‘He built a world of true community’

Lance Petersen, Homer theater pioneer, dead at 81

Lance Petersen, who brought 50 years of magic and joy to Homer as the community’s inspiring drama teacher, stage manager and founding director of Pier One Theatre, died just before sunset on Thursday, Jan. 26, at his home by Beluga Slough. His wife, Barbara, and son, Sascha Petersen, were at his side. He was 81.

Petersen taught drama and managed the theater at Homer High School for 30 years. He directed countless community shows on the stage of the school’s Mariner Theater, a performance space he helped create and design.

In an email announcement to the community, current Pier One director Jennifer Norton said, “He built a world of true community, with stories as the DNA, and with space for us each to grow however we needed. We already miss Lance dreadfully.”

Petersen was born in Bay City, Michigan, in 1941, and came to Alaska not long after when he was 3 years old as his dad (Willard “Bill” Petersen) served as welder on the Aleutian chain during World War II. The family moved from Anchorage to Kenai when he was a teenager and he graduated from the Kenai Territorial High School in 1958. His mother, Jean McMaster, was influential to the Kenai theater community of the era.

Petersen’s love of theater, drama and the arts grew while attending Alaska Methodist University, where he graduated with a degree in Speech and Drama. He met Barbara (Bell) Petersen in Anchorage. They were married in 1969 and moved to Homer in 1969.

Lance was one of four people in 1973 who provided $50 each to start Pier One Theatre (other contributors were his wife, Barbara, and Richard and Donna Dixon). Pier One Theatre is celebrating its 50th season this summer. Pier One got its name from the location of the original theater, in a city warehouse on a pier where you could look down through the floor boards and see the tide, the beach and children running around. This is where the ferry terminal is located now. The current Pier One Theatre was constructed in 1985.

During his 44 years as executive/artistic director, Lance directed more than 100 shows and acted in nearly as many. These included: “West Side Story,” “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Les Miserables” and “Man of La Mancha.” A few of them, such as “The Good Doctor” and “You Can’t Take it With You” were revisited and performed more than once over the years. The precocious theatrical productions won plaudits for consistently high standards of acting and stagecraft.

Petersen was also a writer and was active in recording the complex history of Kenai, the town where he grew up. He wrote a short history of the town, and in the early 1980s, with the help of a grant from the Alaska State Council on the Arts, Petersen and Kenai Central High School band director Robert Richardson revised the script for “Ballad of the Kenai,” which debuted in Kenai in 1975. The two took the musical to the Alaska state theater competition in Haines, won that competition and then won the Northwest regional competition the next night (including performers from California, Oregon, Washington and Idaho). The national competition was in Kalamazoo, Michigan, five or six months later, and although they did not win that competition, got a standing ovation.

“I was about 6 years old at the time and actually got to be part of the show,” Sascha Petersen said this week. “To me, the fact that a small group of performers were so committed to their craft that they were able to come together, perform an original script and tell the story of Alaska with such authenticity and heart that it brought the audience to their feet speaks volumes to the quality of the work and to the way my Dad was always able to cultivate a space that allowed people to do their best or perhaps more than they thought possible.”

Lance Petersen later earned a master’s in speech and drama from the University of Alaska. He was instrumental in the early years of both campuses of the Kenai Peninsula colleges in Kenai and Homer and served as faculty in humanities, creative arts and drama courses for both campuses. He also authored a publication that tells the story of these campuses, “The Kenai Peninsula College History,” published in 1992.

Petersen was a member of Alaska State Council on the Arts for about 20 years and served on the board there. In 2017, he received a Governor’s Award for the Arts, in recognition for his lifetime contributions to the Arts in the State.

A memorial service is likely to be held this summer. For those wishing to contribute, donations can be made to Pier One Theatre (https://pieronetheatre.org/donate).

Emilie Springer can be reached at emilie.springer@homernews.com.

Photo contributed by Sascha Petersen
Lance Petersen on Kachemak Bay.

Photo contributed by Sascha Petersen Lance Petersen on Kachemak Bay.

Photo contributed by Pier One Theatre
Lance Petersen directs “The Music Man” for Pier One Theatre.

Photo contributed by Pier One Theatre Lance Petersen directs “The Music Man” for Pier One Theatre.