Philadelphia Leadership: Jennifer Carlson, Executive Director, The Colonial Theatre


Jennifer Carlson Executive Director at The Colonial Theatre in Phoenixville
Image via The Colonial Theatre.
Jennifer Carlson Executive Director at The Colonial Theatre in Phoenixville

Jennifer L. Carlson, Executive Director of the Colonial Theatre, grew up in Lancaster County and moved several times as a kid. To make friends, she was very involved in school activities, including track, band, and the school newspaper, and got her first part-time job at age 13.

After studying theatre at Temple University, Carlson worked as an apprentice stage manager at the Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia but ultimately decided she wanted to pursue other interests, including historic buildings. Her role at the Colonial Theatre lets her combine those interests as she experiments with innovative new programming.

Where were you born and where did you grow up?

I was born the second oldest out of five kids in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. I lived in Manheim, Christiana, and Columbia at different times, and was then living in York by my high school years.

What did your parents do?

Jennifer Carlson 3 years old and acting out a mustard commercial.
Jennifer at 3-years-old and acting out a mustard commercial.

My mother was the Data Systems Director for Consolidated School of Business in York, where she worked for over 30 years.  My father, a carpenter, wasn’t part of my life.

What memories stay with you from growing up in Lancaster?

Going out and riding my bike. I used to ride down to the creek and explore, and I played hopscotch, tag, and kickball with the other kids in my neighborhood. In many ways, it was more idyllic than I realized at the time.

When we lived in York, when I was in high school, a lot of my good memories involved going to the historic theater there, which is now called the Appell Center for the Performing Arts. My mom would take us to watch classic movies at this gorgeous old theater, and I just loved it.

Did you play any sports in high school?

I was on the varsity track team. I lettered in shotput and discus, and sometimes I would do javelin as an exhibition. I learned a lot, being on the track team.

I was also in the marching band that played at the football games. I played the clarinet and alto sax.

You moved around a lot when you were a kid. How did you acclimate yourself in each new home that you found yourself in?

Being active in school helped me make friends – band, track, and other school activities. By the time I graduated high school, I was in everything. I was the editor of the school paper, I was in Students Against Drunk Driving, and I was in Junior Achievement. Being so active kept me connected with people and helped me get over some of those hurdles.

In my family, humor is very important. I was always looking for a joke or a reason to laugh, and I think that helped build relationships, too.

Jennifer Carlson YC Track 1991
Jennifer on her high school track team (circa 1991)

What kind of jobs did you have when you were young?

My very first job was when I was 13. I worked part-time doing some cleaning for the school where my mom worked. I was very anxious to start working, and they let me work a few hours a week.

Why were you anxious to start working?

I think my mom was an example. She was a single, working mother, and my grandparents, who were a big part of our lives, were very hard workers. I don’t think they ever sat down. It was also a way for me to spend time with my mom because she often had to go in on the weekends and work on the computers.

My next job after that was as a waitress at a diner in York.

What jobs did you do through college?

I graduated high school, went to college for one year, and then took a couple of years off because I was putting myself through college and didn’t really do it the right way the first time.

During that time off, all my friends from high school were finishing college, and I was back in Lancaster working at Camelot Music in Park City Mall. I was an assistant manager there, so I had management experience before I finished college. In hindsight, I realize how formative that job was, but at the time I only focused on the fact that I wasn’t in college.

While attending Temple University, I worked at the Sporting Club at The Bellevue in Center City Philadelphia, both at the front desk reception and the café. 

What lessons did you learn from those jobs that still stay with you today?

In those jobs, you deal directly with the customers. You’re hearing people’s stories. So you learn a lot about customer service – how to talk to people, how to listen, and how to treat them well so they’ll come back or give you a tip. And, how to deal with conflict in a positive way and not let it ruin your next interaction.

Where did you go to college?

My first year, I went to Boston University. After the time I had off, I decided to go a little more locally and more affordable, so I ended up going to Temple University.

Why Boston University?

I’ve always loved the water, and I was very interested in being near a lot of water and boats. I was fascinated with New England and with large cities. I don’t know if those were good reasons, quite frankly.

Why Temple? You could have stayed closer to home.

Ever since I was young, I loved Daryl Hall and John Oates, and they both went to Temple.  And I was working with people at Camelot Music who were students at Temple, so I learned more about Philadelphia and Temple from them.  I wanted to major in theater, but I had no experience in theater, and for Temple, you didn’t have to audition to apply to their theater program.

Interesting. Let’s go back to music – what were you listening to when you were growing up?

Hall & Oates. Prince. I loved Madonna – what girl my age at that time didn’t? We listened to a wide variety of music –  rock, country, R&B, classical. 

What was it about Hall & Oates that spoke to you?

Jennifer managing a production of Twelfth Night at Temple in 2000.

Well, when I was young and we were watching their videos on TV – at first it was that I had a crush on Daryl Hall. But I really liked their music, and I think it’s that they were influenced by Philly soul and Motown. Their music is that mix of rock and soul, and that appealed to me.

Going back to college, were you happy with Temple at the end of the day?

I loved it. When I left there, I was always the poster child for Temple. I still brag about it today. I loved the education, the people I met there, the city sensibility.

Did you do any graduate school after Temple?

I did, but not until years later. I graduated from Temple in 2000, and I didn’t go to grad school until 2010. I went to La Salle.

Who saw promise in you and opened doors for you?

I realized through my time at Temple, working on shows, that I was very interested in becoming a Broadway stage manager, which is basically the project manager for a theatrical production. I was looking at apprenticeships at the larger Philadelphia theaters, and I had my eye on the Walnut Street Theatre. Frank Anzalone, at that time, was the head stage manager.

Toward the end of my time at Temple, I was producing my own version of “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.” I told him about it, and he seemed really interested. I got the apprenticeship, and I learned so much working under him. He had very high standards; he was precise and very detail-oriented.

What do you think Frank saw in you?

I think he saw a passion for the work, diligence, and that same eye for detail. He could be very stern – I always joked with people that the apprenticeship was like boot camp. It was hard work.

Who else saw promise in you?

Very soon after I started working at Camelot Music part-time, I was asked if I would become a key holder and then Assistant Manager. I wasn’t even 21, and I was managing people way older than myself. Looking back, I sometimes wonder why Deb, the manager there, offered me that first opportunity. I think it’s because I worked hard, took pride in my work, and was willing to do things that other people were not willing to do.

How did you end up at the Colonial Theatre?

My experience apprenticing at The Walnut Street Theatre, as wonderful as it was, showed me I did not want to be a full-time Broadway stage manager. I have every respect for that position, but as much as I loved stage management, I wanted to know more about the whole process of getting a season together and running an organization.

Coupled with that, I have a real love of history and historic buildings. My work experience between the Walnut Street Theatre and the Colonial has been a mix of performing arts and working for historic sites and museums.

How did the Colonial Theatre find you, or you find them?

When I saw the ad for the Colonial Theatre, I was living in Connecticut. My mother’s health was declining, so my husband and I were talking about eventually going back to Pennsylvania. I saw the job opportunity, and I was familiar with the Colonial Theatre from my time in Philly. I knew it was a gorgeous old building. Phoenixville is thriving, and it’s closer to Lancaster, where my mom was still living than Philly is.  After going through the interview process, I was then hired to start in April of 2022.

Looking ahead to 2024, what are your challenges and opportunities? What are your priorities and what are you focused on?

Like any arts organization right now, we’re all focusing on survival after the pandemic. Making sure people want to come back to the theater, competing with the streaming services, and people being able to stay home and watch something from their couch. We’re trying to be innovative with our programming, make it something exciting, and event-ize programming to get people out here. But at the same time, we’re trying to keep our tickets and concessions relatively affordable as part of our nonprofit mission and to keep the arts accessible.

We are just about to finish our strategic plan that we’ve been working on in 2023, which will take us through ’26. Our top goals include programming, facility improvements for the 1903 theater, and organizational sustainability by improving our fundraising aspects. As far as the programming, we want to recognize the rich and varied audiences that we have here in Chester County and neighboring Montgomery County because our patrons come from a pretty wide radius.

What are you going to do differently? What does the strategic plan call for that you’re excited about?

One new program we started in 2023 is called Hush: A Speakeasy Experience. It was developed by one of our very creative team members here. Attendees get a password, they have to enter through the back door, and they dress up like the 1920s. We get a jazz band to perform and some patrons dance the whole night.  It is a very interactive experience.

We’re looking to start doing more events that give patrons a reason to dress up and go out to the theater. We all love a night in our pajamas on the couch, but we’re realizing that people like to have a reason to dress up, do something fun, and see other people, and it may not always be quietly watching a film.  

We’ve noticed, post-pandemic, that new movies are not doing as well as older films. We just showed “White Christmas,” the singalong version, and we welcomed over 500 people for that screening.  We see that people crave what’s familiar and what makes them feel good, and often we see patrons introducing family favorites to their next generations. 

You have something that most people don’t have – you have a beautiful space.

Jennifer in front of the Phoenixville Theatre marquee
Jennifer in front of the Colonial Theatre marquee.

Yes – we have three theater auditoriums now. We have the original historic Colonial, and since 2017 we have two additional theaters, a gorgeous lobby concession area that is sometimes used as programmatic space, and our garden suite and rooftop terrace we use for meetings or programs. Sometimes we have movie premiere parties up there such as our “Barbie” party and our “Downton Abbey” party.

A major priority is focusing on some deferred maintenance of the 1903 building. Going into ’24 through ’26, we’re identifying projects that will help the aesthetics and the functionality of the space while we’re getting ourselves ready for a larger campaign in the future. This past year, we put a new roof on that theater, fixed the center ceiling medallion, and completed some other projects.

Also, in January, I will start board service on the League of Historic American Theatres. It’s U.S. and Canadian organizations, everything from very large theaters to smaller, art-house ones. I’m so excited because I’m going to be connecting with leaders who’ve been through everything we are going through at the Colonial – fundraising, DEI, innovative and relevant programming, restoring historic theaters, and more. The League is an amazing resource of knowledge and support. 

It’s a tough world. How do you stay optimistic and hopeful, Jennifer?

We have a really creative team here at the Colonial that is very passionate about this theater. That’s an amazing start when you’re working with a bunch of people who love what they’re doing and care about the place and its survival. Certainly, the Colonial is much beloved in Phoenixville and the surrounding area, which adds to the optimism.

And, as the executive director, being optimistic is part of my job.

You’ve got to put that smile on even when you don’t feel it.

Exactly. Sometimes I find that optimism in the small moments, like when I talk with someone and they tell me about how they used to sneak into the Colonial when they were 12, or other fun stories.  Our volunteers also feed that optimism.  I am always touched by people’s generosity in donating their time and talent to help the theatre thrive.

And I think about the 1903 Colonial Theatre surviving the 1918 flu epidemic, the Great Depression, world wars, and it’s still standing.  When the nonprofit took over the theatre in the late 1990s and re-opened at a time when Phoenixville was in decline, this was meaningful to so many people.  I hear this from longtime residents – that the marquee lighting up Bridge Street at that time was significant.  This place is important to people.  We can get through what we’re going through as long as we pay attention and adapt.

Finally, Jennifer, what’s the best advice you ever received?

When I was on the track team, one of our coaches would always say, “Practice is what?” And people would say, “Practice is perfect?” He’d say, “No, practice is permanent.”

What did your coach mean by that?

One way to interpret it is that you’re not going to get better unless you make the activity a habit. But he made it clear that what he meant is that if you keep practicing something the wrong way, that wrong way can become permanent. His point was, don’t just practice, don’t just go through the motions, but make sure that you are evaluating, adapting, and improving. It’s something I think about all the time.

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