"Right after I found out about the MasterMind Award, I got a call from a friend wanting me to dress up in a gorilla suit and be in a parade. It was a crazy day."
This pretty much sums up a day in the life of Suki Peters, the actor, director and self-described "twelve-year-old boy on the inside" who had the courage to independently produce a play about a cannibal in love with his horse.
Yes, the last few years have been quite a ride for the St. Charles native. In 2011 she took a big financial and professional risk to independently produce Cannibal! The Musical, but critical acclaim and sold-out crowds at the former Crestwood ArtSpace attest to the show's success. (Trey Parker, the co-creator of South Park who wrote and directed the original 1993 movie Cannibal! has even asked Peters to include a clip from her show's performance on the rerelease of the film's DVD.)
From Cannibal! Peters brazenly took on the directorial reins of Magic Smoking Monkey Theatre's production of Stupefy: The 90 Minute Harry Potter. "People were scalping tickets outside of the theater. We just weren't prepared for the masses coming to see it," she laughs, seeming a little shocked at her success.
This sort of humble, self-deprecating and somewhat awestruck view of success embodies Peters. Rather than tout herself, she is quick to give the credit to the people around her.
Donna Northcott, artistic director of St. Louis Shakespeare and founder of Magic Smoking Monkey Theatre attests to Peters' collaborative spirit.
"She has such an energy about her that makes everyone feel comfortable," says Northcott. "She creates an atmosphere in which everyone feels included and valued. This is why people want to work with her."
Roger Erb, Peters' colleague with Magic Smoking Monkey and a long-time friend, describes her as the Pied Piper of the St. Louis theater community.
"I don't think there are hard statistics on this out there," he says, "but she gets more response to her casting calls than anyone else I have seen. People know she is going to make them look good — there's no way she will make you look like a fool. You trust Suki. You know she has lost more sleep over a production than anyone."
Peters has been a fixture in the St. Louis theater scene since around 2006, following her return from Los Angeles. But don't mistake her story with those tales of an aspiring actress headed West to make it big. In fact, Peters didn't think she would have a career in the arts at all.
"I was going to be a vet," she says. "I know. It sounds like an odd thing to go from vet to actor, but it just happened."
Peters was bit by the performer's bug at the age of four when she saw Sammy Davis Jr. performing one Saturday afternoon in a movie on KPLR-TV (Channel 11).
"I want to be that guy," she told her mother, who gave in to the child's pleas to take dance lessons. "It makes my heart happy to tell a good story and move with my body. It's a form of expression. I think the most important thing we have as humans is the ability to express ourselves like that. It's necessary for the soul."
In college at Lindenwood University, Peters majored in secondary education and theater. Immediately following undergrad, she received her MFA in directing from Lindenwood.
It was Peters' former fiancé who pushed for the couple to move to Hollywood. He wanted to be a film actor. She ended up working as a stunt woman. Peters waxes poetically when she recalls her time in California, doing stunt moves on the beach, learning trapeze from the man behind Circus of the Stars and learning how to manipulate whips from Michelle Pfeiffer's Catwoman trainer.
Eventually, though, Peters wanted to be closer to her family. Upon her return to town, she immediately auditioned and was cast for the role of Beatrice in St. Louis Shakespeare's 2006 production of Much Ado About Nothing.
"Everyone is so supportive, you can't go to a single night of a single production without seeing actors that you know," says Peters of the St. Louis theater community. "Everybody goes to support everyone else's productions. You don't get that in LA. Everyone meets new artists with open arms."
Peters attributes the success of Cannibal! to that same supportive St. Louis theater community, but it's her fearless tenacity that made it happen. As she shopped the idea around to different theater companies in town, she was greeted with a chorus of: "That's awesome. It's not going to sell." After all, a play about a convicted cannibal with a special affection for his equine companion is not an obvious commercial success. This is part of the reason Peters wanted to take on the project.
"When I am directing something, I look for something that terrifies me and makes me say to myself, 'I don't know how I'm going to do that.' I feel like I am at my best when I am panicked and scared. When I did Cannibal!, it was like, 'Here's the movie,' and suddenly I'm talking to Trey Parker and Matt Stone [a co-creator of South Park and an actor in the movie version of Cannibal!] about the adaptation. We're funding this project ourselves; we're building it from the ground up and adapting the script from the screenplay. I'm cutting stuff, I'm casting it, and I'm marketing it all. It was a leap of faith."
And it paid off. Demand for Cannibal! tickets resulted in her needing to add extra shows. ("They sold out in twenty minutes!") A soon-to-be-scheduled second run of the production is now in the works.
But what's next for the woman whom KDHX (88.1 FM) describes as the "undisputed Mistress of All Things Geeky"?
Peters is currently directing Harold Pinter's The Hothouse ("I like to balance whimsy with something cerebral"), and she has a short list of different movies that she would like to adapt. Fans of her work may be especially excited about her interest in bringing to life a tongue-in-cheek, musical version of The Silence of the Lambs.
These days Peters is more excited about an art outreach program that she is working on with some colleagues to raise awareness about social issues issues such as rape and domestic violence. In particular, she is working on a play called Extremities about a home invasion. In it, a woman gets attacked but turns the tables and takes the situation into her own hands. The production is slated to tour different colleges in conjunction with their rape-awareness weeks.
"It's a really amazing project to be a part of," says Peters. "It's extremely emotional. It's a way to really show what art means and what our responsibility is as artists. Only good can come from it."