Professor of Theater and Performance Studies Susan Gratch brings the curtain down after 37 years at Oxy

What was your favorite class? “I’ve had many classes (such as Scene Painting) for which I have enjoyed both the topic and the students greatly. But perhaps my favorite class occurred in surprising circumstances. I found myself teaching Period Styles for Stage and Screen in spring 2021, when all courses were taught remotely. In light of the pandemic and the efforts of the department to reconceive our curriculum, I revised the course so that it looked at a mixture of live performance (using virtual or recorded performances, photographs, and descriptions) along with film and TV. We looked at a range of work that included Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom by August Wilson (the 2020 film directed by George C. Wolfe and the 2016 Mark Taper Forum stage production directed by Phylicia Rashad); Romeo and Juliet (the department’s live virtual production edited and directed by Will Power and Baz Luhrmann’s 1995 film); an episode of Westworld set in Shogun World (with guest speaker Laura Wong ’08, our costume designer for R&J and a specialist in Japanese kimono who was a consultant on that episode); and the 2018 film Black Panther. We endeavored to understand how humans make meaning from everyday objects, clothing/fashion, architecture, furniture, and their display. How do designers use research to inform their choices to illuminate the story being told? How do designers such as Black Panther’s Hannah Beachler build such worlds? I reminded myself how exciting my work as a designer can be, and enjoyed every moment as the students explored the material along with me.” 

What are your plans for retirement? “In addition to having time to visit the Pacific Northwest more regularly so that my husband Patrick Gleason and I can see our daughters and grandson, I hope to be able to spend much more regular time with my family (mostly in the Midwest and along the East Coast). Freelance scenic design is something I hope to be able to continue as well.”

Anything else you would like to add? "It was a lucky day for me when [Professor of Theater Emeritus] Alan Freeman '66 M'67 met me at the LAX baggage claim for my interview at Oxy. I am excited to see how the Department of Theater and Performance Studies will flourish and glad that I have such talented and committed colleagues to lead it forward!

"I always say that it is the students who make Oxy so special—I should expand that to say that I have been incredibly fortunate in my many, talented, kind, and creative colleagues over the years. I came because friends had described Oxy as special. I stayed because of the people, the campus, the fact that I have never lived more than two miles from campus, and the beautiful Keck Theater. But most of all, the people."

Alumni Tributes

Adrian Jones ’93: I arrived at Oxy having spent most of my high school career doing technical theater. But with few structures in place for learning craft, history or technique, I was largely left to my own devices. When I took Susan’s "Drawing for the Theater" class in my freshman year I knew I had finally found the right class and the right teacher. Susan not only taught us how to conceive, collaborate, and realize designs for the theater, she also demonstrated the curiosity of a lifelong learner, and the consummate professionalism of a working artist.

Susan’s classes in theater history, scenic, lighting and costume design all opened my eyes to the many different modes of storytelling, and gave context to the rich traditions of live performance all around us. Whether it was on an evening excursion to the Mark Taper Forum, or on a late-night paint call at summer theater, Susan was an enthusiastic audience member and vocal advocate for her students. 

During my four years at Occidental Susan was a mentor, friend, and accomplice as I discovered the world of stage design that would eventually define my career. Those four years culminated later in my time at the Yale School of Drama with another Oxy alum, Ming Cho Lee ’53. My time with Susan at Oxy not only prepared me for the rigors of that master’s program, and my career beyond, but also showed me the generosity of spirit that defines a life well lived. All the young artists like myself that Susan helped nurture, and the world of theater, owe her a debt of gratitude. Thank you, Susan. 

Jones is a professional scenic designer in New York City. 

Courtney Dusenberry ’09: When I was a freshman at Oxy, Susan Gratch wasn’t my adviser, but we clicked immediately because it had been a while since she’d met a student who was into set design. I wasn’t sure I was “into” it, to be honest—I enjoyed painting a few sets in high school and Susan was a delight to chat with. She spoke about her scenic painting class, mentioned color theory and the different tools and techniques to create textures. Her nonchalant pitch worked well: I wanted to take the class as many times as I could, and Susan excitedly agreed! Now, I don’t think those who know her would say that Susan is a “boisterous” or “loud” person, so when I tell you she was excited, I refer to the sweet essence that a person emanates when they find another soul who shares their passion. Susan made sure I was able to take Scenic Painting as soon as possible, by going above and beyond in helping me plan my complicated course schedule. 

Little did she (or I) know—she was building the foundation of my first career with that course load. Scenic artistry was my senior thesis, with Susan as my adviser, and became my profession for 11 years—including multiple times as a painter on professional shows designed by Susan. She has this wealth of knowledge about color and shape—and how those tools of design evoke emotion or support the story. But she also has this amazing quality as an educator where she imparts that knowledge as if you, the recipient, already knew it and could find the answers within you. 

Later in her Oxy career, Susan didn’t slow down—she took on more and led by example as department chair. She advocated for the Theater Department and made sure all students at the College could have the most opportunities and superb professors up at Keck. 

I’m truly honored to be writing this tribute, to someone I love and appreciate so much. Someone whose advice I needed in undergrad, and who is now a treasured design confidant in my professional life. That’s who Susan Gratch is: a spark of inspiration, an all-time collaborator, and a friend. 

Dusenberry is project manager at Mattel Inc. Tradeshow Services in El Segundo. 

Aubree Day Cedillo ’95: I have enjoyed the unique gift of Susan Gratch’s mentorship and support for over 30 years—well beyond the time I spent as a theater major at Oxy. When I took my first class with Susan, Intro to Design, I was excited by the combination of creativity, practical math, and drafting skills required to be a theater designer. I vividly remember the excitement of buying a drafting table (on sale at Swain’s) that would fold up for storage in my dorm room, hand-drafting my assignments on large sheets of pristine vellum paper, formulating set ideas in Susan’s classroom to the sounds of the classical music she would play through a boom box for inspiration, and spending late nights building conceptual models with my classmates in what is now Treehouse South. Susan ignited a spark in me and kindled the idea that I might one day become a designer. I had no idea that her influence would lead me to design professionally for clients such as UNICEF and the Princess Grace Awards. 

In my role as technical director for the Theater Department, I have physically realized over 50 of Susan’s beautiful designs (both scenic and lighting) on the stage of Keck Theater. I’ve observed and admired how Susan sees and celebrates students for who they are and takes a genuine interest in fostering their own path rather than trying to mold them into her own ideal. Whether they realize it or not, every student who has passed through the doors of Keck Theater has been enriched by her imprint, whether they were inspired by her scenic and lighting design courses, acted in a show that featured her boundlessly creative sets, or benefited from the countless hours she devoted to bringing in guest artists to diversify our department’s offerings and nurturing relationships with donors who provided financial support and professional opportunities for our students. As steady a presence as Susan was, she approached every interaction with thoughtful humility and worked through every challenge as a champion of inclusiveness, giving voice to each member of our department—faculty, staff, and students. 

I credit Susan’s encouragement of my work throughout my student and professional careers with my personal fulfillment as a technical director and success as a stage designer. It has been a privilege to have made a living in the arts in collaboration with Susan and the theater team she has cultivated. Susan’s nurturing gave me wings. 

Cedillo has been technical director for the Occidental Theater Department since 1996.