Three years ago in my Riverfront Times review of the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis staging of Yellowman, I wrote that Susan Gregg directed Dael Orlandersmith's blistering attack on internal racism "with passionate ferocity." The first time I saw Susan after that review appeared, she asked, "How did you know that?"
"How did I know what?"
"That I was passionate about directing Yellowman."
It was hardly perceptive criticism. Susan, who died unexpectedly last month at age 65, was passionate about almost everything she directed. (Even Agatha Christie.) Indeed, one year later I was tempted to use the exact same phrase when reviewing her staging of Caryl Churchill's A Number, which was surely the bluntest, most audacious, pile-driving production to be seen anywhere in St. Louis in 2007.
Yet, as exciting as her shows could be, it's hard to fathom what her rehearsals were like because — truth to tell — as often as not I had no idea what Susan was saying. Her conversations would spin off into realms of the unknown. I'd stand there nodding my head (which was actually spinning in bewilderment). Then after we parted I would ask myself, "What the hell was that all about?"
But it was never difficult to gauge what Susan was about. She was about the love of theater. She loved making theater, she loved talking about theater, she loved going to the theater. It didn't have to be Broadway or London. It was not uncommon to see the Rep's associate artistic director around town at local productions. Especially since that theater's former property master John Roslevich left the Rep to join the priesthood six years ago, Susan has been the Rep's most accessible goodwill ambassador to the St. Louis theater community. After more than two decades at the Rep, she remained the good soldier. Susan believed in loyalty — though not blind loyalty.
One of her many passions was the annual WiseWrite Festival, where short plays by fifth graders are produced on the Loretto-Hilton stage. It was kinda like jury duty: always a lot more interesting than you expect it to be. And Susan (who was devoted to all playwrights, regardless of age) put in untold hours enlisting the best talent and coordinating the labyrinthine rehearsal schedule for sixteen plays. She would send out detailed instructions about everything, beginning with how to gain admittance to the Rep's rehearsal hall: A key would be hidden in a refrigerator that had to be opened in a certain manner, etc., etc. Then it was all for naught, because Susan, an unrelenting workhorse, was always on the premises, rummaging through the prop room in pursuit of just the right boa for one of the leading ladies (which is not as easy as it sounds, seeing as how the leading ladies are usually groundhogs or snails). But Susan knew all the plays practically verbatim.
On Performance Day she would bring each playwright out of the audience to watch his or her play from a place of honor in a stately director's chair. Although the event is always professionally stage managed, whenever there would be an inevitable delay in setting up the next playlet, Susan would fill the time by explaining to the audience what their gifted classmate had written. "Your play is a masterful example of the intricate delineations of subtextual convolutions," she would inform the budding playwright. And the kid would sit there in a delirious (if stupefied) daze, but at the same time feeling pretty darn special. Susan always delivered a bravura performance, but clearly heartfelt. No one else could have done it — in part, at least, because (once again) no one else ever knew what she was talking about. Now that she's gone, that kind of obfuscation seems endearing. There's always room in the theater for a true eccentric. When it came to lovable eccentricity, Susan Gregg was the genuine article.