Longtime Peterborough Players artistic director passes the torch

  • Susie Stevens, Kate Hampton, David Breitbarth and Tom Frey in Gus Kaikkonen’s production of ‘God of Carnage’ during the summer of 2016, on a set designed by Kaikkonen. Courtesy photo

  • Gus Kaikkonen, front, with Lucas Van Engen and in ‘Red’ during the Peterborough Players summer season in 2015. Courtesy photo

  • Longtime Peterborough Players Artistic Director Gus Kaikkonen with Players Managing Director Keith Stevens, who both began their work with the theatre organization 25 years ago, in 1997. Courtesy photo

  • Gus Kaikkonen (center) on stage with his cast of ‘Tartuffe’, produced during the Peterborough Players summer season in 2010. Courtesy photo

  • Gus Kaikkonen starred alongside Lisa Bostnar in ‘Annapurna’ during the summer of 2016 at the Peterborough Players. Courtesy photo

  • Gus Kaikkonen portrayed Dumas in ‘Dumas' Camille’ during the summer of 2019 at the Peterborough Players. Courtesy photo

  • Gus Kaikkonen with the cast of ‘The Winter's Tale’, produced during the summer season of 2006 at the Peterborough Players. Courtesy photo

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 12/23/2020 3:39:12 PM

For more than half his professional life, Gus Kaikkonen has called the Peterborough Players his artistic home. It’s where the longtime artistic director has worked with legendary actors and helped mentor others just cutting their teeth in the theater business.

He has helped plan and arrange more than two decades of summer seasons and over the previous four years, done the same for a shortened winter lineup. Add it all up and Kaikkonen has in some way, shape or form put his fingerprints on more than 160 shows – and that’s not even counting all the Second Company productions, which began during Kaikkonen’s first year on staff. He has directed and acted, designed sets and helped raise the bar for the small town theater organization with a longstanding tradition and national recognition. But as they say, all good things must come to an end.

On Friday, the Players announced that Kaikkonen will be leaving the Players after 25 years in his role as artistic director. Tom Frey, who was named associate artistic director earlier this year, will make the move into the top chair.

“Change is good – at least that’s what they tell you,” Kaikkonen said. “We had 25 really good years.”

Kaikkonen said the thought of finding a good time to pass the baton had entered his mind in recent years, often wondering “if I did leave, how would that happen?”

He said he was approached by the Players board about the transition and thought this moment in time would make as much sense as any other. Yet, that doesn’t make it any easier to leave his home away from home.

“My heart is broken. I’m inconsolable, but at the same time I’m looking forward to what comes next,” Kaikkonen said. “The whole ride has been extremely emotional.”

Managing Director Keith Stevens, who was hired the same year as Kaikkonen, knew at some point one of them was going to be the first to take a new path.

“I couldn’t ask for a better partner to run the theater with for the last 25 years,” Stevens said.

Kaikkonen said the plan is to get his freelance career back up and running on a more consistent basis and without the limitations of his duties with the Players, he will be free to take on any project he likes.

“Having the summer back was a revelatory thing in my life,” Kaikkonen said after the Players season, which would have been the milestone No. 25, was canceled in April; he said he already has two jobs lined up “as soon as COVID is over.”

“This will infuse a whole different kind of energy,” he said.

Over the last two-plus decades, Kaikkonen has gotten numerous calls from his agent about potential jobs and it always meant a check of the Players schedule to see if it conflicted. Kaikkonen said the summer off gave him a chance to reflect, especially how much work went into a season.

“You work six months to put together a summer,” he said. From reading plays and picking ones you like to contacting actors for key roles, only to find out the perfect person wasn’t available and scrapping the show idea all together.

It’s disappointing his final year will be marked by a season that never was, which would have featured Kaikkonen as Leonard Bernstein in the season opener “Last Call” and a reprise of “Mouse Trap,” originally put on during Kaikkonen and Stevens’ first season in 1996. He still remembers being in New York, where he has lived for 47 years, on March 11, taking in a performance of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” only to watch as Broadway shutdown the following day. It wasn’t long after that when the Players made its announcement.

“You realize this six to eight months worth of work was going to fall apart,” Kaikkonen said.

What Kaikkonen will miss is the relationships he’s made over the last 25 years and the intimate memories created when putting together a show.

“It’s about finding a group of people you wanted to be a family with for a short amount of time,” he said. “That was where the joy for me came.”

Stevens said Kaikkonen had this uncanny ability to see a play from every angle.

“He has an understanding of all the elements that goes into a production,” Stevens said. “He’s done it all and that is rare.”

Stevens said across any subject matter, whether it was a heavy drama or light hearted comedy, Kaikkonen would turn it into something special.

“No matter what the play was, Gus would find the way to the heart of it,” Stevens said. “So it resonated regardless of what the piece was.”

Over the years, Kaikkonen has worked with so many great professionals on so many great plays, and way too many to name them all. But one duo sticks out – James Whitmore and Carmen Decker – in a performance of “About Time.”

Whitmore wanted to do the play again after, as Kaikkonen explains, his first go around with it just wasn’t right. The two character play features a married couple and Kaikkonen suggested Decker as Whitmore’s leading lady.

“She’s the greatest actress I’ve worked with in my life,” Kaikkonen said. “That play was one of the great joys of my life.”

And Kaikkonen’s praise for Decker is matched in Stevens’s thinking about his partner for the last quarter century.

“Gus is the best director I’ve ever worked with,” Stevens said.

For Frey, he got to work under the direction of Kaikkonen in upwards of 20 productions.

“I’ve been lucky enough to work with him a whole lot on a whole range of plays,” Frey said.

And it’s that range part that has left a lasting impression on Frey.

At the time when Frey first came to the Players to work on a production of “2 Pianos, 4 Hands,” he was “at a point in my career where I was doing one kind of show,” he said, widely known and sought after for his work on the piano. But after Kaikkonen saw his performance, the longtime artistic director said he had three roles for Frey, one of them in “Arms and the Man.”

“It was just so far from what others had allowed me to do,” Frey said. “But Gus just sees things in people that others don’t.” Frey called it a turning point in his career, a rebirth in a way.

“One of the things Gus has a genius for is seeing into plays,” Frey said. “He understand them so deeply.” He’s also quite clear in his vision for a play, Frey said.

“One invaluable lesson for me was just seeing him direct,” Frey said.

When Kaikkonen was hired in 1995, it was after a nationwide search and “for some reason they picked me,” he said. And back in 1996, he never even thought about how long it would last.

“It’s been 25 years. That’s a long time,” he said.

Kaikkonen said he’d of course be interested in a return, but joked “if I was Tom, I’d keep me away from the Players.” At the same time, he can’t wait to see what the Players has in store when they are able to return to the stage.

“It’s the beginning of a new era for all of us,” he said.


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