In a new light: CHS theater director charts his own course

by Andrew Alonzo | aalonzo@claremont-courier.com

Between 1963 and 2020, just two directors have called the small corner office behind Claremont High’s Don F. Fruechte Theatre’s stage “home.” In 2021, Mohammed Mangrio became the third.

When 27-year CHS theater director Krista Elhai retired in 2021, she recommended Mangrio for the job. But with the 2021-22 theater schedule already in place, he spent most of that academic year managing a program he had no input in designing.

“I was taking my notes and I’m like, ‘I don’t like how this is structured, this needs to change here,’ and all of that,” Mangrio said.

The current 2022-2023 season is the first in which he has assumed full creative control, and Mangrio said he’s focused on telling stories that reflect today’s current happenings and conversations.

“It’s really important to me to choose stories that should be told and that people want to hear,” he said. “And I don’t want to shy away from doing theater … that needs to be told. That being said, there has to be balance. We have different audiences, and I definitely keep that in mind in when building a season.”

Claremont High School theater technical director Kim Negrete and theater department director Mohammed Mangrio. Courier photo/Andrew Alonzo

Hired to further CHS’s well established theater program, Mangrio said it’s important for students to feel they have agency over its direction.

“It’s their program,” Mangrio said. “If I came in here and just started changing things left and right, it wouldn’t have worked on their end either. I’ve seen that go wrong. I knew that I needed to earn their trust. By the second semester, I felt like they were trusting me a lot more.”

Mangrio’s been involved with local and high school theater his entire life and is a member of the Educational Theatre Association and the board of California Thespians.

His theater spark came after being cast in a ballet production of “Cinderella” when he was nine years old. While a student at Hemet High School, he remembers watching a production of “Peter Pan” and the long curtain closing on one scene before opening up to a new world.

“We moved from the nursery to the pirate ship,” he said. “That was my first memory of just like, ‘Wow, this is magical. I want to do that.’ On top of that, I grew up in a community where I was very different. Really, the theater was the first place where I felt I could be myself. People didn’t care what I looked like, what my name was or anything like that. The community of it and that culture of the theater was very different in the building versus the rest of the campus. And that is what really kept me there.”

Junior Elijah Limon, left, receives instruction from Mohammed Mangrio, CHS’s second-year theater director. Courier photo/Andrew Alonzo

As a freshman at Hemet High School, Mangrio was instructed by Elhai for a year. His main takeaway from his mentor was to always have structure.

“I mean, she was structured,” he said. “It was like we’re here for a reason, to do work, to get the job done.”

He continued pursuing theater at Hemet High and with Thespian Troop #4015 until graduating in 1997. He then attended the University of California San Diego, where he earned a bachelor’s degree.

After his undergraduate studies, Mangrio worked the theater circuit and traveled to Seattle for amateur and professional work. He earned his master’s in teaching in 2014 from Seattle University and then spent a few years teaching in Spain before returning to California to build a theater program in San Leandro. While living in the Bay Area, Mangrio helped develop the theatre program at John Muir Middle School and chartered its Junior Thespian Troupe #81538. In 2021, he learned of Elhai’s plan to retire from CHS. But he had options to weigh.

“Claremont is known to be this robust program, and when the job first became available I was up in San Leandro building a program from scratch,” he said. “I wasn’t going to apply. I’m like, ‘There’s no way. I can’t do that. I don’t have that experience, it’s too much.’”

After some self-reflection, Mangrio threw his hat into the race. “My friends and family are like, ‘You’re an idiot. Look at your resume,’” he said. “And here I am.”

Mangrio said it has been intimidating following Elhai, but he’s happy with the new course he’s set for the department.

Another newcomer to CHS theater is technical director and stage technology teacher Kim Negrete. Negrete, who began in August, has 20 years of professional theater experience. She’s the driving force behind the improved lighting design at this year’s productions.

“Even though we’ve kept a lot of what [Elhai] built here, there’s a lot of things that he’s able to then take to the next level,” Negrete said of Mangrio. “We did some renovations already to the house to allow the lights to get to the stage a little bit better.

“We have really upped our game as to look the most professional that we can. Some of the sets that these kids have recently been building are unreal. I mean, the castle looks like a castle, as opposed to ‘That looks like a kid made that.’”

Next week, CHS Theater will open 2023 with “The Lightening Thief,” a Percy Jackson musical, with 7 p.m. shows Thursday and Friday January 19 and 20 and 2 and 7 p.m. shows Saturday, January 21. Advance tickets are $10 at onthestage.tickets/claremont-high-school, or $12 at the door.

For more information about Mangrio or CHS Theater visit chstheatre.cusd.claremont.edu or email mmangrio@cusd.claremont.edu.

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