During Pride Month, the Sun’s Anna Pier sat down with Eric Jackson, Director of Sonoma Community Center’s Exploratory Arts Department.
You grew up in the Midwest, Ohio and Michigan. Yes, and I majored in Musical Theater at the University of Michigan.
And then? I spent fourteen years based in New York City, in musical theater. A bit of everything – Broadway, off-Broadway, international tours. I was ready for a change, Some friends had started Transcendence Theater, so I came out to work with them. First as a performer, while gigging back in New York. Then I took on an administrative role, and developed costume and props for them.
How did you get to the SCC? First doing some work on costumes and props for Sonoma Arts Live. And then the Fiber Arts manager was leaving the SCC, so it was a natural fit for me..
And Trashion Fashion? It grew out of a wonderful marriage between my experience in costume designing and sewing and my previous experience in directing theatrical events. I knew how to oversee the experience you’re going to give a person.
You have a new role now. Starting this year I was tasked with developing a new department, the Live Exploratory Arts Department, which is just a fancy term for music, movement and theater. Not “Performing Arts,” because I wanted it to be accessible for all. Not everyone wants to be a star, but everyone can participate.
And do they? If you build it, they will come. We’ve started a playwriting residency, with Jenna Brady, who will write an original play to be premiered October 14-16 at SCC. Along the way, she gets community input on her work in progress, including a staged reading on July 23 with Q and A. Also, Jenna hosts really exciting workshops every last Monday. People enroll the Friday prior, and get the prompt. Like “a jilted lover, a candlestick and the Bahamas.” Readers come and read what the participants have written. It’s so fun. It’s all about demystifying the art of playwriting. This is an example of how I’m trying to create space for people to try things on..
What else? Puppets. We have a partnership coming soon with a puppeteer who worked with Jim Henson. She’ll give workshops on building puppets, stage puppetry and screen puppetry. I forgot to mention for Theater, an Improv class. And a one-time class for adults, “Star in Your Own Story,” combining Story-telling, improv and healing. This is like summer camp for adults. Why should kids have all the fun? But we do have a theater camp for kids 11-17. In two weeks they’ll be ready to perform a version of Seussical! And Queer Camp again.
And Music and Movement? We have a bilingual guitar group class, and coming soon a West African drumming class. And Open Mike Night, “Summer Salon in the Secret Garden,” first Wednesdays. We offer bilingual Mindful Yoga classes, plus a hybrid gentle class – yoga, pilates and stretching. One of my dreams is to provide group music classes for youth, where we can provide the instruments too. Like ukuleles. I ask myself, how can I invite opportunities? Fun social dances, like a square dancing night for the whole community. For me, it’s less about the actual art form than how it’s a channel for discovering self, building community, appreciating others.
Biggest challenge? Marketing, how to let everyone know. There is so much going on behind these red brick walls. I am always trying to be conscious of letting people know this is a safe space, everyone is welcome. Like I think it’s only fair that some of our programming be all in Spanish.
Talk about the Self-Expression Camp. Yes, the Queer Camp. It grew out of us asking ourselves, what communities are we serving? We thought about the queer community, how to offer a chance for people to express themselves without judgment. To provide a wonderful variety of skills. We partnered with Positive Image, to facilitate. We have had wonderful financial support for it to continue through last school year. This year’s camp is in July. We also have a Queer Clothes and Book Swap open to all ages, senior citizens, high school.
Was there anything like that when you were growing up gay in the Midwest? No. The Midwest in the 90’s before “Will & Grace” didn’t have any spaces for queer youth and teens, outside of support groups maybe provided at health clinics. And it wasn’t accepted yet to have a gay/lesbian club in high school.
Do you live in Sonoma Valley? Yes. I moved here because of the beautiful sense of community and the surprisingly open and caring nature of everyone here.
Sonoma has such a small Black population. Any challenges for you with that? Well, being from an upper middle class family in the Midwest, I am used to being a minority or an only Black person in white spaces.
Then you were little, what did you want to grow up to be? I didn’t know and I still don’t.