FROM CC:M | Jessica Peterson leads Enlightened Theatrics as productions resume

Jessica Peterson has always been singing. Her very first solo in preschool planted a love of performing that has followed her throughout her life, eventually leading her to become Enlightened Theatrics’ executive director 

“Music is the one thing that bridges every conversation. Everyone is a participant,” Peterson says. 

Live theater and performance allow people to participate in the moment, Peterson says. It’s a different experience than watching a movie or listening to a record, where audiences observe from afar. In theater, emotions can be felt communally as actors perform grief, hope, and love at the end of a stage, right in front of an audience member’s face. 

Peterson was raised in Salem and graduated from McKay High School before earning a degree in music from Western Oregon University. She’s Enlightened Theatrics’ second executive director, and the first woman of color to hold the role. 

“We’re all about providing professional and educational opportunities for the mid-Willamette Valley.”

–Jessica Peterson, Enlightened Theatrics executive director

Peterson’s family has a long legacy in Salem. She helped her father, Gregg Peterson, run the Broadway Cafe starting when she was 10 years old and spent the next 20 years working in food service. She credits that experience, coupled with her time performing, for teaching her the skills she uses on a daily basis as executive director.

VIDEO: Jessica Peterson interview

“I love music and I love people, and I love bringing people together. I love being the connector, the bridge-builder, in our city,” Peterson says. She’s often told by peers that she’s like the mayor, always knowing a handful of people wherever she goes. 

Peterson looks forward to creating a culture within Enlightened Theatrics that prioritizes collaboration and flexibility while celebrating people’s strengths. She’s eager to tell stories that haven’t been told in Salem and showcase the breadth of the human experience.

“I feel like I have a stake in this community to have really good conversations about what it means to be Black in our city, [and] how to bring those voices together to talk about what community actually means.”

Peterson says it’s hard to not recognize when she’s the only Black person in a room, even if she’s used to it, or when she would get cast as the token Black character in a show. Now as executive director of Enlightened Theatrics, Peterson is eager to tell meaningful stories that call for diverse storytelling. 

Peterson started acting out of Enlightened Theatrics in 2017, quickly falling in love with the company. She soon joined the Education Committee, using her experience working with youth through Young Life to build the next generation of performers.

After Covid hit, former executive director Vincenzo Meduri worked to increase educational opportunities for youth in Salem. Peterson’s work was invaluable and led to a position on the theatre’s board of directors. After five years of being involved with the theatre, Peterson was offered the position of executive director.

Peterson credits being offered the role to the meaningful connections she’s built in Salem throughout her life and the wide variety of work experiences she’s had. 

“I tell people, “I can’t build you a house.” That’s like, really the only thing I can’t do,” Peterson says with a smile. 

Peterson’s first production as executive director was “Seussical the Musical” in December of 2022. She was able to put her skills working with youth and adults to the test, creating a safe environment for performers to be heard and thrive. March marks six months since she stepped into her role, and she’s already hit the ground running. 

Enlightened Theatrics is the only professional theater in Salem, producing its own shows and providing paid opportunities for creatives while working with community theaters to scout talent. “We’re all about providing professional and educational opportunities for the mid-Willamette Valley,” Peterson says. 

Enlightened Theatrics focuses on educating, employing and engaging the community through live performance. They work with people of all ages to break down barriers, encouraging folks to be fully themselves, even if they’re acting. 

“The culture of theater is probably one of the safest and most belonging places for our friends [and] for our youth,” Peterson says. “We want you to be fully who you are in that space.” 

Peterson points to studies that show the benefits that creative endeavors like acting or other live performance can have on the brain. She says that being involved in the arts improves communication and interpersonal skills and provides a place for people to express themselves.

Theater allows people to be fully seen and connected in a different way, Peterson says. “When I’m on stage, it’s a different Jessica, right? But she’s still just as full and vivacious as she was.”

“Dear Elizabeth” is Enlightened Theatrics’ next show, which staged last weekend is is scheduled for Friday-Sunday, March 17-19. It tells the story of two poets, Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop, and their decades-long friendship through the 400+ letters they sent to one another over four decades.

It’s the first play Enlightened Theatrics has produced since 2019 and encapsulates the power that meaningful, intentional connection can have on relationships. Peterson hopes it will draw audiences that have written and relied on letters, like her friends that longed for them while they served overseas in the military.

Performing and working in the arts is the fulfillment of a lifelong dream for Peterson, one she’s eager to share with others. “This is so much more than just the stories that we’re telling. Come and listen to the storytellers.”

Dear Elizabeth schedule: 7:30 p.m. Friday, March 17, and Saturday, March 18 and 2 p.m. Sunday, March 19. Tickets HERE.

Stories of Salem is a production of Capital Community Media and shared in collaboration with Salem Reporter. Learn more about CC:M HERE.

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By Meghan Jonas and Ashley Jackson Lawrence – Capital Community Media