DD ARTIST PROFILE SERIES – Justin Peck Is Duluth’s Mr. Theater
Actor and director Justin Peck was creating theater even as a child when, as he relates, he was “staging epic adventure stories with my action figures.” Since then, he has gone on to much bigger stages and is now at the very heart of the area's theatrical scene.
Raised in rural northwestern Wisconsin, about 25 miles outside Spooner, he left there to attend the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He took several creative writing and theater classes. However, his primary focus was film. Justin graduated in 1995 with a Radio/TV/Film degree. He also studied improv at Brave New Workshop for several years after college.
He describes his career path as a “winding one.” He worked at two different television stations during college in various roles. After college, he used his film degree to manage a video store in the Twin Cities briefly and did production assistance work for films being shot in the Metro before taking a position as a Broadcast Engineer at KSTP-TV.
At the same time, he started his first company, which did computer animation. “As the late 90s unfolded, I rode the wave of the dot com boom, transitioning into a career as a software developer. The next 26 years saw me hopping between companies, initiating several startups, and pioneering one of the first location-based mobile gaming firms,” Justin said. He has also been a software architect for the BigBadToyStore since 2012.
“The first bit of theater I can remember is a play I wrote and directed in first grade about Valentine’s Day and striking up a friendship. Growing up, theater opportunities were scarce. I performed in 4H plays, joined the Drama Club in high school, directed a youth theater production, and got the chance to perform in our two senior-class plays. I was always writing plays and radio dramas, however, and recording them on cassette,” he noted.
He added, “I was part of a lovely community theater in Wisconsin for several years . . .where I had the good fortune to play several dream roles, including Benedick, Oscar Madison, and Fagin.”
“The most impactful mentors I've encountered are the artists I get to collaborate with. Duluth’s arts community is so vibrant, and the immense talent and creativity of the artists here offer me continuous opportunities for learning and inspiration,” he said.
Since coming to Duluth, Justin has acted in ten shows mostly for the Playhouse, Including playing a lead in “Mamma Mia,” the opening show at the renovated NorShor, He has directed four shows, two at the Underground and two at the Playhouse.
“What draws me to theater, and narrative art as a whole, is the power of storytelling. Stories are our way of making sense of the world, offering windows to see life through others' eyes and mirrors in which we recognize ourselves,” stated Peck. “Theater brings a unique immediacy and transience to these stories, creating a shared physical space that amplifies their impact in a way no other medium can. It’s this vulnerability and intimacy in theater that I find so potent.”
Justin also helps to coordinate the Duluth Classic Film Series at Zeitgeist along with Jody Kujawa and Jason Scorich, He is the current President of the Board for the Duluth Playhouse, and he is a member of the actual-play podcast Twin Portals.
“Spamalot” Times Two
The musical “Spamalot” that Justin directed at the Duluth Playhouse holds a special place in his memory due to the unprecedented circumstances surrounding it.
“We were about to open in early March of 2020 when Covid hit, and everyone went into lockdown. The set stayed in place on the NorShor stage for 18 months gathering dust while theaters were shuttered.”
He added, “When we were finally ready to try live theater again, we were only able to bring back half the cast, so we recast the roles for performers who were unable to return, went through the entire rehearsal process again, this time masked and socially distanced. It was the first production on the NorShor stage after the shutdown.”
“To me, it feels like I directed “Spamalot” twice. The first version almost no one got to see. The second version was under crazy circumstances. It was unlike anything I had ever experienced, and I hope I never have to do that again,” he said.
“I’m married to my best friend, Jody. We’ve known each other since elementary school, and I’m still head over heels about her. She also makes theatre, but her primary passion is education. She’s an elementary school teacher for ISD 709, and that takes up the majority of her time,” he noted.
Justin and Jody have four adult children, all of whom grew up onstage. “Out of all the things I’ve done over the course of my life, I can say without hesitation that they are what I’m most proud of,” he said.
Justin, Jody, and their youngest child Kaylee moved to Duluth from Northwestern in early 2015. “Our three older children were in college, we had always loved the North Shore, and we felt it was time for a change. We fell in love with Duluth and this community immediately. We're so grateful to be here.”
New Twist on Pride & Prejudice
Justin is excited about his current production, “Pride & Prejudice,” coming up at Zeitgeist Theater; he explained, “Jane Austen’s novel is a masterpiece, and Kate Hamill’s irreverent, slightly naughty adaptation somehow elevates the sarcasm and wit of the original to farcical levels without losing any of the emotional depth,” he said.
Justin noted that Hamill said that the play should be done with as few props and scenic elements as possible, with the energy of kids playing dress up, and that’s the approach he and his cast are taking.
“No set, very few scenic elements and props, just some of Duluth’s best actors making magic. My goal (and the challenge of this piece) is to strike the right balance between farce and emotional truth. It’s a tricky line to walk but the cast is extraordinary and more than up to the challenge,” he stated.
“It’s always my goal to make work I can be proud of with brilliantly talented collaborators. “Pride & Prejudice” is a great example of that. Everyone involved is passionate and contributing ideas that consistently elevate the piece. It’s a constant source of joy for me . . . And being able to launch the new Zeitgeist Theater is an absolute honor,” said Justin.
“Another Openin’ Another Show”
Justin continues to be a cheerleader and “Mr. Theater” for the community with his support for other theater companies, whether he is performing or directing there or not.
His calendar continues to fill up with theatrical gigs. In April, Justin is directing “Constellations” for the Duluth Playhouse in their intimate black box Lab space. In May, he’ll be appearing onstage for “Peter and the Starcatcher” (Duluth Playhouse) and in “The Macbeth Dinner Party” in October (Zeitgeist).
“I’ve got a few more things in the works too, but I’m not quite ready to announce those yet. Stay tuned,” he said.
ZEITGEIST THEATER PRESENTS: “PRIDE & PREJUDICE”
Feb 14th – 24th (Wed – Sun week one & Thurs – Sat week two)
7:30 pm evenings & 2 pm Sunday matinee
For tickets, go to zeitgeistarts.com/theater or call 218-336-1412
“This isn’t your grandmother’s Austen! Bold, surprising, boisterous, and timely, this P&P for a new era explores the absurdities and thrills of finding your perfect (or imperfect) match in life. The outspoken Lizzy Bennet is determined to never marry, despite mounting pressure from society. But can she resist love, especially when that vaguely handsome, mildly amusing, and impossibly aggravating Mr. Darcy keeps popping up at every turn?! Literature’s greatest tale of latent love has never felt so theatrical, or so full of life than it does in this effervescent adaptation. Because what turns us into greater fools…than the high-stakes game of love?” From Zeitgeist Theater site