Proof that truth can make you laugh as well as cry
Daniel Jackson wants his plays to make people think … but that doesn’t mean audiences can’t roll in the aisles at the same time, he tells Neil Cooper
DANIEL Jackson doesn’t seem himself the day we meet. It’s not just the checkshirt-and-army-trews ensemble that’s replaced the young playwright’s trademark pinstripe suit jacket and half-mast tie. No, the day before the preview of Jackson’s first mainstage play,The Wall, there is no sign of the cocksure young fogey spouting forth opinions with certainty.
In fact, the 28-year-old is initially as tongue-tied as a teenager on a first date. This could, of course, be a hangover from the show, which charts the rites of passage of a group of adolescents in a small town (a process not entirely dissimilar to the author’s own youth). Despite his self-deprecatory observation of his sartorial inelegance resembling “an American gunman about to shoot up the school”, the lad, frankly, is a bag of nerves.
“It’s not an exclusively positive experience, having plays on,” he says. “It’s horrible. It’s like streaking. I imagine streakers feel exactly the same way before they dash across the football pitch. I have the need to do this, and obviously I want to do this, but it’s still terrifying exposing yourself in front of people like that.”
Especially when, as he humbly admits: “I don’t have much of an imagination. More or less everything I write is autobiographical, but changed. Nothing particularly noteworthy happened to me in my childhood, so obviously to build a play I have to fabricate something, and I think probably all four characters in The Wall have aspects of me about them.”
Jackson – who writes as D C Jackson – never meant to be a playwright. It was only when he spotted a competition run by Playwrights’ Studio Scotland that he knocked together the required 10-page scene, at the last minute. It went on to be one of the winners, and his prize was the chance to work with professional writers and directors in developing it into a full-length play. This would eventually become The Wall.
Jackson’s father is Eddie Jackson, head of the Ayrshire-based touring theatre company Borderline – which is co-producing The Wall with the Tron in Glasgow. Growing up in Stewarton, Jackson Jr may not have actively fled the family circus, but he didn’t exactly embrace it. Not that things were particularly showbiz at home: “It’s not as if Billy Connolly was coming round for his tea every night. But Borderline did a play about the Marx brothers, which had a big effect – as did Peter and Penny’s Panto, which was written by Alex Norton and was kind of a forerunner to Forbes Masson’s pantos. But then I worked as an usher at the Tron, and I probably saw more theatre doing that than I did in my whole childhood.”
As a student, Jackson wrote comic strips with his artist flatmate. This resulted in the brilliantly skewed Glasgow Fabulous, based on and in the city’s club scene, which was hard to decipher unless you were already a keen observer of the assorted cliques it poked fun at. It was a far cry from the embracing of popular culture that Jackson appreciated watching Liz Lochhead’s Good Things at the Tron. “It was punter-friendly,” he says. “A theatre jammed with people having fun and being taken on an emotional journey. I wanted to do something with similar themes, but for a younger audience.”
Jackson sees himself following in the tradition of intelligent populists such as Lochhead and John Byrne. His real inspirations, though, don’t come from theatre at all, but from a lineage of Scots whimsy. “Bill Forsyth’s films are one of my biggest influences,” he says. “The effect something like Gregory’s Girl had on people my age can’t be overstated. And if The Wall was a song, it’d probably have to be something off If You’re Feeling Sinister by Belle and Sebastian, which comes straight from the whole Postcard Records thing.”
One shouldn’t, then, expect a piece of gritty, sink-estate realism from Jackson any time soon. “My favourite time in a theatre is when the audience are falling about with laughter, enjoying themselves,” he says.
Whatever happens this week with The Wall, doors have already been opening for Jackson. To date, this side of the border there have been The Matinee Idle and Drawing Bored, two lunchtime plays at Oran Mor in Glasgow; also, under the auspices of the Federation of Scottish Theatre, he worked a season as assistant director at Oran Mor. He was also attached to the Royal Court for two months, where he received several readings of short works, and is about to return to London’s primary new writing theatre, this time for a year via the Pearson Playwrights’ Scheme.
A new play for Oran Mor, Out on the Wing, opens later this month, and is set during a local-radio football phone-in show on the night a star player comes out as gay. Typically of Jackson, its starting point came via his own experience working on a similar sort of show: “I’ve had so many rubbish jobs that you have to do something with them.”
Jackson will also be making his directorial debut next month, again at Oran Mor. With such a multitude of projects ongoing, he is doing his own growing up in public. “Some of the more interesting things happening in Scottish theatre now are coming from a second generation,” he says. “Davey Anderson and Anthony Neilson both come from theatre backgrounds. They both had access to that world. If your parents are involved in it, you’re going to be exposed to it and see it as a possibility, whereas someone without that upbringing might end up making the next Holby City or something instead.
“I like telly a lot,” enthuses the self-confessed Hollyoaks fan. “Some writers think it’s beneath them, but as much as I want to be successful as a playwright, I certainly don’t think telly’s beneath me. It’s the same with comedy: there is a tendency for it not to be as highly regarded as other things. There’s also the misnomer that writing funny stuff is easy. But there is a danger that no-one takes you seriously unless you’re doing some Middle Eastern child-abuse play.”
Just how popular, then, does Jackson want to be? Outside the subsidised sector, after all, singingin-the-aisles musicals and soapstar-cast comedies are the real face of popular theatre.
“As much as I want to write comedies and popular theatre, I don’t think those two things should necessarily exclude being able to write things with truth and honesty and wider political resonances. All of which I think The Wall has,” he asserts, serious at last. “But would I be against writing a juke-box musical? No, I certainly would not – and if Billy Bragg’s ready to have his songs spun into a ham-fisted romantic comedy, I’m his man.”