Nathan Louis Jackson grew up in Kansas City, Kansas, and attended Kansas State University. He gave up one Manhattan for the other to attend Juilliard, in 2007, and work on his main professional goal: becoming a playwright. He didn't waste time. His Broke-ology was workshopped within a year of his arrival there. It was staged in 2008 and then, in 2009, in Lincoln Center Theater's venue for new artists. Early last year, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation awarded Jackson a three-year playwriting residency at the Kansas City Repertory Theatre, where his When I Come to Die runs through March 16 on the Copaken Stage.
The Pitch: What experiences drew you to theater and to playwriting specifically?
Jackson: Growing up in Kansas City, I thought that the way I'd succeed was on the basketball court. But I didn't grow much in high school, so I had to find something else to do. I soon learned that I had a lot of great stories to tell, and the stage was the perfect [format] to tell them.
What was your theater training?
I received a B.S. in theater from Kansas State University and an artistic diploma from the Juilliard School.
What was your first play, and how did it come about?
When my father became ill with MS, I had a difficult decision. Should I stay at home with my sick father or continue pursuing my dreams at college? In 2002, soon after my father died, I wrote my first play. It was titled Mancherios and was about a young man struggling between taking care of his family responsibilities and pursuing his dreams.
Did Broke-ology evolve from Mancherios?
Yes, Mancherios became Broke-ology.
You've written for TV, too.
After I wrote Broke-ology, my agent asked if I had an interest in television. He sent my play to several producers, and I got a job writing for Southland on NBC. I've also worked for Lights Out on FX, Shameless on Showtime and Resurrection on ABC.
How is writing a TV script different from constructing a play?
The biggest difference is that television writing is superfast. A play could take months or years to write, but an episode of television is written in a few weeks. Also, playwriting is an art form that is normally done alone. Television writing is much more collaborative.
Who and/or what inspires you or fuels your creativity?
My parents because of the sacrifices that they made. My children because they have to eat. My fellow playwrights because they're damn talented.
What playwriting rules do you like to break?
I'm still working on mastering the rules. I'll break them soon enough.
What rules for theater would you institute if you could?
Rules + box. I don't want to put theater in a box.
Do you have a writing routine?
I wish. I just try to write something and read something every day. At work sitting at the desk, at home during the kids' nap, at the airport during a layover. I just write whenever I get a chance.
You're a KCK native but spent time away. What brought you back to KC?
After my wife and I found out we were having a second child, we decided to move back to KC to be close to my mother. Family brought me back, but the grant from the Mellon Foundation kept me here.
What are some favorite plays, and why?
The Island by Athol Fugard. I love its simplicity and the way it explores the theme of isolation. I also love The Colored Museum by George C. Wolfe — it's one of the first plays I ever read and saw performed in high school, and that I performed in high school and junior college.
You've acted in the past. Not anymore?
I loved being on the stage. Still do. But for me, writing is more conducive to my family life. Also, with writing, I get to tell my stories.
Who are some favorite playwrights, and why?
Marco Ramirez, Katori Hall, Bruce Norris, Zayd Dohrn, Tracey Scott Wilson, just to name a few. They all write with passion and truth. They write stories that only they can. I can tell that each word, each phrase and character in their plays were well thought-out.
What's the hardest thing you've worked on?
When I Come to Die. There were a lot of rewrites [for an earlier production in New York City] and not much time to do it.
The most rewarding?
Broke-ology. Even though Dad wasn't here to see it, I know he was proud of me.
How does audience reaction affect your work?
Because theater is a live art form, it's impossible for the audience not to affect the work. During the writing process, I don't think about the audience as much. I just write what I think works best for the story. But while watching the performance, it's helpful to see what the audience reacts to and what moves them.
What's the best thing that has happened during a performance?
When an audience member is so moved that they yell something out loud. At one point during Broke-ology, an audience member screamed, "No!" when William took the last shot.
What's the worst thing?
When watching a show after it opens, I see a line or a moment that I want to change, but I can't.
What plays are in progress or in planning stages?
Hopefully something amazing.