For years, Jessica Peterson worked for Salem nonprofits while singing and performing in local theater productions as a hobby.
In her new job, she will have the opportunity to merge the two.
Peterson, 33, has been the new executive director of Enlightened Theatrics since September 1, taking over day-to-day operations of the Salem professional theater company from Vincenzo Meduri, who founded the organization nearly a decade ago.
Peterson brings a broad smile and enthusiasm for the role as she seeks to maintain the educational programs the nonprofit has turned to during the pandemic while returning to a regular season of musicals and professional plays.
“I have a passion for bringing professional theater back to Salem,” Peterson said. “As an actor, it was super cool for me after college to have a place I could land that didn’t require me to drive to Portland all the time. I want to create this for other young people artists.
The leadership change is a major transition for the organization, which has been led by Meduri since he founded it in 2013.
Prior to the pandemic, Enlightened ran a calendar-year season featuring five shows with paid professional actors.
As live shows ceased under Covid and fewer people wanted to go to theatre, Enlightened started offering more programs for students to learn acting, and has since started to put on shows that mix professional actors with students .
Meduri said Covid made him reflect and conclude it was time to make a transition in his life. The organization weathered the pandemic, with the help of grants, and was on sound financial footing, and he felt it was time for him to move on.
“Why not this time to bring in someone new, to bring new energy, 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 the transition to a new executive director.
“We felt like so many positive things had come out of enlightenment over the past almost 10 years that we felt like we owed him the responsibility to keep going,” said Tiffany Carstensen, Board Chair of administration.
Enlightened’s home will remain the Grand Theatre, which is owned by the Meduri family. Meduri will work for his family’s main business, dried fruit processing company Meduri Farms, developing the retail side of operations.
Meduri informed several friends, including Peterson, of his intentions to leave. The two met socially several years ago and bonded over a shared interest in acting and performing, with Meduri convincing Peterson to audition for his first show with Enlightened. Peterson starred in the company’s 2018 production of Shout.
Meduri said she immediately seemed interested in the role of executive director.
“I saw his wheels start to spin,” he said.
For Peterson, it was a chance to put his professional experience at the service of a mission close to his heart.
Since earning a degree in performance from Western Oregon University, Peterson has sung and performed professionally in Salem. She started as a singer with bands and solo gigs in 2009, then started doing more musical theatre.
“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 is completing a master’s degree in business administration through Southern Oregon University’s online program and worked at Young Life in Salem, a Christian nonprofit ministry, before taking the enlightened position. She also previously worked for the Marion County Sheriff’s Office in community engagement and social media management, as well as at her family’s restaurants in Salem.
In addition to acting, Peterson has served on Enligthened’s board of directors and several theater committees, helping to 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 connected around town,” she said.
Her work began on September 1, just when the general manager and a selection committee usually start planning for the coming year’s season.
The last remaining production of 2022, Suessical, features both paid actors and students. Auditions for the show begin on October 8, with opening night on December 8.
Peterson said she doesn’t yet have a clear vision of what she wants to see for the upcoming season. She hopes to gradually increase the number of shows to bring Enlightened back to a pre-Covid schedule, while maintaining the educational programs they have expanded.
“My main goal is to let people know we are here. For me, that’s a lot of relationship building in this role, because I think there are still people in this community who are here who have never really engaged with this company as a whole,” said she declared. “I hope that because of the hats I’ve worn in the past, I can bring different people to the table who have never experienced the professional theater community.”
Contact journalist Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.
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