences and creates.”

Russell was selected by President Rodney Erickson following a recommendation by the review committee. The committee, chaired by Blannie Bowen, vice provost for Academic Affairs, included David Christiansen, associate vice president and senior associate dean for academic programs in the Office of the Vice President for Commonwealth Campuses; Barbara Korner, dean of the College of Arts and Architecture; Ryan McCombie, a member of the Board of Trustees; Christopher Staley, distinguished professor of art in the College of the Liberal Arts and the  2012-13 Penn State laureate; Bonj Szczygiel, associate professor of landscape architecture and women's studies in the College of Arts and Architecture; and Susan Welch, dean of the College of the Liberal Arts.

“Susan Russell’s commitment to diversity awareness through the performing arts has fostered meaningful dialogue far beyond the classroom. She has served as a cultural ambassador and advocate at the University Park campus and in the State College community, and as the Penn State laureate she will be able to share similar exchanges across the University and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania,” Erickson said.

Russell uses her skills as an actor, stage director, playwright, author and speaker to advocate for human rights. In 2007, soon after joining the Penn State faculty, she founded Cultural Conversations, a new works festival devoted to issues of local and global diversity. The only university festival of its kind in the United States, the weeklong event features new artworks by Penn State School of Visual Arts students, new dance pieces choreographed by students and faculty, and new plays written by local and international playwrights. The core programming of Cultural Conversations is Body Language, a storytelling and performance program that has brought middle school, high school and university students together with community members to talk about the social issues that define growing up in the 21st century.

Russell’s books, “Body Language: Cultural Conversations Reaching Out and Reaching In” and “Body Language: Stop the Violence/Start the Conversation,” are texts designed to offer day-by-day templates for school systems on how to use playwriting, media and public performance to explore issues that affect middle and high school students.

Russell graduated summa cum laude with a doctorate in theatre studies from Florida State University in 2008. She received her undergraduate degree in theatre from St. Andrews Presbyterian College in Laurinburg, N.C., in 1979. Between educational pursuits, she experienced a 25-year career as a professional actor on and off Broadway — including five years in the Broadway production of “Phantom of the Opera” — in regional theatre and at opera companies across the country.

As a professional playwright, her works “Olympia” (1998) and “Present Perfect” (1999) have been produced by Lincoln Center and the Emerging Artist Theatre in New York City. Her play “Severe Clear” was a semifinalist in the 2006 O’Neill Theatre Center Playwriting Competition, and her 2009 play “Écoute: Pieces of Reynaldo Hahn” toured 40 venues in the United States, starring Penn State School of Music faculty member Norman Spivey. Russell recently initiated a collaboration between the School of Theatre’s bachelor of arts program and Penn State’s Office of Student Affairs to produce student-generated films on drinking and sexual assault, and the first of these films will be shown to the first-year student class of 2017.

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 in 2013. Also in 2013, she was selected as one of the “Faces of Penn State.” A popular speaker and academic presenter, Russell has spoken to local, national and international audiences about “how to make choices that make change, and how to make change make sense.”

For more details about current and past Penn State laureates, visit Additional information about the Penn State laureate program is available at

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Last Updated March 04, 2014