Photos David Bolling & Submitted
In musical theater, people who can sing, dance and act, are called “triple threats,” and they usually have the shortest path to Broadway.
Eric Jackson can do all that, he’s been on Broadway, he’s had lead roles in national touring companies of big time shows, and he was a bright light for several seasons of Sonoma’s Transcendence Theatre Company.
But Eric has something extra, something most performers don’t have. Eric can sing, dance, act and … sew. That’s called a quadruple threat.
Wait a minute. Sew?
Which leads to the larger question of how a musical theater veteran, who’s performed in The Book of Mormon, Young Frankenstein, Ragtime, Dream Girls, Chicago, Thoroughly Modern Millie (with Sutton Foster) and numerous other productions, finds himself sitting in front of a sewing machine, in a converted schoolhouse, surrounded by mannequins in dresses made from trash.
Jackson’s latest role in the fascinating drama of his life is creative programs director, as well as head of the Fiber Arts Department, at the Sonoma Community Center, a job he assumed following the departure of Margaret Hatcher, the queen of recycled couture who, among other things, gave birth to the center’s wildly successful Trashion Fashion runway show, the stylish remnants of which still adorn mannequins around his office.
So what does a creative programs manager do, and why is Jackson in a classroom instead of on a stage somewhere? And, oh by the way, where did you get those amazing fangs?
“As far as the job description goes, I’m still trying to figure that out,” he says. “I guess it’s about looking at the larger picture in order to get more exposure for the center through large-scale events and fundraising opportunities, for the most part. And then, trying to get more eyes in the building and more bodies coming through the door.”
“I knew nothing, literally, until I met with [executive director] John Gurney and he offered me the position. I didn’t know a thing about the Community Center. So, part of my goal is to reach out to people like me, people who don’t really understand, who think it’s just a municipal building. Because that’s what I thought. I thought it was something like Town Hall. But it’s a community center. When I walked in, I was surprised by the fact that it looked like an art class exploded inside the building. And that got my engines revving, because I’m all about anything creative. I feel like my mission is a combination of creativity and positively influencing people. And when I’m able to do the two together, that’s a nice match-up for me. So I saw this potential, and I thought, ‘Oh my gosh. Where has this been for the past how many years I’ve been in Sonoma?’”
And the Dracula teeth? Turns out you can’t buy them at Rite Aid. “An orthodontist made them, for a show I was in.”
With the teeth out and the wig off (his Halloween persona), Jackson is instantly transformed from a suave, 18th-century vampire into a friendly-faced teacher, a role he plays each Wednesday night (4:30 to 6) during Fiber Arts Happy Hour. The free, walk-in event is Jackson’s standing invitation to the public.
“I serve a little drink. There’s some food or some small bites. The music is playing. And you have free supplies, free materials. You have me to help facilitate whatever you might need to work on. There’s a nice core group who helps facilitate, helps teach newbies about learning how to knit or crochet. It’s my offering to people who don’t want to make the commitment of, maybe, taking a knitting class for four weeks. So for me, it was all about opening the doors to the public, making it available and accessible to everyone. I want people to feel like this space is theirs.”
Teaching, it turns out, was never a stretch for Jackson. “My mom was a teacher. Aunts and uncles were teaching in various capacities. My sister-in-law is a teacher. And I thought to myself as I was growing up, ‘I could perform. I could do law. I could teach.’ And the common denominator for all of those was being able to provide a service to people, to help their betterment. Through arts, it’s influencing and positively changing thoughts and impressions with music and dance. Through law it’s fighting the good fights.”
“Oh, yeah. Because anytime there’s any injustice, this invisible cape is thrown on my back. And I’m on a soapbox. And I become very passionate. I’m very easygoing and even-keeled and calm. But anytime there’s any injustice, I have to speak up about it. So for a while I was thinking, ‘Maybe I’ll go into law.’ And then there’s also teaching, too, because I saw how people truly are affected, and how important teachers are in the community.”
But that’s not quite how Eric Jackson’s life unrolled in Westlake, Ohio, and Rochester Hills, Michigan. In the first grade, in Ohio, fate delivered a Christmas present onstage. “I was given the role of playing the lead in the Christmas pageant, The play was, “Achoo, the Mouse that Saved Christmas.” I was Achoo the Mouse. And I had a solo song, and I was petrified. And I remember standing up and singing in front of the entire student body and faculty, who were just mesmerized. Not because I was talented, but because I was the only one onstage. Everyone was looking at me. I distinctly remember feeling that there was, I don’t want to say power, but there was responsibility there. The fact that one first-grader could hide behind this character and sing words that weren’t his … there was safety in that, because it wasn’t me talking, it was this character talking. And I had everyone’s attention. And I respected that position at that moment.”
And thus a star was born. Sort of. Jackson grew up with a multiplicity of interests. He played the clarinet, sang in choirs and vocal ensembles, played basketball, baseball and soccer when he was younger, and then football in middle and high school. “I was a guard and tackle – offense and defense.”
But theater kept calling, and in high school he had to give up football to be in the fall play. “It was interesting to see my football coach in the audience, his arms folded, watching me, seeing if I was going to be any good.”
And that might have been the event that set Jackson’s course. “There’s a nice kind of sense of belonging in a theater group, like, when you find your tribe you know. And with theater people, it’s nothing but pure acceptance for everyone and everything. And of course, I was trying to figure out who I was in the world. And I was accepted for whatever I was. And there was power in that, and security in that.”
Jackson ended up at the University of Michigan on a scholarship, still not sure what to major in, but Michigan has one of the strongest musical theater programs in the country and the power of its gravity drew him in. He was accepted into the program as a non-major (“which is huge”), and just followed the flow.
“I’ve had a history of just finding myself at the right place, at the right time, with the right skill sets, and each place I go, I pick up more skill sets for the next random adventure that I’m not even supposed to know yet. That’s how my life kind of works. And that’s kind of how my career has worked too. So the path was me being like, ‘Wow, golly gee, I’m here.’”
When seniors graduate from Michigan’s musical theater program, they go to New York to do a “senior showcase” for agents and casting directors. “They pick you up if they want you,” says Jackson. “I was picked up and was sent out on auditions immediately.”
Which brings us to the triple threat.
“I call myself a performer, as opposed to an actor, singer, or dancer. I say I’m a performer because I combine all the ingredients so that hopefully it’s creative in the sum of its parts. Which is why I lived in song and dance kind of moments. Because then you’d be distracted by my dancing if my singing is not that great, and vice versa. And acting is a part of everything, you know.”
Jackson’s first booking was a national tour of Smokey Joe’s Café, starring Gladys Knight, but he got a call the next day and was told Gladys’ brother was going to join the tour and take his part.
Instead he got a national tour as a replacement with Chicago. “It was a bunch of one-nighters, which was crazy, because you travel all day in a bus or truck. And you get off the bus. If you’re lucky, you can check into your hotel room, and then do sound check, and do your show, and then sleep all night, and pack up your stuff and, do it all over again. We had three months of those in a row.”
His first Broadway show involved an out-of-the-body experience. “It was for a replacement part. I remember starting to sing. I went out of body. I don’t remember the experience. I remember coming back into my body afterwards, and realizing, ‘Okay, I didn’t suck. That’s good.’ And they said, ‘Okay, thank you.’ And I remember, grabbing my stuff, going down the street, getting a phone call. And they’re like, ‘Where’d you go? We didn’t want you to leave yet.’ So I ran back. And they said, ‘We’d like to see you at the stage door tonight.’ I said, ‘Yeah. Sure. Yeah, I’ll be there.’ And I left.”
When he got to the stage door, not sure he had a part, he was met by the costume supervisor who explained she needed to measure him. “The costumes were already made. The guy who had the part had been injured. They just needed someone to step in for three or four months while he healed. And so I guess I fit the costume.”
The transition from Broadway to Sonoma was another bit of unexpected serendipity. Jackson had once shared an apartment with another young performer named Stephan Stubbins, later to become co-founder of Transcendence Theatre Company. Years later, Stubbins called with an invitation to come to Sonoma. “He said, ‘We’ll fly you out.’ I said, ‘OK, I’m there, let’s do this.’ And that was the beginning of it. It was a sense of community I’d never felt in theater. Here, it was we greet, we connect, we become one, we commune. And then we come out onstage, and it’s almost like the relationship continues and strengthens by the fact that I’m onstage, and I get to see you seeing me, and then there’s a connection and a bond, and absolute love. And it was about being a part of something that was bigger than me.”
Leaving Transcendence was another right-place, right-time moment. After six years, Jackson had reached a certain level of “burnout from the level of creative output required,” and fiber arts, an interest born knitting on long cross-country bus trips, had a comforting appeal. He is particularly excited about the creative opportunities presented by Trashion Fashion and is shaping new plans for the 2019 event. Meanwhile the Fiber Arts Program has erupted into new life and a class schedule can be found online at sonomacommunitycenter.org.
Eric Jackson will be happy to explain it all on the second floor of that old schoolhouse in Sonoma.