By Tricia Murray
In 1993, two intrepid Charlestown Working Theater alumnae became co-directors of the place where they first honed their acting skills.
Professional actors and lifelong Charlestown residents Jennifer and Kristin Johnson, along with Jennifer's husband, John Peitso, a graduate of Boston University's Theater Study program and a composer and multi-instrumentalist, took stewardship of the Charlestown Working Theater at a time when it was in danger of closing.
Learning the management-side of the business as they went, they established ongoing successful and innovative educational and community programming at the theater. They also established The Resident Artist Series, a performance series featuring the original work of Boston and Massachusetts area theater artists.
In addition, over the past 20 years, Charlestown Working Theater has produced theatre companies from the United States and abroad in the theater's intimate 80-seat space, offering audiences the opportunity to attend performances, participate in workshops, and engage with the dynamic work of distinguished theatre companies in an immediate and personal way.
The Charlestown Working Theater's artistic mandate is to offer affordable quality arts programming to the youth of Charlestown. The theater's educational programming brings the community together in a creative enterprise.
The Charlestown Boys & Girls Club, a partner with the Charlestown Working Theater for the past nine years, commends Jennifer and Kristin for providing interesting and exciting classes to compliment the Boys & Girls Club programming, adding the CWT co-directors have worked hard to make sure that they reach a large and diverse group of youth to give them an opportunity to learn things that may not have been otherwise available for them.
Peter O'Donnell, a junior at Boston Latin Academy and member of the CWT Advanced Acting Ensemble, credits the CWT co-directors with helping him break out of his shell and attributes his love of Shakespeare and theater to his many years performing at CWT.
Alexis Kelly, a junior at Boston Latin School who has worked with Charlestown Working Theater for 13 years performing and assisting backstage, thanks the co-directors for building her confidence and strengthening her public speaking skills.
Katie McGoff, a freshman at the University of New Haven and a CWT alum reports that the co-directors' positive guidance and support helped her identify her interest in theater and working with children.
Ali Cunha Fornash, a CWT student from 1993-99, is grateful to the co-directors for helping to shape her sense of self, allowing her an outlet for her boundless energy and giving her the self-confidence to study acting in college. Moreover, Charlestown Working Theater inspired Fornash, now a high school guidance counselor, to pursue a career in youth development and outreach, thereby providing, the support and encouragement she received from the theater directors to her students.
Charlestown Working Theater's impact is not limited to the children of Charlestown. The theater also plays an important role in the Greater Boston Theater community.
Charlestown Working Theater received a Special Citation at the Elliot Norton Critic Awards for "adventurous collaborations that provide unique insights into theater from around the world."
Darren Evans, the managing director of Theater on Fire, describes his relationship with the Charlestown Working Theater and its co-directors this way: "Do you know that kind of awesome parent—increasingly hard to find these days—who raises children you don't cringe to be around? The kind who provides a set of basic ground rules and enforces them, but otherwise lets their kids explore, grow, succeed and fail? The kind who leads by example? That's the kind of ideal stewardship that Jennifer, John and Kristin provide at Charlestown Working Theater. The welcoming, flexible and friendly atmosphere they create at CWT is unmatched at any venue in the city.
"In my time producing at CWT, I've borrowed—among many other things—John's accordion, Jennifer's wine glasses and Kristin's daughter (complete with pogo stick). In addition to providing a home for scrappy local theatre companies like mine, they also bring in companies and productions from all over the world that no one in Boston would have the chance to see otherwise. ArtsEmerson has gotten a lot of press lately for doing similar things, but CWT did it first and continues to do it without celebrities and flash. In short, Jennifer, John and Kristin are theatre superheroes."
Actors' Shakespeare Project, another CWT partner, applauds CWT's co-directors, noting, "The generous leadership of Jennifer, John and Kristin is an inspiration to all of us in the theater, theater education, and youth arts communities. We have been partnering with CWT in numerous ways for several years now, and find every meeting with these guys to be creative, smart and mission-driven. They open the doors of their theater to companies from around the world and to people just next door, to youth and adults, to friends and strangers, all with an equal sense of warmth and welcome, and with a wonderful sense of the adventure that is about to happen once you enter."
Join the celebration
To celebrate 20 years of innovative and impressive leadership, the Charlestown Working Theater Board of Directors is hosting a celebration on Sunday, Feb. 10 from 4-7 p.m. at the Warren Tavern.
Tickets cost $30 and are available online at www.charlestownworkingtheater.org or at the door. Stop by to congratulate Jennifer, John and Kristin on 20 years of dedicated and inspired leadership and learn about CWT's future plans.