Growing up in Milwaukee, Peter G. Andersen knew from a young age that he wanted to work in theater. After graduating from Emerson College in Boston, he spent time working in the Chicagoland theater community including at Steppenwolf Theatre Company as the multicultural fellow and at Writers Theatre in Glencoe as the education manager. In December, he earned his Master of Fine Arts (MFA) from Carnegie Mellon University and has now returned to Chicago as Oak Park Festival Theatre’s new artistic director.
Founded in 1975, Oak Park Festival Theatre is one of the oldest theater companies in the area. It currently has a two-play season: a Shakespeare production in the summer in Austin Gardens and a classical play in the fall that is an immersive piece typically performed throughout either the park district’s Cheney Mansion or Pleasant Home.
“When I lived in Chicago previously, I had heard amazing things about Festival Theatre from friends. The festival combines the best of both worlds. You get the summer stock experience, but you don’t have to live in actor housing,” said Andersen. He had always planned to return to Chicago after graduate school, so when he saw the job posting for artistic director, it felt like a rare opportunity.
“I’m really interested in the history of Oak Park and in how integrated it is, which is unique not just to Chicago but to the country as a whole. It gives us an opportunity to create a diverse and integrated audience. I’m excited to lead a company that is striving for that diversity while telling classical stories, especially because that’s my background. I spent most of my twenties working with Shakespeare festivals. This job is the perfect match between my background and a desire for a more diverse experience. It was really serendipitous.”
Barbara Cimaglio, president of the Festival’s board of directors, said, “One of our goals in hiring a new artistic director was to broaden our scope and seek a person who could lead us in becoming a more diverse organization. Peter’s background with several area theater groups, as well as his connections with the national theater community through his education at Carnegie Mellon and his East Coast experience, made him the ideal candidate to help us move into the next phase of our theater’s development.”
Tom Arvetis, who became Festival Theatre’s managing director in January 2022, echoed Andersen’s and Cimaglio’s desire to create a more diverse experience. “We can only expect our community and our audience to grow in [diversity, equity, and inclusion] if we are doing that work ourselves. It’s intentional work that doesn’t just happen because we say we want it to happen. … It’s a terrific challenge and one that I’m very excited to work with Peter and our board of directors to undertake.”
Another challenge that Andersen and Arvetis are working to embrace is finding ways to include more young people in the theater experience. They both come from arts education backgrounds and have some new ideas to engage a younger audience including a teen event night for a performance, matinees for school groups, and an education program that includes summer camps. Arvetis said, “We are fulfilling a social role in encouraging young people to be courageous, to build their confidence, and to recognize that most accomplishments are a group effort. The arts have a role to play in developing a sense of civic life. We want to be seen as an important resource to our community in this regard.”
In the short term, however, as they head into the upcoming season, Andersen is excited about working with designers he knows from the East Coast. “I’ll be bringing in designers whose resumes are stacked. They do incredible work in scenery, costumes, light and media, and sound. It’s going to be a really strong team. So in addition to seeing fresh faces on the stage, the stage itself will feel fresh.”
Revisiting Shakespeare with an eye toward modern sensibilities is a theme that Andersen continually returns to. “The thing I love about Shakespeare is that the plays are set outside of our cultural and political climate. It allows for really diverse casting. You can invite all sorts of folks into the plays in a way that contemporary plays don’t allow,” he said. “I hope we can continue to find new and interesting ways to tell these classic stories — to continually try to crack them open and reexamine them.”
Oak Park Festival Theatre will be releasing information about its annual summer and fall productions soon. Visit www.oakparkfestival.com for details of the 2023 season.