Nathan Louis Jackson does something few playwrights do: He leaves the house in the morning, drives to the University of Missouri-Kansas City, takes a seat at his desk in the Kansas City Repertory Theatre administrative offices and begins his workday.
By ROBERT TRUSSELL
The Kansas City Star
Its as close to a 9-to-5 job as a dramatist is likely to find. Yes, he works on plays. But he does a lot more. He sits in on staff meetings. He offers marketing suggestions. He talks about the holiday shows and the Reps educational outreach.
The reason he can do all this is a $174,000 residency grant awarded to the Rep last year by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
This is a three-year residency, Jackson said about the grant, one of 14 awarded to theaters across the country. They want to see what its like to have a playwright in a theater full time, as though they were part of the staff. Were actually part of the family now. We sit in on meetings and have a space to work.
The Rep has been very supportive, but its also given me an opportunity to be part of the community. This is a residency where they try to integrate you into the organization.
Jackson enjoys a growing national reputation, based in part on two well-received New York productions of his work: When I Come to Die in 2011 and Broke-ology in 2009. Both were produced under the auspices of Lincoln Center.
In 2010, Kansas City Rep staged the second production of Broke-ology, a family drama set in Kansas City, Kan. And now the company is preparing to open a production of When I Come to Die, a prison drama that poses probing philosophical questions.
Jacksons desk happens to be near one occupied by Kyle Hatley, the Reps associate artistic director. And Hatley and Jackson have proven to be a fruitful creative team. Hatley directed Broke-ology for the Rep and is now staging When I Come to Die, which begins previews Friday at the Copaken Stage, the Reps downtown venue.
Jackson was still in New York when Hatley was preparing Broke-ology, and they communicated via emails and phone calls. This time, Jackson was able to be on the ground floor of the production.
Being in the office with him and being able to cast the show together makes a difference, Jackson said. Hes very passionate and very, very smart. Hes super-creative, and hes very open as a director. He has ideas and knows where he wants to go, but its always whats best for the show. When I work with Kyle, the art is always No. 1. And thats nice.
When I Come to Die starts with an intriguing premise: A prisoner on death row is scheduled to die by lethal injection. But something goes wrong. The injection turns out not to be lethal at all, and the prisoner finds himself delivered into a sort of limbo. He and the prison officials are faced with different versions of the same question: What now?
The central character is Damon, a convict who has spent a decade preparing to die. After his mysterious survival, his life suddenly seems open-ended and disorienting. He tries to make sense of it through conversations with a fellow prisoner and the prison chaplain. And he receives a visit from his younger sister.
Jackson went to Kansas State University before studying playwriting at the Juilliard School. His depiction of the prison experience, he said, was gleaned from relatives who had served time as well as conversations with his mother-in-law, a former prison guard.
And he and Hatley drove to the Kansas Correctional Facility in Lansing and met with a group of prisoners who were preparing to transition back into civilian life.
I have family members who unfortunately have been in and out of the system, Jackson said. I talked to them about what that world was like.
The play, he said, also reflected his fascination with time and just playing with time. These guys (on death row), unlike the rest of us, know what their time is. Theres a specific date. The only difference between those guys and us is they know their date. We just go through life willy-nilly sometimes, assuming were going to wake up tomorrow. But these guys dont have that luxury.
Jackson has made minor alterations since the New York production. Hatley and Jackson decided to eliminate a prison guard, a utilitarian character that helped transition from scene to scene.
Hatley said he and Jackson have been talking about the play since Broke-ology.
I would always ask him about When I Come to Die, Hatley said. All I knew was the title and the story. Being a guy who likes scary movies and sci-fi movies I wanted to get my hands on it as soon as I could. It just sounded like this parable, this really inventive, paranormal parable. Spooky and beautiful.
Some of the tools you use as a writer are consistently employed when working with a playwright, he said. I try to understand exactly what Nathan is trying to do with this play and what he wants to say. I want him to have his play as realized as possible and to achieve a sense of finality. There is no better feeling than helping a playwright feel good about a production of something theyve written.
Indeed, the Reps front office these days is dominated by hyphenated artists. Eric Rosen, the Reps artistic director, is a playwright and lyricist in addition to being an accomplished director. Jerry Genochio, the director of production, also writes and directs. And Hatley is an actor in addition to directing and writing plays. So in a way, Jackson fits right in.
Anytime we can put more artists at the center of the day-to-day life of the theater, the more our board and contributors and audience can understand that were an artistic enterprise, Rosen said. Were not here to make press releases. Were here to make plays.
One of Rosens goals is to sustain a program of new play development.
As we develop what we hope is a long-term play-development center, learning from Nathan what a writer needs is very helpful, Rosen said. Its like having an ally as a fellow playwright. We kind of speak the same language.
Broke-ology found a receptive audience both in Kansas City and New York. When I Come to Die, Jackson said, is a different kind of play.
Its a tougher one, he said. Broke-ology was more of a heart-warming thing. So this is a tougher play. I am equally proud of this as I am of the other one.