Alum spotlight: Peterson Townsend (BFA ’01)

collage of photos

Peterson Townsend, BFA, Performance 2001

When working in New York, Pete got a call from his agent offering him an $80K job to read a VO for a documentary. When he saw the pay, Pete quickly realized that the producers were expecting the legendary guitarist Pete Townshend of The Who. Growing up in Newport News, VA, Pete would sometimes have teachers who mentioned that he had the same name, “I like to think it got me out of trouble.”

from The Day the Bronx Died – Raymond Anderson, Pete, and Clifton Davis

Once he got to VCU, “They put us to work right at the start. Freshman year, some of the good friendships were built early because we worked so hard. I was barely in my dorm, but we were doing something we liked doing.” His first show was Stand Up Tragedy, directed by Gary Hopper (former Acting Professor) and his senior lead in the production of The Day the Bronx Died was also directed by Hopper.  “It put a cap on the VCU experience.”

Pete as Wanchese at The Lost Colony

Every summer during college, Pete worked at the North Carolina outdoor drama, The Lost Colony. Pete’s freshman summer David Leong (former Chair of Theatre) was brought down to direct the fights and he suggested Pete, who was cast and bumped up to the major role of Wanchese for the next three summers.

One of Pete’s first shows after graduation was at the Americulture Arts Festival in Fitchburg, just outside of Boston. He was playing George in Our Town when 9/11 happened. “That stopped the world. Part of me questioned my career, but we decided, ‘This is the job we have to do and audiences are still coming.’”

Pete in Miss Bennett: Christmas at Pemberley (St. Louis Rep)

Soon after, he moved to Jersey City, “essentially New York,” where’s he’s lived ever since, with the exception of regional shows in Chicago, St Louis, Cincinnati and Baltimore. Like many New York actors, he got to work in TV, where he did “the Law and Order trifecta” (all three shows in the franchise).

Pete on Law an Order SVU

The toughest part was on Criminal Intent, when his character got shot in the back of the head. “My dead body lay on cold concrete in Brooklyn for ten hours at 2am and it was freezing.” He also had an autopsy “with weird green paint to make me look dead and fake staples my on chest.” During his scene with Chris Noth, he was told he couldn’t breathe when Noth was speaking. At least, “there were no lines to memorize.”

Pete as the Shark in Swimming in the Shallows (Kitchen Theatre Co, 2015)

In 2004, a friend he worked with at The Lost Colony suggested him for Aida at the Metropolitan Opera. The company employs non-singing actors to fill out the cast (formerly called supernumeraries). In Pete’s case his training in stage combat was an asset. He was delightfully surprised in 2019, when David Leong was brought in to direct the fights for Porgy and Bess, “I didn’t know if he was doing it until the first day of rehearsals, and I didn’t think he’d remember me, but he did!” Pete’s been in more than 100 productions at the Met and is looking forward to continuing the gig for the near future.

Pete and the other stevedores of Catfish Row behind the scenes of Porgy and Bess (Met Opera, 2021)
Pete in Satchel Paige and the Kansas City Swing (St. Louis Rep, 2016)
Porgy and Bess at the Met

Header image (clockwise from bottom left): one of Pete’s headshot; Pete participating in the reading of Birdie & Tim, a new play by Kevin Ray Johnson at Chain Theatre; America Version 2.1 at Barrington Stage Company; Pete smiling; Pete backstage at the Met Opera

Compiled by Liz Hopper (professor emeritus) and Jerry Williams (BFA ’71) for the December 2021 Theatre Alumni newsletter