Enthusiastic singer, leader will oversee the next phase of professional theater in Salem

For years, Jessica Peterson has worked for Salem nonprofit organizations while singing and performing in local theater productions as a hobby.

In her new job, she’ll get a chance to fuse the two.

Peterson, 33, is the new executive director of Enlightened Theatrics as of Sept. 1, taking over the day-to-day operations of Salem’s professional theater company from Vincenzo Meduri, who founded the organization almost a decade ago.

Peterson brings a wide smile and enthusiasm for the role as she seeks to maintain the educational programs the nonprofit shifted toward during the pandemic while ramping back up to a regular season of professionally staged musicals and plays.

“I have a passion to bring back professional theater to Salem,” Peterson said. “As an actor, it was super cool for me post-college to have a place that I could land that didn’t force me to drive to Portland all the time. I want to create that for other young artists.”

The leadership shift is a major transition for the organization, which has been run by Meduri since he founded it in 2013.

Prior to the pandemic, Enlightened ran a calendar-year season staging five shows with paid, professional actors.

As live performances shut down under Covid and fewer people wanted to go to the theater, Enlightened began offering more programs for students to learn theater, and has since begun staging shows blending professional cast members with students.

Meduri said Covid prompted him to reflect and conclude it was time for a transition in his life. The organization weathered the pandemic, with help from grants, and was on good financial footing, and he felt it was time for him to move on to other things.

“Why not this moment to bring in someone new, to bring in a new energy, a new life into the organization?” he said.

He told the board he intended to step down at the end of the summer. Board leaders decided they wanted to keep Enlightened running, and began discussing transitioning to a new executive director.

“We felt like so many positive things had come out of enlightened in the last almost 10 years that we felt like we owed it the responsibility to keep it going,” said Tiffany Carstensen, board president. 

Enlightened’s home will remain the Grand Theatre, which is owned by the Meduri family. Meduri is going to work for his family’s primary business, dried fruit processing company Meduri Farms, building up the retail side of operations.

Meduri let several friends, including Peterson, know of his intentions to leave. The two met socially several years ago and bonded over a shared interest in theater and performing, with Meduri convincing Peterson to audition for her first show with Enlightened. Peterson performed in the company’s 2018 production of Shout.

Meduri said she immediately looked interested in the executive director role.

“I saw her wheels start turning,” he said.

Jessica Peterson, the new executive director of Enlightened Theatrics, outside the nonprofit’s venue, Salem’s Historic Grand Theatre, on Monday, Sept. 19 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

For Peterson, it was a chance to use her professional experience in service of a mission she cares about.

Since graduating from Western Oregon University with a performance degree, Peterson has sung and acted professionally in Salem. She began as a singer with bands and solo gigs in 2009, then began doing more musical theater.

“I love how it challenges me. I love being able to think outside of my normal comfort zones and portray someone else or something else,” she said.

Professionally, she’s wrapping up a Master of Business Administration through Southern Oregon University’s online program, and was working at Young Life in Salem, a nonprofit Christian ministry, before taking the Enlightened job. She’s also previously worked for the Marion County Sheriff’s Office doing community engagement and social media management, and at her family’s restaurants in Salem.

In addition to acting, Peterson served on Enligthened’s board and on several theater committees, helping expand educational programs during the pandemic. 

Carstensen said the choice was easy for the board.

“She’s got the positive energy, she’s got the stage experience, she’s got the business experience, she’s so well connected in town,” she said.

Her work began Sept. 1, just as the executive director and a selection committee typically begin to plan the upcoming year’s season.

The final remaining production of 2022, Suessical, includes both paid actors and students. Auditions for the show begin Oct. 8, with opening night Dec. 8.

Peterson said she doesn’t have a firm vision yet of what she wants to see for the upcoming season. She’s hoping to increase the number of shows gradually to get Enlightened back to a pre-Covid schedule, while retaining the educational programs they’ve expanded.

“My main focus is for people to know that we’re here. That, to me, is a lot of relationship building in this role, because I think there are still people in this community who have been here who’ve never really engaged with this company as a whole,” she said. “I’m hoping that because of the hats I’ve worn in the past, I am able to bring different people to the table who have never experienced professional theater community.”

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.