Author Archive

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

Award-Winning Poet Hopkins Gifts Libraries His Private Collection

Photo via Ellysa Cahoy

Award-winning children’s poet and author Lee Bennett Hopkins recently informed the Penn State University Libraries that he would be giving them his entire personal collection of children’s poetry books, manuscripts, and correspondence.

A small portion of the valuable collection—boxes and boxes stored in Hopkins’ Cape Coral, Fla., home—has already been sent to the Special Collections Library at  University Park, and soon, Karla Schmit, interim head, Education Library and Director of the Pennsylvania Center for the Book, and Ellysa Cahoy, education and behavioral sciences librarian and assistant director for the Pennsylvania Center for the Book, will determine where to house the rest.

Hopkins’ private collection is valued at more than $2 million and comprises, among others, 18,000 children’s poetry books, as well as letters from Dr. Seuss. It’s a significant gift to the Penn State libraries, Schmit says, and will be a huge draw for scholars of children’s literature.

But the gift also cements (more…)

October 18, 2017 at 11:50 am Leave a comment

Conversations Around the Hijab

Photo via Savita Iyer

When Maha Marouan, associate professor of African-American Studies and Women’s Studies, was teaching at the University of Alabama, some of the Muslim female students on campus would come by her office to chat about what was going on in their lives. A number of them wore the Hijab, or head scarf, and they confided in Marouan that more often than not, the scarf invited a certain kind of negative scrutiny that made them feel unwelcome on campus.

Marouan documented the experiences of five of these students in a movie entitled “Voices of Muslim Women in the US South.” Produced by New York-based company Women Make Films, the half-hour documentary examines how Muslim women carve a space for self-expression and identity in a part of the country that often has unflattering views about Islam and Muslims. The United Nations Association of Centre County showed “Voices of Muslim Women in the US South” at Schlow Library on Tuesday, and invited Marouan to facilitate a discussion about her film.

Although the documentary was made in 2013, Marouan believes it is even more relevant today, when many Muslims across the U.S. and on campuses feel unwelcome, if not unsafe. It echoes some of what we heard from Muslim students at Penn State in our March/April 2016 cover story. The film is a good conversation starter, she said, to help counter the prevailing narrative around Muslims, Muslim women and the Hijab.

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September 25, 2017 at 11:33 am Leave a comment

For STEM Companies, Career Fair Offers an Abundance of Potential New Recruits

Photo via Savita Iyer

It was impossible to miss Raychel Frisenda and her friend Brianna Bennett in the melee of formally dressed students thronging the Bryce Jordan Center on Thursday, the third day of Penn State’s annual Fall Career Fair.

Not only had the engineering juniors eschewed the de rigeur suit, their pink (Rachyel) and blue (Brianna) hair set them apart from the crowd.

“Sure, it’s a little intimidating to show up dressed like this and see 4,000 people in suits,” Raychel said with a laugh, “but suits are so not me.”

“I don’t do ties and suits,” Brianna added, “and that’s not going to change, probably not even when I go to work.”

By all accounts, though, attire and hair color are irrelevant to the many companies gathered at the BJC on Thursday, technical recruiting day: Recruiters for these firms said they have positions to fill and they know they can count on Penn State to offer up smart, highly qualified STEM candidates like Reagen Alexich ’16, a chemical engineering major who found her current job at CoverGirl cosmetics at the Career Fair.

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September 20, 2017 at 9:24 am Leave a comment

Got a Few Minutes? Print Out a Short Story

There are three buttons on the brand new Short Story Dispenser at Schlow Library. I press the middle one and wait for it to generate a free story that will apparently take me three minutes to read (the other options are for a minute and five-minute reads).

Within seconds, a story titled “In the Dark” prints out on what looks like a lengthy grocery store receipt. It just happened to be at the top of the three-minute queue at that moment, and that randomness is what makes Short Story Dispensers so cool, says Joseph Salem, associate dean for learning in the university libraries: You just don’t know what you’re going to get when you press whatever button you press.

The dispensers are the brainchild of Grenoble, France-based Short Edition, whose founder reportedly got the idea while standing in front of a traditional vending machine.

Penn State and Schlow Library in State College are the first educational and public libraries, respectively, to offer the dispensers, says Salem, who worked closely on the project with Jill Shockey ’95, marketing and public relations manager for the University Libraries. They’ve been in talks with Short Edition since last fall and arranged for five dispensers to be set up on the University Park campus on May 8. These generate content, which has been translated into English, from the main Short Edition story bank in France.

Now, the libraries are working with Short Edition to create an independent Penn State story bank, to which any student and faculty member will be able to contribute. The stories will be uploaded onto a special website and will, eventually, be readable on mobile devices as well.

“We’re hoping to have stories that are locally relevant and we want to encourage everyone to submit stories,” Salem says. “The exciting part is that our content, once we’ve worked around copyright issues, will also feed into the main Short Edition story bank.”

He believes that the super-short format of the stories appeals to both readers and writers.

“It can be daunting to write a full story that’s so short, but it’s also doable,” he says. “And a lot of people these days don’t have time for concentrated reading over lunch time—we don’t have time to really engage with a novel, and it’s definitely easier to read a short story, engage with it and ponder it over lunch.”

More than 1,200 stories have been printed on campus and at Schlow since the dispensers were first set up, Salem says, and library staff report that people are actively sharing their printouts.

Savita Iyer, senior editor

May 25, 2017 at 11:21 am 1 comment

Alumna’s Coasters for Sexual Assault Awareness Month Underscore Consent is Non-Negotiable

Photo via Kristine Irwin

Throughout the month of April, seven Pittsburgh restaurants have been serving drinks on a special set of coasters designed and donated by Kristine Irwin ’09, a rape survivor and founder of the nonprofit Voices of Hope. The coasters are colorful—they’re fun and playful, even. But on the back, each one carries the dictionary definition of consent, and Irwin hopes the Consent Coaster Campaign will help spread the critical message that consent is a non-negotiable.

Irwin was 19 when she raped by a man she’d worked for the summer before she began college. She had had a few drinks with him, but recalled nothing else when she woke up in a hospital bed the next morning. Still, she considers herself lucky, because on that morning in 2004 when she was thrown out of a car onto an unknown street with no idea of how she got there or that she had been raped, a woman happened to be looking out of her window and called 911.
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April 27, 2017 at 12:52 pm Leave a comment

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