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Surfs Up on Broadway

USC College's Summer Undergraduate Research Fund (SURF) carves the path for collaboration between students and their professors.

David Román, professor of English and American studies and ethnicity, in USC College (left) and his undergraduate Zachary Wolf co-wrote a major performance review for <em>Theatre Journal</em>, as part of a Summer Undergraduate Research Fund (SURF) endeavor. Photo credit Pamela J. Johnson.
David Román, professor of English and American studies and ethnicity, in USC College (left) and his undergraduate Zachary Wolf co-wrote a major performance review for Theatre Journal, as part of a Summer Undergraduate Research Fund (SURF) endeavor. Photo credit Pamela J. Johnson.

Zachary Wolf, an English senior in USC College, knows his professor's research well because it is also his own. Wolf and David Roman, professor of English and American studies and ethnicity, collaborated on and wrote the lead performance review in the May 2009 issue of Theatre Journal, the premiere publication in theatre studies.

Zachary Wolf, an English senior in USC College, knows his professor's research well because it is also his own.

Wolf and David Román, professor of English and American studies and ethnicity, collaborated on and wrote the lead performance review in the May 2009 issue of Theatre Journal, the premiere publication in theatre studies.

“It is extraordinary for an undergraduate to be published in this journal,” said Román, Wolf’s professor and mentor for more than two years. “And we were the lead review. It was viewed as an important contribution.”

The review focused on the 2008 Broadway revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific, and was the culmination of a project that began in 2008 when Román learned the College was offering Summer Undergraduate Research Fund (SURF) awards and seeking interested students in the arts and humanities.

“The idea was that we would mentor a student, introduce him or her to our research methods, expose them to our archive, and develop a one-on-one relationship that might serve them in their college experience,” Román said. “And even hopefully in terms of their future careers.”

Román began identifying top students in his “American Literature” course.

He approached Wolf, then a sophomore, and asked if he’d be interested in applying for the SURF grant. In the beginning, the project was an experiment.

“We didn’t expect to make anything big of it,” said Wolf, who has a minor in music industry at USC Thornton School of Music. “David just wanted to introduce me to the types of research you could do in his field, but out of that, he inspired me to become more interested and we decided to further pursue what we had started.”

This is exactly what SURF strives to do. It is an opportunity for College undergraduates in good standing to engage in research with their professors, who are experts and professionals in their fields. Up to $3,000 may be awarded to support a summer research project of the student’s choosing.

Wolf was awarded the full stipend for his 2008 SURF proposal, and joined Román in New York to help him conduct research for his upcoming book on the cultural politics of Broadway from the 1930s to the present day.

“I study live events, so I have to document the events themselves,” Román said, explaining how the mentoring process worked. “We would go to shows together, and after each show, we would sit for 45 minutes to an hour, talking about what we had seen. Zak would take notes on what I was saying.”

A key part of their time in New York involved conducting research at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. They spent the days examining material in the library’s Billy Rose Theatre Division — one of the largest theatrical arts archives — and the evenings attending musicals and plays.

Eventually, Wolf began taking his own notes during productions and coming to his own conclusions on the work.

“Through this process I was able to view each production with a different kind of critical eye than the one I had developed in the classroom,” Wolf said. “It was really great to have that kind of hands-on experience to enhance the production and my knowledge of it. It was fulfilling both academically and personally.”

The SURF award funds were enough to pay for nearly two weeks of research time in New York. After two weeks, Román and Wolf still had work to do, so Román dipped into his own research funds to finance the project.

“Zak was really helping me and I could tell that this was a profound learning experience for him,” Román said. “We thought, ‘Well this has worked out so well, let’s continue it if we can.’”

This led Wolf to apply for and receive funds under the USC Provost Fellowship during the fall of 2008 and summer of 2009. These scholarships helped the pair expand their research and begin their analysis and review of South Pacific.

“We were both struck by the production and thought it was pertinent to the time and climate we were in,” Wolf said. “Our focus was on Broadway as it relates to cultural and social issues, and we found it really interesting that South Pacific would choose the 2008 Broadway season for its revival.”

What had begun as a simple research project evolved into a full-fledged professional collaboration, a co-authored article in Theatre Journal and a deep respect for the mentoring process.

“Working with Zak in this program was one of the most enjoyable and worthwhile experiences of my career,” said Román, who may recruit another student for SURF once Wolf graduates in May.

Wolf, too, encourages other undergraduates to pursue SURF opportunities.

“Most students don’t realize that professors are open to working with them,” Wolf said, adding that he was pleased that professor-student collaboration was so accessible in the College. “It’s a resource that you can’t get anywhere else, so why wouldn’t you do it?”

Read Wolf and Román's review of South Pacific online.