Anita W. Harris | Signal Tribune
When Jon Peterson quit his job in April 2018 after 10 years in the tradeshow industry, he never thought he’d be presiding at the Ernest Borgnine Theatre a year-and-a-half later as director of his own theatrical production company.
“I gave three days’ notice and then was on a flight to Taiwan to teach kids musical theatre,” he told the Signal Tribune in an Oct. 1 interview.
Peterson had enjoyed his previous job but said it wasn’t fulfilling, so he took a leap of faith to explore his artistic side, armed with 30 years’ experience as an actor and an MBA in finance. After his five-week contract in Taiwan was up, Peterson came back home unemployed.
Fortunately, Peterson knew Tim Cable, a Mason and personal representative of the Long Beach Scottish Rite, which houses the Ernest Borgnine Theatre. Peterson had performed in two shows at the theatre– Forever Plaid in 2016 and A Christmas Carol in 2017, in which Cable had played Scrooge.
Peterson asked Cable if he could rent the theatre for a season and produce a show every couple of months. The Rite usually rents out the space for events such as graduations and dance recitals when the Masons don’t use it to award degrees.
“He said, ‘Why don’t you just become a resident theatre company?’” Peterson recalls Cable saying. “Now we’re the resident theatre company here.”
Peterson credits Cable’s passion for theater as the crucial component of his company finding a home.
“He’s putting his neck out as well because he’s having to convince his board to let us have so much freedom within their space,” he said. “Because this belongs to the Masons, ultimately.”
Though Peterson’s P3 Theatre Company– the Ps standing for passionate, progressive and pragmatic– became incorporated as a nonprofit in August 2018, Peterson said things only got rolling at the end of last year, mostly with him as a one-man show.
“I haven’t slept much in nine months,” he said. “But I’ve enjoyed it, so it’s not work to me.”
Though P3’s board mostly consists of friends and family and relies on volunteers, Peterson expects the company will solidify as it grows.
“We’re well on our way to becoming more organized as we’re getting our name out there and getting more structured,” he said.
To that end, Peterson has lined up an ambitious range of productions for P3’s first season, beginning with Andrew Lloyd Weber & Tim Rice’s musical, Evita, which just completed a successful run at the ornate theatre.
Over 100 patrons attended each Evita performance between its first and final shows, which were even larger, Peterson said.
“For a brand-new theater company and for a space that people don’t recognize as a theater, that’s pretty darn great,” he said.
Peterson had invited the widow of actor (and Mason) Ernest Borgnine, who died in 2012, to attend the performance at his namesake theatre. Though Tova was in London at the time, she graciously sent flowers on Evita’s opening night, Peterson said.
Peterson credits the success of the show to casting Christy Mauro-Cohen and Euriamis Losada as the two leads, Eva Perón and Che, as well as director and choreographer Jimmy Hippenstiel, who had directed Peterson in Evita 23 years ago. That production had also included Mauro-Cohen and Rudy Martinez, who Peterson cast as Juan Perón in this production.
“Without the Eva and Che that I had, I would have done something else,” Peterson reflected. “It’s just too big of a risk with a show like this and roles like that, which are so heavy vocally and acting-wise.”
Peterson also credits a talented ensemble of 23 additional performers, only a few of whom were references.
“I had budgeted for 18 chorus members, but I expanded that to 23 because there was just so much talent and I really wanted to show Long Beach what we can do,” he said.
Next up for P3 is Steel Magnolias in November, whose cast Peterson has already selected and for which a beauty-parlor set is being designed. Because of his own acting experience, Peterson wants to make sure the actors get what they want from productions, whether it’s a professional platform or simply personal fulfillment, he said.
“Being a brand-new theatre company, [the actors] don’t know what to expect,” he said. “If you develop a negative reputation as a theatre company, quality people aren’t going to want to work for you.”
Tenuous grant funding and limited manpower also continue to challenge the company, Peterson said.
“Finances are always a challenge as a nonprofit startup,” he said. “For Evita, things from lighting equipment to props– everything– we had to either rent, bring in or borrow.”
But Peterson said the magic of theatre pulled everyone together, and he was pleased to see that the cast even ate lunch together between matinee and evening performances.
Witnessing Evita’s first rehearsal was when he realized it was all worth it, Peterson said.
“Realizing that I’d created this platform, this space, for all these people who have the same passion as I do to come together and bare their souls– the excitement in their eyes was invigorating to me,” he said. “Any challenges, obstacles, stresses, any tears, any frustration– it all just got washed away with seeing that.”
Peterson sees P3 continuing to take root and grow in Long Beach for a long time.
“My five-year plan is to be on the stage at Radio City Music Hall, accepting our special Tony Award for regional theatre,” he said. “I don’t think small. If it takes longer than five years, it takes longer. If it takes shorter, it takes shorter.”
Along the way, he has gotten help from the Long Beach-based Nonprofit Partnership, the Arts Council of Long Beach, the Long Beach Convention & Visitors Bureau (CVB) and the Long Beach Chamber of Commerce. He also recently joined the Leadership Long Beach Institute.
“It’s neat to get involved with these different community organizations,” he said. “You see just how cohesive Long Beach is.”
Peterson also believes in paying his success forward. He describes P3’s mission as creating employment opportunities for theatrical artists and making sure the entire community has access to the arts, such as by providing free tickets to veterans and low-income seniors.
“One of my strictest policies is that nobody will be denied entrance to the theatre because they don’t have the money to come,” he said. “The theatre’s been very good to me. It’s my turn to take it and give it back.”
Above all, Peterson hopes P3 will infuse Long Beach with a breath of fresh air.
“If I could say anything else to the community, it would be ‘Go to the theatre– any theatre,’” he said. “It not only provides employment, it’s therapeutic for the patrons, for the people on the stage, for the people backstage. Just support the arts.”
For more information on the P3 Theatre Company, including upcoming productions, visit P3Theatre.biz.