Award-winning student playwright at ASU tells stories of rural America

April 28, 2023

Straton Rushing was raised in an artistic family, with a songwriter father and a mother who played piano. His grandmother took him to summer camps in order to encourage his love of the arts.

Although he had always been around different forms of art, Rushing didn’t have much formal training or any real exposure to it in a professional setting. It was in high school that he cemented his love of theater and desire to pursue it as a career. As part of his AP English curriculum, his class traveled to see a production of Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire'' at Texas State University. It was after that experience that Rushing knew what he was going to do with the rest of his life. Straton Rushing's plays have been featured with more than a dozen theater companies around the U.S. and internationally, and his work in radio theater has appeared on the “Theatrically Speaking,” “Garden of Voices” and “Between Acts” podcasts. Download Full Image

“I want to try that,” he remembers thinking. “I’m gonna die trying.”

Rushing is graduating from Arizona State University in May with an Master of Fine Arts in dramatic writing from the School of Music, Dance and Theatre. 

Originally from Sonora, Texas, Rushing received undergraduate degrees in theater and philosophy from the University of Texas at Arlington. During his time at ASU, Rushing’s original plays have been recognized numerous times through productions and awards. During his first year at ASU, he presented his play “Enferma” as part of the 2021 New Plays Festival by Phoenix Theatre. He won the Bela Kiralyfalvi Playwriting Award sponsored by Wichita State University for college students with his play "Happy Wright," which he developed in the graduate writers' workshop and which was featured in ASU's Theatre Lab series in fall 2021. The play was subsequently produced by Wichita State University in 2022. 

“I write about country folks,” Rushing said. “It wasn’t until I started opening my eyes to realize that it’s a very short list of playwrights that are writing about rural America.”

His plays have been featured with Phoenix Theatre Company, Capital Repertory Theatre, Arts Fort Worth, Orpheus Theatre Company, SceneShop, the University of Houston, the Savannah College of Art and Design, Scribe Stages, TheatreWorks New Milford, Focal Theatre Lab, Crafton Hills College, Festival De La Bête Noire and other companies around the U.S. and internationally. His work in radio theater has appeared on the “Theatrically Speaking,” “Garden of Voices” and “Between Acts” podcasts. His recent publications include plays in the Silk Road Review, Nine Cloud Journal, the Ponder Review and with Smith & Kraus. Several of Straton's titles are available on the New Play Exchange website.

Guillermo Reyes, artistic director of theater at ASU, said of Rushing: “Straton has built a playwriting resume that already showed him contributing to the field while a graduate student and will graduate with an excellent portfolio to contribute to the art form. Several of our graduate students excel after they graduate. Straton has been doing so while still a student, always finding the empathy of his characters and depicting their human struggles in a caring manner in the best tradition of American playwrights such as Williams, Wilson or O'Neill.”

Rushing said he wouldn’t be where he is right now without the support of his family and friends. 

“There’s a lot of people who have had my back: my grandparents, my dad, my girlfriend,” he said. “Everyone who supported my crazy dream of being a writer.”

He shared more about this academic journey.

Question: What is an interesting moment or accomplishment during your time at ASU?

Answer: In 2022, I won the Hear Me Out Golden Ear award for “Caprice.” It’s a festival that’s about to go into its fourth year. It started when people realized Zoom theater isn’t very fun. The reason that award is special is because it’s about my hometown. It’s one of the first times that that part of my artistic voice was recognized. I wrote it for Dr. (Kristin) Hunt’s class originally. 

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you or changed your perspective?

A: It really opened my eyes to what a play can be or what writing can be. I came in thinking, “I’m a playwright.” Getting to work with different schools and make cool, interactive stuff broadened my horizons. If I get a writing job doing something else, it’s still the creative part of the brain. It broadened my horizons and made me think about what I can do as a writer. That’s what I needed ASU for. You’ve got to be open to all these different doors.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: I applied to a bunch of different programs. One thing that was a big factor in choosing ASU was the fact that it’s a dramatic writing degree and not a playwriting degree. If you want to pursue other things, there’s a lot of flexibility. The flexibility and the approach they have with grad programs is really unique. I knew that with other programs that wasn’t the case. At ASU, it is crazy the things we are cooking up. It was always something new. I ended up doing a lot of work. 

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A: There’s a lot of them! I really appreciate that time and time again Karen Jean Martinson told me that the type of plays I wanted to write matter. (She) told me that if (writing plays about rural America is) what I’m drawn toward, that is what I should be writing about. 

Guillermo Reyes is our biggest cheerleader. He’s got our backs. He’s always making us submit our stuff. 

Robert Farid Karimi. He’s always there for me. It doesn’t matter what problem I have, he’s always got the answer to everything. We got to teach a class together. 

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: If you are like me and you have a tendency to overextend yourself, be mindful of that. I was working too many hours a week. I believe in the value of hard work, but it hits a point where you are just so tired. It’s not always feasible. So, try to be mindful. 

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus?

A: I usually make a beeline to wherever I need to be. But probably the Lyceum Theatre. That’s where all the grad students hang out. That’s where you’ll always find us.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I just accepted a job offer! I am going to be the director of sales and marketing for Theatre Arlington (a professional theater in the Dallas area). I am very excited about it.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: Well, I don’t think we can cure cancer for $40 million. I would put a lot of money into funding the arts in rural communities. I’m not idealistic enough to think that theater can save the world, but it is still important and a good thing for our communities. It is good for us to be in community together and experience stories in the way theater does. I’m excited to see the new plays post-pandemic. A lot of theaters are struggling right now. Everyone is struggling; there are all these ways we’re still not fully recovered. I would encourage people to give live theater a chance. It’s good for us to be open to new ideas. 

Lacy Chaffee

Media and communications coordinator, School of Music, Dance and Theatre


ASU Global Futures PhD graduate explores ethics, societal implications of AI

April 28, 2023

Editor’s note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2023 graduates.

During a campus visit in 2014, John “JP” Nelson briefly sat in on a graduate course being taught by ASU President Michael Crow and Professor Daniel Sarewitz. The topic, “Science, Technology and Public Affairs,” piqued his interest. a headshot of JP Nelson sitting on a set of stairs John “JP” Nelson will be joining the Georgia Institute of Technology as a postdoctoral research fellow working on their AI Manufacturing Project. Download Full Image

The conversations from that day covered a range of topics, from government-supported funding of scientific research to the history of nuclear power. For Nelson, this experience not only influenced his decision to attend ASU for his undergraduate studies, but also helped lay the foundation of his career trajectory.

“I found this class so exciting and compelling that I knew I wanted to take it,” Nelson said. “When I did take the course in the spring of 2016, it confirmed to me that I wanted to study the social processes of technological change and the relationships between science, technology, government and society."

A bachelor’s degree simply wasn’t enough, and the positive experience Nelson had at ASU encouraged him to stick around and continue his doctoral studies with the School for the Future of Innovation in Society. In addition to the knowledge and professionalism of his professors and colleagues, he also credits kindness and support from faculty, staff and fellow students as essential contributions to his success at ASU. 

Nine years after this initial introduction to the Sun Devil community, Nelson will graduate with a PhD in human and social dimensions of science and technology from ASU’s School for the Future of Innovation in Society, housed within the College of Global Futures. Three years of his education were supported by a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, funding that was secured with support from faculty and academic advisors.

His time at ASU has well prepared him for the next step in his professional life – he will be joining the Georgia Institute of Technology as a postdoctoral research fellow working on their AI Manufacturing Project.

Nelson shares more about his academic journey below.

Question: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

Answer: Here’s one that’s a bit embarrassing for me. As I mentioned, I received my bachelor’s degree from ASU in 2018. I attended the Barrett, The Honors College graduation with (Assitant Research Professor) Lauren Withycombe Keeler. She was one of my honors thesis advisors, a really creative and brilliant scholar and someone who truly demonstrates what it means for a professor to care about every student in their classes. I’ve always been a bit uncomfortable with all the pomp and circumstance of academic celebrations. When balloons started falling from the ceiling, I mentioned something of the sort to Lauren. Wasn’t all this procession and speechifying and fancy decoration a little much?

“Well,” she said to me, “some of these students may never have been shown before that academic accomplishment is something that’s valued and can be rewarded.” That might be obvious to you, but it really shut me up. It crystallized for me how my own particular life experience limited and shaped my understanding of other people. I like to think that I strive to understand other folks’ experiences and perspectives, but clearly I could still be doing a lot more.

I think it’s valuable to remember that almost anything anyone does, even if it doesn’t make sense from my point of view, has a good reason behind it. Even if I want to convince someone to change their priorities or behavior, I’ll have to empathize with where they’re coming from to have any chance of success. And I certainly shouldn’t condemn something before understanding what it's good for.

Q: What is the best piece of advice you would give to students?

A: Find mentors, friends and colleagues who support and care for you, and do the same for them. Not to be trite, but people need people. Don’t be afraid to reach out to peers, professors and recruiters. Not everyone will be responsive, but some will. In my own, admittedly highly personal experience, I’ve found ASU’s faculty and staff to be remarkably friendly and supportive in general. Otherwise, don’t be afraid to try new things, and don’t be afraid to stop doing things that aren’t working for you. The only way to find areas of study, careers, friends, mentors, communities or hobbies is to try a bunch and stick with the ones that work for you.

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you or changed your perspective?

A: I have a hard time pointing to any drastic moments of revelation — changes in perspective tend to be more gradual and incremental, in my experience — but I find myself repeatedly coming back to the work of the political scientist Charles Lindblom on collective decision-making. Lindblom’s work argues that most large-scale decisions to be made by human societies are too complicated and have too many different potential implications and outcomes to be fully understood by any single group, theoretical perspective or method of analysis. So, we should try to make sure everyone to be affected by a particular decision has a say in how it turns out, not only because it’s the right thing to do but because it genuinely produces better decisions. The real measure of whether a collective decision is good is not a cost-benefit analysis from any one perspective, but whether most affected people agree on it.

Decisions shaped and agreed to by more affected people integrate and respect the specific knowledge, interests and values of each of those people, which no single perspective could achieve on its own. In short, Lindblom’s arguments suggest that genuinely democratic decision-making across all sectors of society not only is morally preferable but tends to produce more reliably and broadly beneficial decisions. Of course, fairly and equitably integrating the voice of everyone who stands to be affected by a given decision into that decision is ultimately impossible, but it seems to be the best ideal to strive for.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I’m moving to Atlanta to work as a postdoctoral research fellow at the Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech). I’ll be part of the ethics and societal implications team for Georgia Tech’s AI Manufacturing Project, a $65 million U.S. Department of Commerce grant intended to build out advanced manufacturing and workforce development programs in Georgia. Our job is to help the project better serve and respect public needs and values.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: The difficult thing is that $40 million isn’t very much on the scale of the big problems that vex our world. Worldwide annual expenditures on research and development alone exceed $2 trillion. The U.S. Department of Defense's budget exceeds $800 billion per year. So, should I allocate $40 million to make a big impact on a local problem — maybe donate it to an underfunded school district? Or should I make it one more drop in the river of money directed toward a national or global problem, such as decay in democracy, poverty or climate change?

If I had to use the money myself, I’d probably use it to support a program exploring more effective mechanisms for matching research and development funding with societal needs, simply because that’s what I’m most competent to do. If I could do whatever I wanted with the money, I’d probably donate it to an organization that works to counteract economic injustice (a major labor union, for example), which I think is the root of many of our contemporary political crises and the recent drift toward authoritarianism in many democracies.

Dana Peters

Communications specialist , College of Global Futures