A Life Well Spent: A Tribute to Peter Natale

Danon Middleton

  • OnStage Virginia Columnist

Right now in the Hampton Roads region there are students, post-graduates, and aging wanderers that want nothing more than to ‘make it’ as a success in the performing arts industry.  A few may get there but most won’t. Of course, it all depends on one’s definition of success.  Is it money, fame, independence? How do you measure a career? A life?

According to a certain song, a year is 525,600 minutes and is measured in love. The love you give, the love you receive and the love you inspire in others. According to a certain playwright and poet, a person should always be true to one’s own self and thereby will be false with no other person. To all those students and wanderers shooting for the stars, may they realize that these two edicts are the true measures of success in life and career.

We in the Hampton Roads area recently lost a beloved member of the performing arts community that embodied love and truthfulness. He was not rich. He was not famous. In fact, few outside of the Seven Cities knew him. Despite falling short of the Wall Street and Hollywood standards of wealth and fame, Peter Natale lived a wonderfully successful life and had a positive impact on the hundreds and hundreds of artists with whom he worked.

Peter could alternately be seen treading the boards at Peninsula Community Theatre, mentoring new directors at Smithfield Little Theater, working the box office and writing Board reports for the Williamsburg Players, directing shows at all three or publicizing regional productions on his daily radio show at WMBG AM740. He was the consummate professional – though never a part of SAG-AFTRA, Actors Equity or any other industry guild. None of that mattered. Actors, singers, dancers, musicians, and production members all respected Peter’s professionalism.

Mark Hall, past President of Smithfield Little Theatre, says that when it came to the stage, “Peter was...completely committed to good quality entertainment.” His professionalism in the director’s chair was not limited to blocking and characterization. Jeff Johnson, current Vice-President of SLT remembers “Peter knew how to take the new comers and even the seasoned vets and get the best out of them and use them to their strengths.” As such, Peter became a staple of SLT productions and directed many successful shows and developed many strong actors on their stage.

In fact, countless actors attribute their start in theater to Peter giving them the opportunity to perform when no one else did. Artists from ages 7 to 70 knew him as a driving force behind their growth as professionals.

About thirty minutes away from SLT, across the James River Bridge, Peter had a similar reputation. Betsy Forrest, past President of Peninsula Community Theatre, says, “Peter had definite ideas about what he wanted however he was willing to listen to different ideas.” That aspect made him a wonder to work with. Some directors are so married to their own perspective that all other creativity is snuffed out. Still others are too unsure of their artistic vision and a production can become little more than a random gathering of actors on stage providing cues at different sight lines. Peter was a creative who encouraged creativity in others.

In the fifteen years he lived in the area, Peter became one of the quintessential directors whose productions were some of the best to which a community theater can aspire. Like the man, his shows were always large and larger than life. He often supposed that he had become so accustomed to 40-member casts, that he wouldn’t know what to do with a smaller scaled production.

Although he was known and respected throughout the region for his commitment to the theater, any theater, it was Peter’s friendship that we miss the most. 

“What I liked about Peter was that you could vigorously disagree, and even fight with him, but that never affected the personal relationship,” says Betsy.

James Clarke, actor and Board member of SLT concurs, “He was always encouraging and was genuinely interested in how things were going.”

Lynn Murray, another PCT Board member, is of a similar mind. “ He would schmooze everyone he met and greet them with a hug the next time he saw them.” In other words, Peter never networked in order to advance his own status or get his next gig. Rather, he actively sought out new friends and wanted only to help others in their journey.

“Without his believing in me and his constant support I don't know if I would be half of the performer that I am today,” says Nic Ryan Hawk who now resides in Los Angeles. Nic worked with Peter in various productions at both Smithfield and Peninsula Community theaters. “He felt like family and I can always guarantee that any time I saw him he would give me a big old teddy bear hug.”

Nic is not alone in that sentiment. Arianna Jeanette Hall’s memories of Peter are analogous to many others. “Since I was 6 years old, Peter Natale had been an idol in my eyes... he taught me to be fearless, mature, and responsible.” Her experience began behind the scenes working lights, sound and run crew, but the encouragement she found in Peter has expanded her horizons. “I know that he is smiling upon my success in the theatre as I finally make my way from behind the curtains onto the stage and dedicate all of my performances to him.”

On a personal note, my wife and I had the honor and pleasure of working with Peter in two of his final productions. He cast my wife, Kimberlyn Williams-Middleton, as Nancy in the Williamsburg Player’s presentation of Oliver! She had known him for fourteen years, their paths crossing from theater to theater and every time she was greeted with a big bear hug. I met Peter only three years ago but immediately knew him as a caring, boisterous and steadfast man who knew himself well, spoke his mind and accepted others for who they were rather than what they could do for him. He called me out of the blue to invite me to perform with him in a dinner theater fundraiser. He even offered to carpool with me for the company. Of course I said yes! Kym and I both will always be grateful for our time with him.

No matter what, Peter knew who he was and would not change his beliefs or remain silent even when his was the minority opinion. One did not have to agree with him and that was never a deterrent to his relationship with you. Jeff Johnson explains that, “[He] had different viewpoints and beliefs that caused him to butt heads with others, but no matter what in the end, you were still pals...He was loving and compassionate and always wanted that bear hug.”

The innumerable testimonies discussing someone so dear to so many for so many reasons could fill many pages. In the end, however, my friend and fellow Hampton Roads actor Stephen Maney perhaps sums it up best: “Peter was always singular of focus; while acting he would pour himself into the role, when directing he would accept nothing but the best, and when he was being a friend, he was the best of friends.”

So to all the youngling performers, aspiring actors and ageless wanderers seeking money, fame, or fulfillment from their creative art, remember Peter. His was a richness in theatrical experience and lasting friendships. His was a celebrity with likeminded artists hundreds and hundreds of people wide all seeking to provide the best possible entertainment. Fame is often fleeting. Wealth is often wasted. But a life like Peter’s is remembered. May we all be so lucky.