Steven Elliott Jackson

Looking Ahead

Provided by Steven Elliott Jackson

Joe Szekeres

In the Covid summer of 2020, I had the opportunity to watch my first online Fringe production where I was introduced to the world of playwright Steven Elliott Jackson and his fascinating historical audio drama: ‘Sarah/Frank’.

Summer 2021’s online Fringe production of his play ‘The Laughter’ featured Kate McArthur and Brandon Knox who played respectively TWO of entertainment’s biggest names in the biz, as they say – Lucille Ball and Lou Costello.

What’s that adage? Three times a charm? Well, I’m certainly hoping so when I heard Steven’s latest play ‘Three Ordinary Men’ produced by Cahoots Theatre will be staged at Toronto’s The Theatre Centre in June.

Steven had participated via email in an earlier Profile Pandemic series I compiled back in 2020. When I had heard about ‘Three Ordinary Men’, I wanted to speak to him again because the plot intrigued me a lot especially considering so much societal change in the last two years. More about the plot of ‘Three Ordinary Men’ shortly.

And what a life Jackson’s leading right now.

First off, he’s one of the jurors in the General Category for this year’s Dora Mavor Moore Awards. Wow! That would be another personal bucket wish list item for me. Steven then shared some rather humorous personal anecdotes about his involvement with the Doras which had me in fits of laughter.

One thing he did say about his involvement as Juror:

“I’m tougher when it comes to the General category as you really have to impress me.”

Regarding the re-emergence of life in the theatre, Steven says he hasn’t been less creative because he writes A LOT. Sometimes he can come back with a play four days later. During Covid, he moved to Kitchener. He then shared another humorous moment where he heard of some writers who were uncertain and didn’t know how to proceed during this time.

Steven’s response is brief, curt and to the point, but he says it best:

“You’re a writer, you write. You find a way to work through it and you do it. Move on.”

Covid changed things for him as Steven moved on. The theatre industry in his words: “went over to one side”. He recognizes it’s going to take some time to find stability and be realistic in the Toronto theatre scene again but followed his own advice during the pandemic and kept busy with projects. If he doesn’t have a project to work on, Steven will find one whether it be play readings or preparing for summer Fringe shows.

Jackson stated how he and Cahoots’ Artistic Director, Tanisha Taitt, (who is scheduled to direct ‘Three Ordinary Men’) have a great relationship.

How did the two of them meet?

Tanisha was on the jury for the new play contest as part of Fringe when Steven had submitted his script ‘The Seat Next to the King’. She had picked this play as number one for her. Right after the contest, she kept thinking about the play as she loved it so much and wanted to direct it, even though she had no intention of directing a Fringe play ever again.

But she did direct ‘Seat’ and, with fondness, Steven recalls how the two of them developed such a positive and healthy director/playwright relationship during the rehearsal process as he quotes: “We both get each other”. They were honest with each other; they were able to take critique from each other; they had to listen to each other and realize they may not be able to get what they want, but that was alright with him.
It was during rehearsals for ‘Seat’ that Jackson recalled doing some research about ‘Three Ordinary Men’.

He recalled being blown away by his research and says this story of the three civil rights activists who were murdered became even more relevant after the tragedy of the killing of George Floyd.

Going forward, ‘Men’ seems to be more and more relevant for Jackson as it is a necessary story we need to see and to hear in how we bring forth social issues. He felt it and ‘The Laughter’ were both organic as their different plots are “one of coming together and connection to others who are not from the same world but must come together and do something.”

That’s what Jackson likes about the theatre industry. What excites him the most about this return to live theatre (but still in Covid) is the connection and the thrill with what’s happening on stage and you forget about distractions around you. He compared the experience of being at the theatre as meditative because you become absorbed with what is playing in front of you.

Steven loves plays about people dealing with stuff onstage. He loves opposites and controversial figures. He loves when audiences say about a character: “I hate you, but I understand where you’re coming from.”

What fascinated Jackson when he started to write ‘Three Ordinary Men’? Everything he read mostly relayed to what happened after the murders of these three individuals and not who the people were. Yes, these events were shocking, but Steven says he wanted to know more about who these men were and what made them want to change the world in the way they were doing it. This was more fascinating to write which in turn led to uplifting messages in the script. However, Steven’s not sure if we have that same kind of energy now that these characters exude in the play. That’s something of which audiences will have to be aware as opening night approaches.

It took five days to write ‘Three Ordinary Men’, a scene per night, but the last scene took the longest to complete as it was really hard. Jackson recalled writing the play at the Toronto Reference Library and tears welling in his eyes as he was typing away the last scene on his I Pad because it was so difficult as it was such a tragic ending to these men’s lives.

Steven stated he was a tad naïve a bit because he didn’t realize just how strong, powerful and personal this story of the three civil right activists was for Tanisha. She is so eloquent herself, and Jackson values and respects that about Tanisha. While she’s passionate about what she believes, Tanisha can also see the sides in the story.

Again, he recalled how she read the first stage direction and then called Steven saying: “You wrote a play about them; you wrote a play about them.” To which Steven simply said: “Yes, it’s the last day of their lives. That’s what the play is, and not knowing that you’re going to die.”

The two of them had quite a profound moment talking about these men, the tragedy in the loss of their lives and the script itself.

Steven then entered ‘Three Ordinary Men’ in the Hamilton Play Contest. He once told an aspiring playwright that if he couldn’t handle rejection in writing plays probably 95% of the time, then walk away right now. Steven followed that same advice regarding ‘Men’. He submitted it and waited to see what would happen because people will either take the play or not take it.

And then he and I shared a good laugh about reviews of plays and decided that would be discussion for another evening.

‘Three Ordinary Men’ won the New Play Contest in Hamilton. Although he believes he writes a lot of American stuff, the story transcends the border.

Then Covid happened and he was approached to stage ‘Men’ digitally which was a definite No for Steven at that time. He and Tanisha had no idea if theatres would be open and then considered perhaps a digital show might be possible, but ‘Men’ deserves to be seen live. It may be filmed in the future, but that’s not up for discussion right now. There was also discussion if the play would reflect Cahoots’ mandate when Tanisha assumed leadership of the company three months before the pandemic hit. Steven said his feelings would not be hurt if Tanisha felt the script could not be performed at this time. Again, Jackson spoke of the respect the two of them have for each other in not pushing each other.

‘Three Ordinary Men’ had a first reading a few weeks ago and Steven said it was glorious to hear the words read aloud. Hearing the ending crushed all of them at that first reading as Jackson didn’t believe there could be that much silence on a Zoom camera.

What’s next post ‘Three Ordinary Men’?

He goes right into Fringe with two shows. The first ‘The Garden of Alla’ is the story of silent film star Alla Nazimova in the 1920s and the making of ‘Salome’ and what happens to Alla, her husband and her lover. Steven calls the play a glorious time of sexual freedom that was happening before the world of censors and scandal robbed us of it. For him, there are some gloriously very different queer lives coming together and having the freedom to be who they were, not necessarily on the screen.

The second ‘The Prince’s Big Adventurer’ is a kid’s show Steven wrote years ago that he has wanted to do for so long. It’s a story of a prince who is forced by his dad to rescue a princess from a tower. His dad knows his son is not good at this sort of thing, so the father hires an adventurer from the town and chaos ensues. Steven calls this one “A Gay Fairy Tale”.

‘Three Ordinary Men’ opens June 14 and runs to June 26 in The Incubator at The Theatre Centre, 1115 Queen Street West. To purchase tickets: https://theatrecentre.org/event/three-ordinary-men/

To learn more about Steven, visit his webpage: https://www.stevenelliottjackson.ca/

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