T. Pope Jackson, Olney Theatre Center’s new Director of Production,has always seen himself as, “a grain of pepper in a bowl of salt.” As we sat down at the local Starbucks, he mentioned that he had been told many times that his life needed to be turned into a movie. After our brief conversation, I couldn't agree more.“I have been fortunate to have had many amazing experiences, many dope opportunities, that for early on in my career, on paper, I had no business in.” His story is one of risk, passion, hard work, and openness to the twists and turns that life may throw one’s way.
Pope’s story began in Harlem, New York, where in high school he started getting involved in theatre and film. In fact, a documentary of his went on to win awards at film festivals. He was a good student, and had plenty of interest from colleges, eventually attending Columbia University. Pope would eventually start work with Nextel Communications, focusing on finances and his growing family.
Pope had lots of success working for Nextel Communications. One of his tasks while there was asset tracking in the Tri-State Market associated with Nextel around New York. Everything was smooth sailing, until the shocking events of 9/11 brought the world to a stand still. Pope’s task shifted to powering and running the cell sites in the area so the first responders could more accurately decide where to dig and communicate, being that the FDNY, NYPD, Mayor's office, and the Pentagon were Nextel customers at the time. Being surrounded with what was left of this world-changing event changed his view on where he was and where he wanted to go. “I realized at that point that nobody’s promised tomorrow, and the greatest gift I could give my family was that they could say that I was doing what I loved and that I was happy everyday.” Pope decided to leave Nextel and pursue a career in the arts and has never looked back.
Shifting to a new industry, Pope knew that he would need to start building connections and developing his reputation amongst his new peers. He started out pursuing these connections by working at a free or reduced rate, asking mainly for coverage of travel costs. He was able to land a handful of jobs, and other professionals began to take notice of this new addition to the market.
Pope was eventually brought on as Technical Director of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe. At this point, off-off Broadway theaters began reaching out to work with him when “emergency situations” would suddenly arise. This is where he met Robert (Bob) Blume of the Drama Desk Awards. Mr. Blume was producing a show that had lost a stage manager a week before opening and needed someone to step in immediately. Pope joined the production, and a day before opening had to fire the director and lead actor, leaving Pope with the task of getting the understudy rehearsed and ready for the performance. Amazingly, the production only lost a day in their schedule, and Pope had begun gaining the reputation of the guy you call when things happen last second.
By this time Pope was getting plenty of work on various projects and was making a steady income bartending. “My mentor told me, ‘If you are really serious about working in this field, quit bartending and make the arts feed you. Remove that nest egg and it will increase the intensity of your work in the arts’”. With this push, Pope left his bartending gig and declared that he wasn’t going to eat unless he was working on a show.
Knowing that there were plenty of local workers who he knew could learn to hang some lights, build sets, and complete the various other tasks associated with production, Pope decided to start his own company. Not only did this provide job opportunities to many in the community, but importantly to communities of color, who historically have been underrepresented in all levels of the industry. Pope and his crews supported many touring theatrical productions, concerts, and art installations, giving him a unique perspective and understanding of the multiple mediums within the entertainment industry and what is required in producing each.
Eventually, the position of Production Supervisor of Celebrate Brooklyn was created specifically for Pope. He and his crews were putting on about 30 concerts a month at a clip of 2-3 shows a week. As one of the Associate Producers of Celebrate Brooklyn was leaving for The Shed, they recommended that Pope apply with his unique experience and expertise. Being that The Shed itself was built on a multidisciplinary approach to art (including theatre, dance, art, and music), Pope decided he would apply, being the only one in the tri-state area with extensive experience in these different disciplines. He worked at The Shed from 2018 to 2022, where he managed their 2019 opening program, Soundtrack of America, with Steve McQueen and Quincy Jones.
On November 7, 2022 Olney Theatre Center announced that Pope had been hired as the new Director of Production. Pope’s arrival and experience marks an exciting time for Olney Theatre Center. His multidisciplinary background brings a unique perspective and vast understanding of the arts as the organization begins to expand and evolve. Pope hopes that Olney Theatre Center and its community can remain alert to the challenges and changes of the modern theatre so, “we can move differently, we can be smarter, and always be two steps ahead of everyone else, as long as we are moving with honesty and integrity.”
Some fun facts that many might not know about Pope include working on a Grammy nominated album with Wynton Marsalis, having a holiday in recognition of him in New York City declared by Michael Bloomberg, and receiving multiple examples of recognition from every level of New York Government for using his work in the arts for the community.
When it comes to what excites him most about production side of the business:
“Production is Murphy’s Law (tap dancing, doing the moonwalk, a little electric slide, sometimes the bachata) but throw on the lights and everyone forgets, and they are like, ‘this way great. Let’s do this again’.”
Personally, if there was one thing I took away from our brief conversation, it was to remain open to all opportunities that come knocking at your door. You never know where one may lead you and how it may positively impact your life. Like a show, life is not always going to go as planned. The bumps and hardships that occur on the way are a part of what makes life exciting and beautiful. All we can control is how we react to these moments, and, like T. Pope Jackson, remind ourselves, “showtime is showtime, and showtime is today, so let’s solve this problem now.”