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Communication Studies Faculty Member Susan Picillo Brings Storytelling to Life in the Classroom and Onstage

Susan Picillo performing in Cabaret. Photo courtesy of Sacred Harbor Photography

Susan Picillo

Northeastern Professor Susan Picillo, Senior Lecturer in the Communication Studies Department, is a distinguished educator and an impressive director, vocalist, and voice-over artist. She has been a member of the Northeastern community since 2000, teaching multiple classes including Voice-Over Artist and Communication and Storytelling – and has become a respected mentor, a talented educator, and a strong role model.

Much of what she does in the classroom is informed by prior experiences she has had in teaching people of all ages and success levels how to improve their storytelling skills. “It is not about who is the smartest person in the room, but rather the most articulate person in the room,” according to Picillo. While she uses her various experiences to help inform how she teaches her students, she is equally open to learning about the experiences and thoughts of others; her students inspire her to branch out in her professional life outside of the classroom.

“This year, I auditioned for a play for the first time in a long time,” Professor Picillo said. “For years, I had directed, I had performed as a vocalist, but I had not taken the stage as an actor. This experience fit perfectly into my voice-over class and my storytelling class – but I was also able to show the students that not only am I talking the talk, but I am also walking the walk.”

Picillo was cast in Cabaret at The Footlight Theater Club in Jamaica Plain and the performances took place in March and April. The performance “exploded all thoughts of negativity” for Picillo and she was even able to use some of what she teaches in her role while her students cheered her on from the audience.

Picillo majored in Acting during her undergraduate career at Emerson College. After spending some time after graduation in New York City, Picillo moved back to Boston where she continued acting in and teaching theater workshops. It was at one of these workshops that a former teacher encouraged her to think about taking on a role in education. Her first teaching job brought some challenges, however, as most new jobs do. Working at a small Boston school with minimal resources, Picillo was faced with teaching a class of ninth-graders to advance their reading skills; at the time, they were reading at a fifth-grade level.

It only took a few days for Picillo to figure out how to approach this challenge more effectively, by drawing from her background and skillset in theatre.

“I brought props to school the next day, realizing that I can use theatre in the classroom. I realized that I can still be crazy old me but also teach these students how to read at the same time,” she described. “I would turn lessons into game shows, create characters, and even rap. My students would kind of say, ‘who even are you? Are you crazy?’ But then they would also say, ‘where have you been all my life?’”

She continued utilizing these skills as she moved on to teaching classes at Emerson as well as some classes at Northeastern. Eventually, she began teaching full-time at Northeastern, where she taught a class called the Oral Interpretation of Literature, which has since transformed into Communication and Storytelling.

When asked about the importance of skills like storytelling, Picillo points to validation and vulnerability, as well as overcoming shame and providing a vehicle for students to begin a healing process from life’s difficulties.

“Storytelling is about the confidence of self. It opens you up and says who you are. The most important thing is that we let people see who we are and that there is a willingness to do so. As a listener, you place yourself with that person, you can empathize with them,” Picillo explained. “In my teaching, I am touching the core of what matters to me most, which is human connection. I have fallen in love with my students year after year. I get to watch people shine within themselves. I get to experience them feeling a sense of worth and value in themselves.”

Professor Picillo’s love of teaching and seeing her students succeed contributed to her earning the CAMD Excellence in Teaching Award in 2016, which is given to deserving faculty members based on student nominations and consistent positive evaluations. She describes this recognition as one highlight of her time at Northeastern so far – and looks forward to another great academic year ahead. Picillo plans on bringing new ideas into her classes in the fall and to spend some more time with NUknits and NU & Improv’d, which are student organizations for which she is a faculty advisor.

Before arriving back on campus, though, Picillo has a fully packed summer. She was cast for a role in another musical called It Shoulda Been You, which will be performed at the Mass Music & Arts Society black box theater in Mansfield at the end of July. Now two-for-two in auditioning and getting cast, Picillo is excited to be in front of the curtain yet again. She looks forward to spending time with her friends and family on Cape Cod this summer as well as quilting, reading, and tending to her beautiful garden.

Professor Picillo brings warmth and positivity to all that she does. Congratulations to Professor Picillo on her successes both onstage and off!