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

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

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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