“The long term goal here is to essentially turn this entire facility into a cultural production facility, so people from the community may learn to make their own T.V. programs and potentially internet YouTube channels, podcasting.” -- Nigel Brookes
ECM intern Chisato Iverson sat down for a Q&A interview with theatre manager Nigel Brookes on his vision for revitalizing the City Heights Annex, recently reopened after a long closure. Below are highlights from our interview:
Chisato: How long have you been a theatre manager?
Nigel: At this space, I’ve been here since August of 2015.
Chisato: When did you know that this is what you what to be, a theatre manager?
Nigel: Well, I studied theatre and performed in theatre, did tech work in theatre for about 10 years from age 12 or 13 until my mid-20s. I gravitated more towards visual arts...how I ended up here, well essentially my life took a lot of different directions. I was teaching at San Diego State for awhile. I studied communication and did graduate work in that, and studied artists and art makers. So my own practice was primarily visual, and I ended up getting a job with the City of San Diego...this is owned by The City of San Diego Public Library system.
This performance Annex space is the only theatre the city of San Diego both owns and operates...this theatre was built in the late 1990s…in the ‘80s, City Heights was the highest crime area in East County, it is still the most densely populated area in the entire county, and it’s also the second largest refugee relocation area for the federal government outside Minneapolis. This place started receiving lots of refugees as early as the 70s because something called the International Relief Committee was bringing in Vietnamese refugees after the war, temporarily housing them at Camp Pendleton and they were looking for places to relocate them from there, and they started a pattern of bring them to City Heights because it was affordable...Now it still receives sometimes up to 5000 refugees a year who are relocated in City Heights. Within four square miles, there’s 57 language groups that have been documented that are spoken here. The largest single ethnic group is Latino. There’s lots of immigrants from not only Mexico, but Central and South America. So all that is sort of the backstory, but that’s part of the reason why this place was developed in the 90s.
For myself, I was writing an article, for a book on public art, because I worked at the City of San Diego Commission for Arts and Culture...it funds arts programming, and it funds public art project, and it funds initiatives to help schools get artists and residency programs going in. I worked there for a number of years and when I was doing research in this neighborhood on some public art projects that I had managed, I found out that this management position of this theatre had been vacant for about a year or more. That was probably two years ago, so I started advocating with people in the library to fill that position with me. They eventually did, so I’ve been here since August. So I inherited this and these lights that you see were state of the art. All the technology was state of the art 20 years ago...with the way computers have evolved L.E.D. lights and all that stuff. It’s way below standard...in the next year we’re trying to get federal grant money to do upgrades to our sound and lighting in here, and also projection facilities. My office is right in this building next door and they’re just finishing up construction there now. We’re converting some of the space to changing rooms and a green room for the actors and actresses so there’s a formal place for them to change, then wait off stage. The front portion of my office is going to receive some video and internet radio production facilities. The technology between these spaces are going to get linked together.
The long term goal here is to essentially turn this entire facility into what you might call a cultural production facility, so people from the community may learn to make their own T.V. programs and potentially internet YouTube channels, podcasting, that kind of stuff. The long term goal is to bring in arts organization and educational organizations to help mentor and teach the community and to collaborate with them essentially-to bring in people who want to do professional level work and to work with the community to help them create sort of an incubator for people, so that people who want to learn how to do this kind of work can do it here. That’s the goal.
Chisato: Wow, that’s a really interesting story! What’s the hardest part of your job?
Nigel: The hardest part of my job is probably...just say getting to know everyone...I grew up in this town, I’m an artist and I have lots of artist friends, but I feel like I still need to do a lot of community outreach. I’ve been doing a lot of community outreach, but I’m really trying to identify as many people who are living in this community who are artists in their own right who bring cultural and artistic traditions with them from the countries that they came from. They’re often fleeing war or famine or something like that. Trying to build up a set of community relations just because I don’t know everyone here. There’s so many people and the population is so diverse. Often people who are refugees from other countries they tend to remain fairly insular and they’re not necessarily out and about looking for plays to produce or something like that. I think that’s one of the challenges and it’s getting easier, but I find I get help with what you might call brokers or liaisons people who are working at service organization and already have these connections to all of the different communities that live in City Heights. I wouldn’t say it’s hard, as much as it’s just challenging, so it’s become more of a focus for me. ...It’s an absorbing job, but I don’t necessarily consider it a hard job. I like it a lot...It’s really fulfilling.
Chisato: What do you like the most about your job?
Nigel: …When I grew up in San Diego, I grew up in South Bay. ...It wasn’t really what you would think of as a very artistic town back in the ‘70s and the ‘80s here. There were people doing art, but it was hard to locate those people, it wasn’t as obvious. I worked hard through the years to build a lot of the relationships and figure out how to do things on my own, and take classes, and learn the skills that I wanted to learn. The part that I enjoyed the most was the idea that as I share the story of what we’re trying to create here with people…what I’m hoping is that we’re able to kind of create the kind of place that I would have liked to have had when I was growing up. A place where people felt invited to come in and to express themselves and to create and to learn and to essentially collaborate and build community through artistic practices. In terms of what's the most enjoyable for me, I let go of my preconceptions about what things should look like I simply find that often I just know so many interesting and creative people that if I just introduce creative people to each other, they start having conversations and to some extent I can just stand back and let them come up with some ideas. Ideas that are really interesting, and then they get to basically be creative here. My job is to kind of just link those people together...They’ve got the ideas. Probably the best part is just being able to work with creative people and feel inspired….
Chisato: So you mentioned you did theatre. What made you be a stage manager instead of going into theatre and performing?
Nigel: Well, I performed when I was younger. I think when I was in high school theatre was more of a community process in the sense that everyone sort of did whatever they were good at, based on what was needed. For example, if there was a musical, I wouldn’t audition for it, because I didn’t really think I was any good at singing and dancing, but I would be the stage manager or I would be a set designer or something like that. When we were doing things that were more like Neil Simon or Woody Allen, which is what I liked doing, sort of the comedic theatre, I would get cast in those roles and the same people who were singing and dancing in the musicals, they would end up being like the makeup artist for those productions, so everyone would like change roles. It just felt like a kind of community putting theatre on. I think by the time I got into college and and was studying theatre, it became a lot more specialized, like if you were acting, that’s what you did. Once you were acting, then everyone else who was acting was potentially your competition. It sort of felt less and less like a community and more and more like an industry…I’d already done tech work and I became fascinated with things like sound and light which obviously to some extent are incorporated in my own visual art. That’s how I became a manager. I still have performed with people as recently as eight years ago or something like that…
For the most part, acting as a vocation isn’t really quite what calls to me. But being here I was just at the right place at the right time. I had a lot of background in the art administration with the city, and I understand how a lot of the different departments work together within the City of San Diego. My ability to come in and just manage this space seemed like a good fit…acting was something I did when I was younger, not because I aspired to be an actor as much as... frankly, acting and art were the only areas where I felt like I belonged. When I was growing up I was a bit of a misfit. A lot of people who are creative feel like misfits rather than mainstreams…I acted because I had a lot of good friends and that’s what we all did, that was our creative outlet.
Chisato: If you were to teach someone the basics of stage managing in one day, what would you tell that person?
Nigel: To learn as much as you can even if you aren’t going to be responsilble about it. So learning how the lighting works or learning how the sound works. If you’re involved in any part of the play then you’re just as responsible for rehearsing as the actors and actresses, because you got to be in the right spot at the right time to turn a switch or whatever it is. That’s part of the play. You have to love theatre and creativity, otherwise it’s probably not worth doing because you’re not going to get rich being a stage manager [laughs].
Chisato: Are there times you get frustrated with your job?
Nigel: Not really.
Chisato: Not really?
Nigel: No, no, I mean I’ve only been here nine months so anythings possible, I suppose. I feel very supported by the library department. They really want to see this place grow and become a community center where people can come and create things. Anytime I come up with an idea, for the most part people are giving me a thumbs up, so that’s very rewarding.
Chisato: For the last question, if you weren’t a theatre manager, what would you be doing right now?
Nigel: You mean if money was no object?
Chisato: Yeah, sure.
Nigel: If money was no object I would imagine that I would be making more visual art than I am now and showing a lot more of it that I am now. I’ve never been able to make enough money at my visual art that I’ve been able to give up my day job. I make some money here and there. For the most part, as with many artists it’s just sort of this story of a starving artist and you often find yourself almost, like, paying people to see your art over time… I think if I could focus on producing lots of art, and then promoting it out to the world and even traveling with it that would be something that would be rewarding to me.
Chisato: That’s nice. Oh, how can people find out more about what you’re doing?
Nigel: They can call me…If your readers feel like communicating with me for any reason, they can communicate with me about what they can come here and experience as an audience member. We’ll have a calendar and that kind of stuff. If any of the people that you write for are creative and they want to present something, then I’m certainly willing to talk to them and figure out how I can get them in here and potentially collaborate with other people I know. So my number is (619) 641- 6103
Chisato: Thank you very much.
Nigel: Thank you very much. Appreciate it.