Behind the Curtain: Assistant production manager Nicole Houghton

It takes a village, and it certainly takes more than the San Diego Symphony’s 80-person orchestra to make the magic that happens on stage at Copley Symphony Hall. Assistant production manager Nicole Houghton is the woman behind the curtain, making sure everything on concert night goes smoothly. We sat down with Nicole to learn more about her role at the Symphony.

Tell me a little about yourself.

I grew up in New Jersey and then I went to Carnegie Mellon and did a music performance degree – I’m a bassoonist. While I was doing my undergrad degree, I started taking some business classes. I was really interested in the business side of music, so I went right from my undergrad degree to graduate school for arts management. I got a lot out of it, and learned a lot about orchestra management and development. It was comprehensive and taught me a lot about various areas of the industry.

I interned with the Pittsburgh Symphony and that was a really great experience I got to see what behind the scenes work is like at a major symphony orchestra. I just kind of fell in love with it and thought, “This is what I want to do.”

Before I came here I was working with the Maryland Symphony Orchestra and doing similar to work to what I’m doing now, but I also worked in education. It’s a smaller orchestra and we do a lot less concerts than we do here at the San Diego Symphony. However, I did a lot more things – it only had six full-time staff members so everyone had to do more within the organization because there’s less people to do all the work. It was a very interesting experience because it was completely different than here and Pittsburgh Symphony.

I’ve been here at the San Diego Symphony about a year and it’s so fast-paced. I love it.

How did you end up picking San Diego?

It kind of just picked me. I knew I wanted to have a career shift and I was looking for jobs in different areas. I was always intrigued by living in California because I had never lived on the West Coast – or even visited California before – so I thought it would be a really cool place to live. I’m so glad it did work out because it’s such a great arts community. I’m also part of an organization called Rising Arts Leaders of San Diego, which has been great, because I get a feel for all the arts and cultures organizations here in the city. I’m getting a nice picture of the arts scene in the entire county.

How do you explain your position to those who may not understand the technical side of an orchestra?

When the lights have to come down, when there’s any kind of an issue or even chair movements, change the stage set up – anything that happens on the stage, whether it’s something simple as four musicians playing a chamber concert or the full orchestra with Rick Springfield — our department has to know about.

What’s a day in the life like here at the Symphony?

It depends on the day! Every day is different, especially during the summer. We have so many different events going on, even within one week. For instance, last week we had a jazz concert on Thursday, then we completely switched gears on Friday for Rick Springfield and then we had rehearsal for Community Day … and all those happening in a four-day period is pretty crazy. The teams here are very devoted and they all make it happen. Then there’s weeks like this week, where we have only one concert. On a typical day, I’m just trying to get as far ahead with prepping with future concerts as possible. My brain has to be in multiple places in once – I have to think about what’s coming up right now and I’m also thinking about what’s coming up in the end of August and doing stage plots and tech needs for those concerts. If you wait until even a week before the concert, it’s too late. We plan ahead as much as possible and I think myself and my supervisor, Paige, do a really great job of tackling different areas. She will order any backline equipment – anytime we need a keyboard or other instrument – and I handle working with the orchestra and conductor, seeing if we’re going to need a saxophone player or something.

Most concert days, people won’t really me see much too much because I’m backstage most of the time, but I try – especially during the summer season – to sneak out in the house and check the sound levels to make sure it it’s a great experience for both the patrons and the orchestra.

What are some of the differences between the two venues?

In the hall, it’s a very different acoustic effect and at the Embarcadero, it’s a temporary stage so it takes a while for everyone to settle in. We build that stage from scratch every year. Everything is amplified. The Embarcadero has more elements to deal with – there’s meet and greets, the house opens earlier and there’s activities on the lawn. There’s a lot more prep work that goes into it. It’s more involved production wise, even just for one concert.

What’s something people don’t understand about being at the Embarcadero?

For the bands I work with, they don’t always understand the limitations of the stage. It’s not a huge stage and a lot of times they want to take up more space than we have. We also have to worry about sound levels for the orchestra. We have a decibel level limit with the Port of San Diego, so we can’t go over that or we’ll be in violation, since we are in an outdoor, public space. When you’re at a temporary venue, there are just so many considerations to take into account.

What is the most unexpected thing you’ve done at the Symphony?

Probably cueing the cannons for the 1812 Tchaikovsky Spectacular concert. We have cannons that fire off with the 1812 Overture. Last year, I found out probably a few weeks after I started that I would be the one to cue them. These are theatrical cannons, which are still very loud. There’s this switchboard and I’m reading along with the score to be ready when the cannons need to fire off. Then there’s this smoke blowing in my face and I’m trying to still read the score – it was an incredible experience.

This post was written by Kelly Hillock, marketing assistant for the San Diego Symphony.

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