Everything is Communication: An Interview with Susan Russell, Penn State Theater
Susan Russell is a master communicator in all things human. She is a theater professor at Penn State University and a communication facilitator for communities in isolation from the world, ranging from middle school students to PhD-wielding scientists to the wisdom elders in our retirement communities. She shared about what it takes to connect with others and to communicate what we really need and think.
Dana: What is communication to you?
Susan: Everything is communication. Everything is relationship. Communication is the exchange between people. If you are not able to communicate the properties of a relationship, how can we expect another person to know who they are, where they are in the conversation, know what their gifts [are] that they can bring to the table?
The great motto I live by is that every human wants to serve, but not everyone knows how to tell what they have to give. We can be verbally creative, visually creative, or physically creative (how we use our bodies in space). Each of those three things are elements of communication, the stream we have to get in to be understood and to understand. This is the summary of the work I’ve done on this campus and in the world as an actor and as a teacher and a communicator and writer.
Dana: What role does communication play in society?
Susan: We need to move towards conversation. The difference of talking to you and conversation is collaborating with you. I’m giving up the control of how this is going to go, and I am being with another human being in present-tense event.
Conversation comes out of ethics. Ethics are the framework for the house you’re building. What I know about my ethics: I’m always going to tell the truth; I’m always going to see you; I’m always going to open a space for you to dialogue with me; part of a collaborative exchange. That doesn’t change no matter what I’m doing. The beautiful thing about ethics is that they are the framework of the house you’re building. If I’m building a different way to publish, my ethics don’t change. I’m going to collaborate. I define talking as trying to control the discourse and I define having a conversation as collaborating with another human being in a present-tense event.
I see this process in the books I chose to self-publish. I found the money for it. I made it happen. I rerouted the rules. I couldn’t wait for someone to choose me to do this work. I chose myself, and an editor and book publisher found me!
Dana: Yes! And you’ve consistently created your own avenues to communicate the ideas and do the work that mattered to you.
Susan: My mission is so big that the obstacles in place to keep me “in order” don’t matter as much. I can no longer wait to be “considered.” I must find ways over “the practices in place” to be heard. And that’s beautiful. And I can do that because I have earned that privilege. I’m 61. I’m viewed as an authority in what I do now. I’m able to, at this juncture, create some rules that define me. And those rules are: I will always tell the truth; I will work as hard as I can to be heard; create a space for you to know you’re being heard and seen by me too. I will always invite me to the conversation, as in my whole heart, and I will always invite you, too.
I self-published my books through a beautiful small local publisher Penny Eifrieg. My books are supplied free of charge to any school system or community organization, or anybody that wants to use storytelling to help people have a conversation. All the gatekeepers are gone. I paid for my publishing by the money I made from my theater festival. If I had waited until a publishing house wanted my books, I’d still be waiting. Like with plays, if you wait until someone wants to publish your play to get your play out there, you’ll wait years. You get published after production. Those are the rules. And rules may stabilize what it “means” to be human, but they stagnate the ability to be a creative artist. My mission is to offer a template for individual and collective exploration to others, and my mission has to surmount the rules in place. The very process of doing that gives me all the beautiful responsibility and the beautiful opportunity to say what I want to say and then listen as you reply.
Dana: Where did this understanding of ethics, faith, etc. form for you in your career?
Susan: My teaching career began with 13 year olds. They taught me everything I needed to know about ethics and morals and action and faith. They have very strong beliefs. They just want to know what you want them to do. Human beings just want to know what you want from them. And that is what a rule is. I spend a lot of time musing about this because, without rules, people wouldn’t stop at traffic lights. Rules are great. But we have to be willing to continuously and continually look at the component parts of the rules. Because if the rules are keeping someone out, then that rule needs to be amended to open the door. If the rules exclude someone because of their religion, color of skin, political party…then the rules need to be revised. How many ways have we fractured our cultures and ourselves?
All of that is communication. I’m going to receive all those rules in the open heart that I have, and I’m going to go, “Why?”. I’ll hear the answer. Then I agree to abide by the present rule, or I’ll go looking for some more “whys” and make some decisions. Rules both create and stymie agency, and at the crucial point when a rule no longer serves personal and collective agency, we must seek to understand what the rule was meant to do, and then readjust to that value or change the rule to define a wider or more narrow agreed upon value.
When rules prevent me from personal agency — as an artist, a woman, as a writer — I must be able to communicate where I am stymied so I might help reorganize that rule. Isn’t that where we find ourselves now, don’t you think?
Everything to me is communication. Everything. That if I can tell you that in language or a drawing or in a piece of music, we have possibility. That said, we are a logo-centric society. Welcome to the West! That which is written and documented becomes history. Histories create cultures. And if someone is not privy to the construction of history, they might be invisible inside the culture that is being built.
Dana: That is the answer to the question I have: what is the importance of people communicating their work? And what role does that have in their impact? Without that communication, you become invisible.
Susan: Yes! We become invisible unless we communicate our stories. We are storytellers as a species. The human species creates itself through story. And if you are not able to tell your story or if you kept from telling your story by a rule or by an inability to tell…the greatest violence is silence. And if that silence is imposed, that is a violence. If you are not able to tell your story, or if you are kept from telling your story by a rule, that is violence.
An example of a rule is that, “Children should be seen not heard.” I’ve spent so much time with thirteen year olds. And I’ve learned that we are all children. I see this even in our elders, our wisdom leaders living in retirement homes. We’re all children. Is there a rule in place that once you retire that you are no longer useful? If our elders have disappeared, where did they go? Something happened! Some rule was imposed. I see it in myself, my shelf life is beginning to expire, but in every speaking event, I declare my age and refuse the date stamped on my usefulness. I have learned this working with elders, my peers now. Once they raise their hand and say, “Hello, it’s me. I’m actually a fabulous female! I’m 75. I’ve had three careers. I’ve made and lost fortunes. I’ve raised six kids,” then the stories they tell begin to change the rules about worth and value. What are the stories that we don’t get to hear? We get to ask what are the stories that we’re missing? And where are those storytellers?
That’s what I do: I help people tell stories. Tell their stories. His/her/their stories. And that requires understanding what a story is. And a story is basic communication.
I just finished a storytelling project at a local high school about mental health. The adults that asked me to do the project want so badly to know how they can help tell the story of mental health between 14-18 years old, and the stories are a great place to begin a conversation. I’ve never met a child that didn’t love somebody and never met an adult that didn’t want to help. But I have met many kids that can’t tell you what love is and even more adults who don’t know how to help. And locating the obstacles to love and help begins with opening the possibility of communication. So I ask those adults, “What do you want more than anything right now?” and they say, “A cup of coffee.” And I say, “Let me help you with that.” Then I go get them a cup of coffee or water. And they see it. That’s how easy it is. In the world of communication, everything begins with a question.
But before you can even find that question, everything begins with learning how to listen. Everything begins with learning how to see. I’m very basic in the skill sets I teach people. I teach people to see each other, visually — the literal act of seeing is where it all begins. I have to be willing to see you, every movement of your head. This is acting 101.
Dana: It’s dance 101!
Susan: Oh yes. Everything I know about communication rests in art and the power of arts pedagogy in the world. That what you know about dance and what I know about acting and singing, these are elemental in understanding how communication works.
The great movement into the world for you, Dana Ray, as a writer and a dancer, is to put everything you know in words. And stop resisting, and stop thinking you can’t, because somebody along the way put a rule in place. “Oh dancers, they are clumsy!” “Oh dancers, they can only dance.” Somebody embedded some rules. And what are the rules? Always look for the jokes because those are rules in disguise.
Dana: Oh yes!
Susan: “How many sopranos does it take to screw in a lightbulb?” It’s a rule. Why didn’t you say someone else, like a dentist? The rules are in place in the jokes.
So I’m a rule observer and I live in the possibility that a rule might need to be re-routed for a new century. Not every rule needs re-routing of course. For example, we stop at the red light because if you don’t, you’ll hit somebody. The real rule in place here is human lives matter, and they are important. So we stop. But — the rule of human lives matter begins to fall apart if those lives look a certain way. When a rule that values human life starts falling apart, the rule MUST be examined for the gaps. We have to pay attention to the gaps because sometimes a gap can be a rule somebody put in place to re-route the worth and the value of a human being based on race, gender, sexual orientation, you name it. Everything begins with a question: What rules have been put in place? Do I agree with this rule? If so, ok. If not….
I’m spending a lot of time talking about this because I believe that in communicating what rules we establish, as friends, that communication stream creates possibilities instead of probabilities. I can only be in the world of the possible if I can imagine re-routing the world of the probable. Pay attention to what we’ve put in place. And if you see a gap, ask a question.
Dana: That feels true, but I’m not sure I understand it yet.
Susan: Take your invitation to our conversation as an example. You thought, “She’s probably busy because she probably works a lot. She won’t be available.” That’s a rule about academics or people, or just the 21st century. You re-routed a rule by thinking, “I’m going to ask for a conversation.” Well of course I said yes! We’re friends! The re-routing of rules can be a terrifying thing, but not always. And the rules I’m talking about between friends can defy the rules about academics or people or the 21st century. There are some rules in place that don’t apply all the time, like time. We are friends so the rule of “busy” doesn’t necessarily apply to us. BUT you and I have invested time in our friendship, and we have taught each other how to communicate clearly. I know you do the work of the people, and I know you invest in clarity and mission and the human journey. We just want to know what is expected of us. If you want to communicate, you must become very, very quiet. You must begin your communication journey by listening to the world first. And you and I have had many cups of coffee and have listened to each other for a while now. So, you asked, I said yes. The rule of “busy” got re-routed. Hooray!
Dana: How do we even begin to communicate what we want? To know what we want?
Susan: The course I built, “The Moral Moments,” is based on what I have learned as a human being. The course is about becoming human through a process of learning how to think critically and make decisions wholeheartedly. It’s a crazy time right now, and we need some very simple templates for thinking and doing and becoming. Phrases like “Every life matters” need to be thought about and turned into action so we can become united. I say this phrase acknowledging the experiences of my brothers and sisters of color. It has been so long since their lives have been attached to the phrase, “Every life matters,” that we must go back inside the rules in place, discover the gaps, and fill the gaps with justice. We must find a way back to the past in order to create a present based on a possible future. I’m white; I have a lot of privilege. I must clearly articulate that. I must be able to say, “I see my privilege. My stories are everywhere. Tell me yours.” The great movement of communication is to go out and seek stories instead of always telling the same stories over and over and over again.
This course is about the process I had to go through to tell people who I am so I could clearly co-create who I want to be. The course is based on five elements of communication. And that process begins with intellectual inquiry.
Inquiry. I have to inquire. I have to learn how to ask questions. Ask what questions I have about the world. I have to spend time uncovering what I think about and then decide what I want to think about. And after I uncover those questions, I then begin a hermeneutic circle of questioning myself.
Who taught me what I know? When did I learn it? Where did I learn it? How do I see what I learned playing out? Why do I think this is in place? That requires a lot of personal contemplation. You can do this about a rule you’ve encountered or a subject like racism or violence.
Reflection. Second thing is that I do my due diligence. I sit by myself. And I mean really by myself, without community. I think about this question I have asked. I then document it in a journal. What is up with all of this gun violence? You see the story and go, What do I think about gun violence? How have I arrived at this thinking? Why does this thinking serve me?
When I did this reflection with middle schoolers about gun control, the responses were astonishing. There were these young men who just said, “Oh wow, I just really want time with my dad, don’t I?” We are all seeking love. We are all seeking community. And part of seeking requires us to think about what we are seeking and how we are seeking it.
Community. Then you are asked to bring your questions and discoveries into community. “Let me tell you what I’ve learned about myself and some questions I discovered along the way.” And everyone has to be willing to just be there and see you and listen. I ask the students to create a social agreement with each other, and I begin with what I call the WOMP theory:
· Are you WILLING to learn something new?
· Are you OPEN to a surprise?
· Are you MINDFUL that you’re not the only person in the room?
· Are you PRESENT so you can be possible?
I wish I could describe what it looks like for students to discover each other. Their eyes widen, they grab the desk and go, “I hear you. You’re just like me.”
Cultural Engagement. Then they take what they learned to their communities by asking their community’s members what they are thinking about a specific topic or event that the thinker has been thinking about. It’s all about connecting through asking, inviting someone into conversation. And it’s not about telling someone what you think, it’s about doing the work to know who you are and know what you are thinking about, and all the time becoming more interested in who is in front of you. This small shift makes all the difference in...difference. It changes difference into unity through conversation. Can I take a dare to engage and connect? Can I then make a decision to make eye contact? Can I ask and question and really listen?
Strategic Decision-making. The cultural transaction “at play” is an act of conscious decision-making. This value system based on mutual respect, dignity, and due diligence creates trust in a classroom and a culture. This is a human value system based on the value of every human. Once here, the value system expands into the value of nature. The rule of “value” has no exceptions in this system of inquiry, and I believe the impact of this system of collective inquiry and decision-making can change the planet. MLK, Gandhi, our Native American leaders will tell you that this is a process of saying and doing what we believe.
Finally, we do this because we have faith in a higher power or nature or people’s goodness. The beauty of aligning morals, ethics, action, and faith is that each thought, every thought can be put through those five steps. If you don’t question faith, it becomes ideology. If you don’t question action, it becomes habit. If you don’t question rules, the rules will stagnate. And if you don’t question what you believe, you’ll lose sight of it. We have to be able to see the grace of change all around us, and then we are obliged as thinkers and doers and artists to understand that there is a process by which we can all reach that moment.
Dana: Oh wow. Where do I even start to ask a question here?
Susan: [laughs] I’ve just talked a whole lot. I can make it more simple.
Dana: No! It is simple already! But it’s rich. My question is, “Where do I start in the richness?” rather than “Where do I start in the complexity?” What I love about your process is that it illuminates my own work with my clients. I frequently work with people as they come up to the barrier of not knowing how to say what they are trying to say. That moment of trying to connect from what they know and make to another person, and how it starts with that moment of conundrum of, “What am I trying to say?” It’s a process of going from that complexity and confusion into the simplicity of the answer. For some people, it’s a simple word. A Ground Truth is an idea from math and programming, where one piece of data teaches what accuracy means in the work your algorithm does with the data. Or a primary verb, that action coming from yourself before you understood yourself. And how do you take this ethic of what it means to be fully yourself and apply it into your business and your art? I love the steps. I recognize this process of facilitation in my experiences.
Susan: So you’re a dancer?
Dana: Yes. I’m a dancer. I’m a consultant, a writer, etc.
Susan: No, I’m going to go right to your dance.
Dana: Okay then!
Susan: This process is what it’s like to learn ballet. This is what it’s like to learn a role.
Susan: This is the great work of art. It is required that you self identify as an artist. An art-maker understands the world in such a divine simplicity. If the maker doesn’t understand the process of making the art that calls, they then burn up from inside. You have to be able to simplify your process. This will accelerate your process of art-making. You realize that the process of being human is the process of making art! And the moment you wrap your identity around everything you understand in dance, that moment becomes the clarity with which you communicate your humanness.
The beauty of teaching is that I’ve guided the process we’ve just talked about for every academic college at Penn State. I work with scientists. A lot.
Dana: I haven’t stopped thinking about what you said when I saw you at the event in March. You said, “I go where I am invited.”
Susan: Exactly. Going where you’re invited is a different way of living and, mostly, I have been invited by scientists. Artists have been banging our heads against the doors of academia for millennia. But what if artists begin going where they are invited? It’s where I’m invited! Why wouldn’t I go where I’m invited? Why don’t I go there? All of a sudden, the Huck Institute of Science at Penn State comes to me and says, “Talk to my Institutes.” Happy to!
Usually, the last people to contact artists for help are other artists. Because we’re not taught to do that. No one teaches us artists how to collaborate. We’re just thrown out there on stage and you stand next to someone. That’s the rule!
Dana: It’s proximity.
Susan: That’s very funny! It’s spatial relations!
I think the great move will be for artists to declare their humanity and human beings to declare their artistry. Where those circles come together is the great work of the next century because artists must declare their humanity and enter into the human space. We must. It’s easy not to, because it’s more comfortable to imagine that people don’t understand us. Professionals can help! I’m raising my hand! I am an artist who teaches human beings how to communicate his/her/their art — which is the art of being human.
And when you are with people trying to identify themselves, their language is their language. And language itself is a rule. Not everyone has to play by the rules of logos. It is all this same process. If you can tell me the word for that idea, then you will be empowered.
To move past words into communication helps you enhance your communication skills. Then you can find words from the space. You hear them. You have to unlock it and go through the door!
Dana: And how does that look with scientists?
Susan: When I work with physicists, I ask them to tell me their most complicated equation in five words. Blind fury tends to be the response. In order to simplify, you must create a question, contemplate it. You must bring your efforts to community, take those results to your culture to see what happens. You must decide what to do with all of that, with that experience. Either the process is an obstacle or an opportunity. The former shuts down possibilities, and the latter opens the door to everything. It’s not the answer; it’s just a different way to experience knowledge. Simplicity in the midst of great complexity might just equal great discovery through great communication. And then it starts all over again.
Dana: There is no end to the process!
Susan: Right. This process transformed my life. Teaching it to students was amazing. To hear the decision-making process that happened every week with students — to hear them saying each week what they understood. It’s been amazing to see it go from 15 students to 300 in the Penn State system. People are not so complicated, but we make it so hard for people to know us and love us because we are just so scared. Brené Brown says we deal with the shame and fear of letting people know us. Talk about a rule. We just want to be known. It’s a big mission, but it’s also very small. It all begins with what I think about...myself.
Dana: I wanted to ask about the new opera you have coming out, which is a collaboration with the composer Alex Heppelman. The work itself is an example of communication and collaboration between artists. In our conversation about communication, it seems that connection is at the heart bringing your into music. Everything is communication--and so this new work seems representative of your work as a whole!
Dana: That was more of a statement than a question.
Susan: But it makes sense because everything I do is everything I do!
I wrote the play a number of years ago, and Alex took my text and transformed it into an opera through his musical composition. The opera is about the human journey; a hero and heroine’s tale that every human being will have to take. It’s not up to you if you take it just how long it will take. It’s a story about the bad things people do at bad times in their life and in response to the bad environments they are living in. For Alex to compose to my words, he has to hear them, and I mean literally hear them, which is different from listening. He uses his own language— music — to represent the meaning he hears. Even though he’s using my words, he’s translating the meaning as he understands it. Meaning, like communication, is very personal. He extracted the meaning from our experience together but also had his own meaning which he added, which added worth and value to both our sets of meanings. I found it fascinating to aurally experience what my words mean to him!
Dana: What do you mean when you say that “meaning” is different than “communication”?
Susan: Meaning is personal. You can come to an agreement about a meaning and communication is part of that agreement, because every word has meaning. But I cannot control what your meaning is to a word that you use. Your experience will be different than mine. But we can also have a collective agreement about meaning. Take “time” for example. At 61, my experience of time is very different from yours. I’m feeling at my age that time is something to be spent well and in friendship. If you go fast, for me it’ll be slower. The meaning of my words is personal for Alex in the art, but we’ve communicated what my meaning was, and he agreed to...think about it. Talk about a conversation!
Meaning requires communication because if we don’t, he won’t know what I meant. That’s the nature of the world today. We don’t communicate! We don’t know what anybody means! Instagram is not a communication tool; it’s an art gallery. Facebook is not about communication; it’s about presentation and representation. Twitter is not communication; it’s a collection of reactions. Engagement and collaboration is essential to communication. So when we take Twitter or Facebook and we try to extract meaning from it, we will never be able to because we don’t know what the other person on the other end meant, and the form itself was not “meant” to have meaning.
This is the metaphor I use to compare social media and communication — it’s the difference between watching a movie and live theater. I can’t impact Meryl Streep’s performance in a film, but if she is in a play I am witnessing, I can influence her as an audience member! The former is a closed system, the latter is an open-ended possibility.
Dana: Our desire to state our greatest concerns cannot happen in that kind of media-tized environment, but only in person.
Susan: Yes. We have made a lot of confusing rules. And these rules create our thoughts. We think private is public, we think social media is real life, and we think exhaustion is productivity. Exhaustion really means to go home, take a bath, have a nice meal, and get to bed. It does not mean to stay and bang away at something until you fall apart. That’s not productivity. Productivity is rule of economics, and economics is not necessarily about human beings. Economics and art show us the tension between humans and economics.
My job in Phantom of the Opera guided me in that thought. For years, my job was not to be an artist. It was about assembling a product to stabilize risk and return for the financial investors. I was a corporate actor. Broadway is our nation’s symbol of excellence, but no one could communicate what it actually “meant” to the pursuit of artistry. I’m one of the few who write about being a corporate actor in a long running show. You couldn’t be present and possible in Phantom because the intention of the show was to replicate the visual images from 1987 that had won Tony awards. I knew after the first week that something was terribly wrong. It was only later that I could clearly articulate the mechanism that had taken me as an artist and turned me into an assembly line worker, which is fine for some; it just wasn’t for me. I was a swing; I could do nine roles, so I was a piece of what Henry Ford called “special purpose machinery.” My job was to be invisible, to fill any gaps and do any tasks to keep the production line running smoothly. But others are artistically filled there, which means their “meaning” was different than mine.
As individual citizens, it is our job to be seen, and it is your job to see me, to hear me. It is my job to tell you my concern and then I’ll listen to yours. Together, we will work it out because we are in it together. The phone cannot do that.
Dana: No. No, it can’t.
Susan: The job of a phone is to tell you when I’m showing up. That’s it. Moral, ethics, actions, and faith can’t be done in this venue, and these concepts and practices are the heart of communication. If we can learn to talk about difficult topics, then these conversations won’t be as hard to have when something needs to change. I want to develop practices of communication that transcend the trauma of everyday life, and I want to develop tools that everyone can use. We have to stop our reactions from becoming our responses, and that requires contemplation. We must change comments to contributions, and contributions require communication.
We have to be present so not just I can be possible, but that we can be possible together. My final goal is to turn opinion into observation. My opinion is not useful because it is a finite point and usually based on fear. Observation is based on intellectual inquiry. We have to move from judgment into observation, from observation into reflection, and then use our reflections to express our meanings so we might connect with other human beings.
Dana: Susan, you are a dream. You matter to so many. Thank you for spending time with me and sharing your expertise and ideas.
Susan: This was a pleasure. Thank you for all you do!