Texas Studio: Playwright Crystal Jackson Stays Off the Main Road

Austin-based Crystal Jackson took her time getting around to playwriting. Even in the thick of it, she once thought she might be done for good. But, “It’s too early for you to say never about anything,” says a character from one of her plays from Kitchen Dog Theater’s one-minute play festival in 2017, like a prophet from the page to present time.

Jackson studied poetry and creative writing at The University of Houston and wrote sketch comedy for The Laff Stop after graduating in 2000, but didn’t consider the theater until she was accepted to the Edward Albee New Playwrights Workshop at UH. She studied with Albee for two semesters in 2002 and 2003 and then with Lanford Wilson for one semester in 2005.

“I don’t have copies of the plays I wrote during the Albee workshops,” Jackson says, “and hopefully no one else does either.” This sentiment makes me laugh, but the desire to banish our youthful work, even while recognizing its utility, is relatable.

During the workshop, each writer was called to the front of the room to sit next to Albee for class discussion. “I’d written stage directions where one character stared at another for 60 seconds,” Jackson explains. “Albee, always one for precision, had someone set a timer and stared at me, without speaking or blinking, for a full minute in front of the class. The longest 60 seconds of my life. But it made me much more exact with what I put on the page.” The plays Jackson wrote during this time were dark comedies about relationships intended to make the audience laugh.

In 2006, three years after finishing the last playwriting workshop, Amy Steele Wernig invited Jackson to write a piece for a showcase at DiverseWorks. That’s when she wrote Please Remove This Stuffed Animal From My Head, a one-act play about abortion access. Jackson says this play marked a shift. “I moved into a much more political and absurdist space. But I kept the humor, which helps the medicine go down.”

Please Remove This Stuffed Animal From My Head had 10 additional productions or readings across the country during 2007 through 2009 and is published by Original Works.

In 2007 Jackson received a grant from Houston Arts Alliance to produce a collection of short plays and monologues at DiverseWorks. In 2011, she completed her first full length play, The Singularity.

Moving from short pieces to a longer play takes a mind shift. “I’m big on brevity,” Jackson says. “And my first drafts are lean. Like a skeleton with a hat on. Subsequent revisions build on that framework, and it’s common that the final version of the play includes that first draft in its entirety. There’s just more story surrounding it.”

The Singularity is a play about Astrid, a single woman on a quest to become a mom via fertility clinics, but a comedy of errors and hilariously uninvested clinic staff thwart her efforts. Most of Jackson’s plays are in a nearby reality in the soon to be future, so they are relatable but have an edge of unreality. In a twist of fate, Astrid gets her hands on a container of stolen dark matter and takes matters into her own hands with a turkey baster.

Kitchen Dog Theater in Dallas produced a reading at their New Works Festival in 2011. Science Fiction Theatre Company in Boston produced the world premiere in 2014, and there were subsequent productions in NYC and Omaha in 2015. The Singularity is also published by Original Works.

Then, the 2016 presidential election happened.

“When you dream up absurd dark comedies and something like Donald Trump moving into the Oval Office happens in reality, the bar for darkness and absurdity becomes too high. Or maybe too low. The stories just weren’t coming to me anymore, and I was pretty sure I was done being a playwright.”

Jackson moved to California in 2014 and then back to Texas in 2021. Reality was (is?) still painfully absurd and she hadn’t written anything substantial since The Singularity. Then an email arrived from Kitchen Dog Theater soliciting new work and something inside Jackson sparked. She wondered if she could still write a play.

Jackson wrote and submitted a 10-page sample of The Last Truck Stop just before Christmas. She planned to use the holidays to work on completing the play, but the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry. She didn’t write a single word. “When the theater requested the full script a few months later—and wanted to see it in three days—I girded myself with caffeine or wine depending on time of day and pushed the story out of my head over a three-day weekend.”

Kitchen Dog produced a reading of The Last Truck Stop for their New Works Festival in the summer of 2022. The play takes place in 2045, a dystopian future in which the West Coast is closed off and everyone is forced to live in corporate housing in urban centers. Well, everyone except the play’s protagonists; Gladys, the purveyor of the last truck stop in Truth and Consequences NM, her niece Zelda, and the local postal carrier Uncle Hank. The premise of the play is dark, perhaps especially so because it is not unimaginable. But there is a thread of hope and humor throughout.

Jackson used feedback from the New Works Festival to work on revisions for The Last Truck Stop’s world premiere at Kitchen Dog, which happened in 2023. She workshopped the play with the production team during the first week of rehearsal, a singular experience.

“The actors and director Chris Carlos had a lot of smart questions for me. Things I hadn’t considered on a conscious level when writing the play. But I found I often knew the answers, which were lurking in my brain somewhere under the surface. Like there’s a smart little squirrel in there doing the hard work, and I’m just the person with a laptop and typing skills. It’s something that’s always amazed me about writing—that it’s happening on so many different levels. Like magic.”

It was an intense week, but Jackson describes it as the most collaborative experience she’s ever had in the theater. Jackson’s previous plays were straight up absurd which let her keep the characters at arm’s length. With absurdism, the situation is at the forefront, characters are a means to an end. The characters she wrote for The Last Truck Stop are people Jackson actually cares about. These characters are people in whose outcome and journey she is invested in, a new element to explore. She is now working on a few more edits to The Last Truck Stop and wants to get it out there and see it produced a few more times.

As for the future, there are no certain plans. Will there be another play? Probably. Jackson says she is thinking about a fiction/reality hybrid, perhaps a collection of short stories or a novel. But one thing is certain: this world of ours will continue to provide the absurd fodder that Jackson relies on for fuel, even if her characters take an increasingly center-stage role going forward.