By Rudy Malcom
Nearly two decades ago, Craig Pettinati, a talent acquisition manager by day, split from a community theater group in Sandy Spring and — with half the money, a few pieces of wood and a couple radios — founded Kensington Arts Theatre.
In an extremely competitive market, KAT has found success by staying true to its vision of putting on plays and musicals that challenge audiences’ unconscious beliefs about themselves and the world around them.
“Our mission is to do theater that asks good questions and to do shows that other people won’t touch because they’re not easy to do,” says Pettinati, KAT’s artistic director. In 2007, for example, KAT became only the second theater to stage “Nevermore,” a dark and beautifully bizarre musical based on the life and writings of Edgar Allan Poe. This marked a turning point for the community theater, recalls Pettinatti.
“No one else wanted to do the show at that point,” says Pettinatti, who first got hooked on community theater after graduation requirements forced him to take a theater elective his junior year at Salisbury University. “We did it, and we did it well. It’s a moment that we’ll always remember.”
And it will be hard for anyone to forget when KAT and theaters across the country were forced to go dark in March 2020 at the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Fortunately, KAT did not take a financial hit during the shutdown; the group only pays rent to Kensington’s Town Hall when it’s producing shows. Instead, it used the hiatus to overhaul its lighting system, says Carol Jones, who handles KAT’s marketing and public relations.
“We would love to have our own space one day, but we’d have to do some serious fundraising for that, and we’re not at that stage yet,” says Pettinatti.
As a nonprofit organization, KAT relies on grants, donations and the work of volunteers. Even the actors and crew members are unpaid; only the musicians receive a paycheck.
“The biggest challenge we have is finding enough people to help produce the show. It takes so many people,” Pettinati says. “Everybody wants to act, and everybody wants to direct, but people don’t always want to hammer a nail or paint a set.”
In August, KAT returned to the stage with Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None,” adhering to Montgomery County’s COVID-19 guidelines. Its upcoming 20th anniversary season will feature “Of Mice and Men” (Nov. 5-21), “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” (Feb. 18-March 6, 2022) and “Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical” (May 6-22, 2022).
Looking ahead, KAT aims to expand its involvement in the community and to participate in more local events, says Jones. To that end, it is hiring a community liaison to join its Board
The resurgence of Black Lives Matter last summer has also inspired KAT to re-examine its practices around diversity and inclusion, says Pettinati. The theater industry – producers, playwrights, actors, stage crew, even audiences – is predominantly white. There is a privilege in being able to work for little pay, and activists have noted how the industry’s attempts to promote diversity can feel like optics-driven token gestures.
In June 2020, a collective of over 300 BIPOC artists called We See You White American Theatre released a list of demands to promote racial equity in the theater industry. The demands emphasize that theaters must, beyond being “not racist,” become actively anti-racist organizations, with structures in place to support and uplift people of color.
Pettinati notes that, in alignment with its mission, KAT has always favored multiracial casting. But it will continue its work to improve racial representation both on and off stage and to stage more Black productions, such as “A Raisin in the Sun.” “We want to be part of the solution, not the problem,” he says.
Overall, Jones promises that KAT — which has always been a work in progress, according to Pettinati — will keep riding the tide of change.
“In the next 20 years,” she says, “we hope to continue to evolve to be the kind of theater that our audiences want to participate in and want to see.”