On Theater, a Life of Learning, and the Liberal Arts Philosophy

By Emma Forgione

A scholar, writer, director, historian, and devoted educator, Jim Peck has done it all. Joining ΦBK at Carleton College in 1986, Peck turned a BA in religion into an MFA in theatrical directing, a PhD in performance studies, and an editorial position for a major academic research publication. 

Peck is currently the editor of an eight volume series about the history of stage direction in North America under contract with Bloomsbury Methuen. His responsibilities include designing the volume, deciding which directors will be covered, hiring volume editors, as well as editing a single volume himself. In addition, Peck has been composing a section himself on American Opera Director Peter Sellars. He says he is “tracing a braid between the spiritual and political in Peter’s work,” concentrating on Sellar’s productions of John Adam’s Nixon In China, Handel’s Theodora, and Henry Purcell’s The Indian Queen. Peck also returns to his background in religion to inform his writing about these great works of American theater. 

“Religion is a series of symbols and patterns of meaning and ways of forming community and telling stories upon which people govern their lives and actions,” Peck observes. “People use it to explain their place in the world in ways that are meaningful and important, and for me that’s what theater should aspire to do.” 

This is just one way Peck traverses the different disciplines of his liberal arts education in the course of his work. He is also an accomplished stage director in his own right and incorporates a similar broad approach to each project he undertakes. 

“As a director, every time there’s a project, you’re in a new world that you need to learn and know about, whether that’s a history that informs the world, the politics that inform the world, the social interactions, the patterns of behavior, the ecology that informs the story,” Peck says. “There’s something wonderful about being a director because you’re always sort of a dilatant… the liberal arts is the perfect preparation for that kind of engagement.” 

And something wonderful that small liberal arts colleges often offer is fantastic mentors. Peck has had no lack of mentorship. As a small town kid from Wyoming, he had no real access to theater before Carleton and before meeting Ruth Weiner, who opened him up to a fantastical world he’d never seen before, but upon seeing needed to be a part of. In graduate school, he also had acclaimed theater director Anne Bogart as a mentor, who showed him the idea that “theater making was a way to live and a spiritual discipline,” he recalls. 

Peck now devotes his life to carrying the liberal arts philosophy forward and teaching young theater makers like he once was. “If you’ve done your liberal arts education right, you develop confidence in your ability to assess a situation, read a room, and if you don’t know about something, research it,” Peck says. “It’s the kind of notion that knowledge isn’t static—it’s a thing that gets made. Graduating from a liberal arts college is much harder than making a living. You have shown that you have the ability to pursue the thing that you want.” 

Peck is incredibly proud of his ΦBK membership and supports all of his students who achieve this status. “It’s an accomplishment, a serious accomplishment, and the people who have been accepted I want them to know that I appreciate that accomplishment,” Peck says. “It shows that you have developed a work ethic.”

Muhlenberg College is lucky to have a devoted educator like Jim Peck, inspiring students to follow in his footsteps towards pursuing the paths they truly desire. “Learning is fundamental to living a happy and fulfilled life,” Peck observes.

Emma Forgione (ΦBK, Muhlenberg College, 2018) is a recent graduate in English and theater with a minor in creative writing from Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania. Muhlenberg College is home to the Pi of Pennsylvania chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.