Jonathan Berry, in the balcony of the Penobscot Theater overlooking the stage, is the new artistic director. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

After 25 years spent working in Chicago’s renowned theater scene, Jonathan Berry packed up a U-Haul and moved to Bangor in July, to start a new life as artistic director of Penobscot Theatre Company, Bangor’s only professional theater group, which kicks off its 49th season next week.

So far, he’s found a new favorite coffee shop, enjoyed letting his dog, a pit bull mix named Merle, experience the great outdoors, and learned that in Maine, you have to call the power company to switch on your electricity — something he learned the hard way, arriving in Bangor late at night to lights that wouldn’t turn on.

He may come from Steppenwolf Theatre, the legendary Chicago company famed for birthing plays like “August: Osage County” and “True West,” but Berry said that the challenges faced by any theater company are generally the same, no matter their size, location or financial situation, a fact made even more clear by the pandemic.

“I don’t think there’s a regional theater company out there that didn’t get really scared when the pandemic shut them down,” Berry said. “And it’s always that push and pull between selling tickets and making the art that inspires people. It doesn’t matter if you’re in Chicago or Bangor, in that sense. We’re all trying to build a creative community.”

Berry, 43, will make his Penobscot Theatre directorial debut next week with “Clarkston,” the opening production of the season. It’s a contemporary play about two young men working at a big box store in a small town, who struggle with myriad problems, from addiction and family trauma to their sexualities and dashed hopes and dreams.

The new director of the Penboscot Theatre sits in a chair.
Jonathan Berry is the new Penobscot Theatre artistic director. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN

It’s exactly the kind of play that Berry hopes to produce lots of in the coming years — engaging, funny and accessible, but with important messages at the heart of the story. Using theater as a teaching tool and a way to provoke conversations with an audience is something he became very passionate about, first as a director and then as a longtime educator with Steppenwolf’s school of theater.

“I think there are robust conversations we can have with our audiences. I’m not so naive to think that a play will change your life, but I am a true believer in the power of theater,” Berry said. “Having access to someone else’s point of view can just help knock a few things loose. And if you can be entertained and delighted while that happens, then we’ve done our job.”

The upcoming season will be Penobscot Theatre’s first full season in four years, after three seasons that were either cut short by the pandemic or presented virtually. It’s also the first after the departure of artistic director Bari Newport, who left in 2021 after nearly 10 years at the helm of the company.

Berry plans to mix crowd-pleasing shows like PTC’s holiday production of “Peter and the Starcatcher” and it’s summer musical “Mary Poppins” with plays like “Clarkston,” or the upcoming comedy “Matt and Ben,” written by Mindy Kaling and Brenda Withers, which uses Matt Damon and Ben Affleck’s writing of the “Good Will Hunting” script to create a hilarious satire. Though Berry professes a love for innovative and engaging plays, he said he got his start as an actor through musical theater, and wants to make sure Penobscot Theatre produces shows that can appeal to both grandmothers and their grandkids, and those who want something a little more challenging.

“I want people to be able to have a diversity of experiences when they step into the opera house,” Berry said. “My end goal is for our community to be really proud of the work we do here — not just because it’s fun and entertaining, but because there’s some real meat on the bones of the things we produce.”

“Clarkston” premieres on Sept. 15 at the Bangor Opera House, and runs through Oct. 2. Tickets are available at  

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated Berry’s job title at Penobscot Theatre Company.

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Emily Burnham

Emily Burnham is a Maine native and proud Bangorian, covering business, the arts, restaurants and the culture and history of the Bangor region.