Award-Winning Writer Susan Miller’s New Play Debuts Off-Broadway

Susan Figlin Miller does not keep a journal. She doesn’t ​jot down or​ record interesting tidbits of conversations she might hear on the subway in New York, or at Webster’s Bookstore Café in downtown State College, where she wrote portions of her new play, 20th Century Blues.

“Once I put words down on a page,” says Miller ’65 Lib, “a story hopefully takes on its own original life.”

Sound easy? Well, perhaps so for a prolific and award-winning author, who has written not just for the stage, but for television (Miller was a writer for the ABC series Thirtysomething), the movies (she wrote the screenplay for a short film called The Grand Design, starring Six Feet Under’s Frances Conroy) and the web (her indie web series Anyone but Me—which airs on Youtube and Hulu—has been viewed over 50 million times).

20th Century Blues, directed by two-time Obie award winner and Tony award-nominee Emily Mann, is Miller’s most recent play, and it begins performances at the Signature Theatre in New York on Nov. 12, running until Jan. 28. The play recounts the story of four women, friends for many years, who meet once a year to have their pictures taken in a ritual that chronicles their changing selves as they navigate life—its rewards and challenges. But when it transpires that those private pictures could go public, their decades-long, tight-knit relationships are suddenly tested, forcing the four women to confront their past and prepare for their future.

“This play is called 20th Century Blues because I don’t think any of us are really living in the 21st century yet,” Miller says. “These women lived most of their lives in the previous century. And the things that happened then, seemed to happen in a way that gave us space and time to absorb the huge impact of what had occurred—World War II, the Army-McCarthy Hearings, the fight for Civil Rights, AIDs. Now, because of the 24-hour news cycle and social media, and the awareness of global tragedy, there is no time to take it all in or heal from it.”

In her body of work, Miller has taken on the big themes—race, gender relations, sexuality, communication— and she’s also focused on what she calls “otherness:” She creates characters that, for one reason or another, fall out of the mainstream (one of the four women in 20th Century Blues is African-American and gay), and she places those characters in situations that are unexpected, situations that force them to think about who they are, how they came to be who they are, how they relate to the people around them. And how the world sees or should see them.

“I feel like our country is still very much in denial of otherness—whether that’s race or culture or just people who are uniquely different,” Miller says. “One of the only ways I think that the fear of otherness can be overcome is to define it and then transform it into something human, because we all participate in this world. It’s something important to me that somehow runs through 20th Century Blues and in my other work.”

Miller wrote her first play, No One is Exactly 23, when she was 23 years old and teaching high school in Carlisle, Pa. She won an Obie award in playwriting, and the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, for her autobiographical, one-woman play My Left Breast.

Miller and cast

Susan Miller and the cast of 20th Century Blues

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November 10, 2017 at 10:25 am Leave a comment

Tyler Smith, A True Basketball Globetrotter

Our Nov./Dec. 17 issue includes an item on a new book by former Nittany Lion basketball player Tyler Smith, who spent much of his career overseas chasing a professional basketball contract. As you might guess, the extensive traveling involved in such a venture could lend itself to stories, and Smith ’02 has some pretty good ones. He detailed most of them in emails home to family and friends—having to take toilet paper to away games, playing on odd surfaces, and 30-hour bus trips one way just to get to games. It all lent itself to a pretty good outline for a book.

And so Smith compiled them all into just that: Called for Traveling: My Nomadic Life Playing Pro Basketball Around the World was released in October by Sports Publishing. “People seemed to get a kick out of the stories,” Smith said when we caught up with him by phone recently. “I loved hearing them kind of laugh through their emails.”

Smith’s LinkedIn profile tells the story. On it is a line: “Pro Basketball Player, 2002­–2013.” Under locations it lists Holland, Italy, Uruguay, Argentina, Utah Jazz, NBA D-League, Japan, and Thailand. “It’s such an unorthodox lifestyle—you’re in these foreign countries, you don’t speak the language, sometimes teams don’t pay you, you’re away from everybody and everything you know,” Smith said. “People wouldn’t believe some of the stuff that happens. They think, ‘Ohh, it’s traveling the world, and living this amazing life.’ Sometimes we have some pretty cool experiences and sometimes you’re bringing your own toilet paper to away games.”

He counts playing in Holland and Italy among the better experiences he had. Then there was Argentina: “I took a 30-hour bus ride, one-way, to play a game. They brought two bus drivers because we’d just drive as long as we could until one of them had to pull over and have a smoke.”

“I played in Uruguay three times, and the first time I went down there was the most shocking because there’s 16 teams in the league, and only four of them had wooden-floor courts,” he said. “It was like some kind of concrete or a tile or I don’t even know what you call it—you’re sliding all over the place. One time we were playing a game and my point guard wasn’t running back on defense and our coach is yelling at him and he says he can’t, his shoe is stuck in the floor. There, literally, was a hole in the floor and his shoe got caught in it.”

Still, Smith considers himself lucky to have had the experiences over an 11-year playing career. But the nomadic lifestyle is still in him: Smith has spent the past four years working as a medical device sales representative, still travelling across states to consult on medical equipment and prosthetic implants.

As for the book, “You don’t have to be a hardcore basketball junkie to like this book,” he says. “There’s a little bit of everything in there. I talk about family and bringing my kids with me—that adds a whole new element of challenge to the journey—and talking about my faith. I don’t know if anybody other than the three ladies in my mom’s book club are gonna read it, but if nothing else it’ll be down on paper and I can show it to my daughters.”

B.J. Reyes, associate editor

 

 

 

 

November 7, 2017 at 10:58 am 2 comments

Special Agent Timothy McGee Pays a Visit

Sean Murray and his mom, Vivienne Bellisario, with Penn State President Eric Barron and his wife, Molly. Photo by John Beale.

Penn State rolled out the red carpet for Don Bellisario ’61 and his family last weekend, honoring the Hollywood producer and screenwriter (NCIS; JAG; Magnum, P.I.) for his $30 million gift to the academic unit now known as the Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications.

When the college posted a collection of photos from the weekend to Facebook, one face in particular jumped out at me: Sean Murray, who plays Special Agent Timothy McGee on my absolute favorite TV show, NCIS. Murray happens to be Bellisario’s stepson; he’s the son of Bellisario’s wife, Vivienne.

Sean Murray (via Twitter)

It turns out that Bellisario brought 48 family members for the festivities at Penn State last weekend. (Another celebrity offspring in the group was Bellisario’s daughter from a previous marriage, Troian, who starred in the TV series Pretty Little Liars.) The events included the official dedication of the Bellisario College on Friday, a ceremony at halftime of the Penn State/Michigan game on Saturday night, and a recognition dinner on Sunday night.

The Bellisario entourage also got a bus tour of campus and town, so they could see some of their patriarch’s roots—including a house on West Prospect Avenue where Bellisario once lived. By coincidence, the dean of the college, Marie Hardin, later owned and lived in the same house.

It’s just fun to know that Special Agent McGee got to see our campus, had his picture taken at the Nittany Lion Shrine, and watched the Lions’ spectacular White-Out win over Michigan from the president’s suite in Beaver Stadium. You can see him—and, of course, his famous stepfather—in the photos by John Beale on Facebook.

Tina Hay, editor

October 27, 2017 at 9:47 am Leave a comment

A Blue-White Weigh-in

Illustration via Corrine Furjanic

Weigh-offs before a mixed martial arts fight have a reputation for lots of posturing, stare-downs and the occasional scuffle. School spirit, not so much. But before his January 2012 fight against Rashad Evans, light heavyweight Phil Davis ’08 stepped on the scale wearing a Penn State singlet, the kind he would have worn as a four-time all-American and 2008 national champion for the Nittany Lions.

“It was a time where we needed a little morale,” said Davis during a promotional visit to Happy Valley ahead of the Bellator MMA promotion’s debut in the Bryce Jordan Center. Davis, along with three-time national champion Ed Ruth ’14, will be fighting Nov. 3 on a Spike-televised event from the same arena that would be packed to the rafters when they wrestled. As he prepares for a homecoming in the cage, the time seems right to bring the singlet back. “I might have to get a hold of one of those fatigue ones, man. That was sick,” says Davis, referring to the blue and white digi camo singlet that makes occasional appearances on the mat. “We’ll have to talk to somebody.”

The light heavyweight, known for donning pink shorts in the cage, said he appreciates the individualism afforded a fighter, mixing it with the team-first mentality of his college days. “Our values are that the basic blue and white, and uniformity is how we achieve together,” he said. “No names on the back. That’s who we are. Penn State, the wrestling singlet was unchanged for 100 years, and on our 100th-year anniversary we went from a blue singlet with white writing—get this, it’s going to get crazy—to a white singlet with blue writing. And that was living on the wild side. … I feel like I come to love and appreciate that mindset, and then take that forward with me into the world. But also, I think it’s fun to showcase my uniqueness and character a little bit. But not too much personality.”

There’s more on Davis and Ruth and their transition to the MMA cage in our Nov./Dec. 2017 issue, already arriving in mailboxes.

Bill Zimmerman, special to PennStaterMag.com

October 26, 2017 at 2:33 pm Leave a comment

Denis Smirnov’s Unwavering Commitment to Penn State Hockey

Photo via Cardoni

Denis Smirnov is very good at hockey. Based on the fact that he has a scholarship to play in college and rewrote Penn State’s record book during his first year in Hockey Valley, this is fairly obvious. But even by those standards, Smirnov is the kind of hockey player who can suit up anywhere in the world. Don’t take our word for it—just ask the two professional teams that have drafted him over the last three years.

Smirnov, a native of Moscow, was drafted by HK Sochi in the first round of the 2014 Kontinental Hockey League Draft. (The KHL is Russia’s top professional hockey league and is considered the second-best league in the world behind only the NHL.)

Three years later, after completing perhaps the best individual season in Penn State’s (still young) hockey history, Smirnov was driving back to Happy Valley after flying from Russia to New York. He received a FaceTime call from his best friend back home, who let him know that he was just taken by the Colorado Avalanche in the sixth round of the 2017 NHL Entry Draft.

At first, he didn’t believe it—Smirnov says that he’d joke with this particular friend all the time about eventually making it to the NHL, and he figured this was just another example of his friend pulling his leg, even as his friend was adamant that he would be “on the line with (Avalanche star and captain Gabriel) Landeskog.”

Eventually, he got a text from Nittany Lion teammate Erik Autio and a call from the Avalanche, who invited him out to development camp.

Smirnov has had the opportunity to play professionally twice, in the two best leagues in the world, and achieve a dream that every hockey player with professional aspirations strives for. He even says that, while he tries to focus on the present as much as possible, “every player’s dream, probably, is to play in the NHL.”

But despite the fact that he could have the opportunity to achieve that dream, Smirnov has decided to stick with Penn State.

Coming back after getting picked by the Avalanche—who will own his rights up until a few months after he graduates college—wasn’t a tough decision, as he sat down with the franchise and decided it was best for his development if he returned to State College.

His decision in 2014 was a little more difficult, as Smirnov was playing for the Indiana Ice of the USHL at that time. He was a Penn State commit, and ultimately decided that coming to Happy Valley was the best thing for him as a player.

Photo via Cardoni

“In the back of my mind, I always thought Penn State was the right place for me,” Smirnov recalls. “I decided to talk to family, and we all agreed on Penn State.”

Smirnov’s first year in Hockey Valley came after stints with lower-level teams in Wilkes-Barre, Indianapolis, and Fargo. During his freshman campaign in 2016-17, Smirnov led the nation in freshman scoring with 47 points, set program records in points and assists, and set the freshman program record with 19 goals. He also had a 10-game point streak to kick off his career, another program record.

This all happened during a historic season for Penn State hockey, in which the Lions won the Big Ten and made the NCAA Tournament for the first time. Smirnov remembers the moment he realized the team could be special—right after a series in South Bend against Notre Dame that featured a tie and a win in overtime—which led to a hot streak and, eventually, the first No. 1 ranking in program history.

He also remembers how the environment around the program changed once the team climbed the rankings. “It was exciting around the rink, it was a different environment when we were ranked first,” Smirnov says. “Everyone was happy, it was kind of distracting at first, and we probably deserved to be first because we played well. It was fun.”

Smirnov knows the team will get everyone’s best punch this year since they’re the reigning conference champions. He worked towards improving every aspect of his game during the offseason—unsurprisingly, he says he has more fun when the team is winning.

Through six games, Penn State is 3-3-0 on the year and Smirnov has accrued four goals and six assists. The Nittany Lions will take the ice for a two-game weekend series against Michigan this week, with the first game taking place at 7 p.m. on Friday night at Pegula.

Bill DiFilippo, online editor

October 26, 2017 at 11:33 am Leave a comment

Inside Our November/December 2017 Issue

You may have come from thousands of miles away, or from the nearest town over, but nothing quite compares to arriving on campus for the first time. Whether you were nervous to meet your roommate, excited to be on your own, or sad saying goodbye to family and friends, most of us probably remember that day.

We wanted to see what incoming students today thought of the experience, so we sent photographers to five Penn State campuses on arrival weekend to get up close with students—new and returning—and capture them in their element: suitcases, boxes, duffel bags, and lots of cheap plastic storage bins. The feature begins on p. 28.

Also inside, we take you back to a time of great transition and tension in the world, and particularly on campus, as the college transitioned into a military training camp during World War I. The story is told through the love letters between Norman Lake ’22 and Helen Gladys Keller, his then-girlfriend whom he would later marry. Their story begins on p. 40.

And you’ll meet David Titley ’80, a retired Navy admiral and atmospheric expert who has become a prominent voice on climate change as a national security threat.

Plus we’ll take you to the scene of the first away pregame tailgate, hosted by the Alumni Association, and introduce you to Denis Smirnov, the Russian hockey phenom who turned down the chance to play in a top Russian pro league and the NHL to play for the Nittany Lions.

Our Nov./Dec. 2017 issue should be arriving in mailboxes soon. Let us know what you think at heypennstater@psu.edu.

B.J. Reyes, associate editor

October 25, 2017 at 11:18 am 2 comments

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