Fort Worth — Erik Forest Jackson, whose play Like a Billion Likes is finishing up its world premiere run at Stage West, grew up in Parker, Texas, close to the famed Ewing residence Southfork Ranch, whose real-life owners are family friends.
As a student at Plano’s Williams High School, and then Plano East High, he “tried to do everything.”
“I was class president, on the student council and track team, and did plays and theater,” Jackson says. “I decided that acting was a wise choice, he said, ironically.”
That lead to a conservatory program at the University of Southern California. “I loved the process of performing in college, but I hated the chase,” he says. “There were way more people who were more talented and driven. That’s when I realized writing was a better fit. …I was writing mostly film and TV projects that would get to the point of developing or optioning, then would derail.”
Then he found an opportunity to write plays for friends in New York, working at Performance Space 122, a famed downtown venue where Spalding Gray got his start. After months of sofa surfing, he found that “the pavement was electrifying.”
The first work in the mid-1990s was a musical “pop culture garbage compactor” called Charlie!, which mixed 1960s and ‘70s “Charlies,” as the women of Charlie’s Angels worked for Charlie Manson. Ben Brantley reviewed it in the New York Times, and he got a Cease and Desist from the folks behind Charlie’s Angels. (It was also turned into a film that debuted at the Berlin Film Festival.)
His writing career detoured into entertainment journalism, but he has continued writing for the stage, film, TV and books, such as the TV series Dante’s Cove, and a series of books with the Muppets in fairy tales and classic stories. His theater works include the book of the Neil Sedaka musical Breaking Up is Hard to Do (co-written with Ben Winters), an adaptation of the TV show Cheers that had a short-lived tour in 2016-17 (it was scheduled for Dallas but was canceled), and a play adaptation of Stephen King’s Carrie (not the musical).
Like a Billion Likes, which focuses on three teenagers in suburban Texas high school navigating social media and the need to be noticed, won the Southwest Playwriting Contest and was a finalist at the 2016 Eugene O’Neill Playwrights Conference. The production, directed by Garret Storms, features Delaney Milbourn as Misty, Mikaela Krantz as Alix and Evan Michael Woods as the gender-non-conforming Jacey. Aaron Roberts is the school principal, and Dana Schultes is the school counselor and Alix’s mother. You can read our review here.
TheaterJones chatted with Erik Forrest Jackson about his career, his work and this play.
You had pursued acting, but moved to New York with plans to be a writer for the theater. Somehow you found your way into entertainment journalism. How did that happen?
I was trying to be the writer in the world of the downtown performance art, and was waiting tables and catering, and a friend told me about an opportunity to work inputting [calendar] listings for a magazine. That led to writing for the magazine, then to Time Out New York, then to US Weekly before its tabloid days. Then I ran my own magazine called Show People, then moved to InStyle [Executive Editor] and Entertainment Weekly as a projects director until 2017.
How was the transition between the two writing styles, of playwriting and entertainment journalism?
It came fairly naturally. I grew up consuming EW and I loved that my “survival job” was still in the world of writing and words; I just did it in reverse. Many [theater artists] struggle and give over to the day job; I just realized that if I could do the day job and make enough money to avoid starvation, then it would be wiser. I resigned from EW when I was awarded a residency in Taos, N.M. I realized it was the Universe telling me something.
You’ve written parodies, a Neil Sedaka jukebox musical, an adaptation of the TV show Cheers, and now Like a Billion Likes. That’s quite the mix of styles.
I am a crazy-quilt writer, I go where the opportunities are or where my interests are, without reining myself into a particular genre or area of interest. I’ve done everything from LABL, a darkly comic drama, to straight-forwardly commercial, like the Neil Sedaka musical. I have run the gamut, in terms of my output.
Like a Billion Likes is set in Collin County (just north of Dallas County), and you have references to specific places, like the city of Richardson and Lake Lavon. Why set this story here?
There was something about this that seemed right to put in a place that was sort of ingrained in my bones more. It seemed like the right place for this play. It’s a big school, and I think it’s interesting that the suburbs north of Dallas are exploding. The cosmopolitan is creeping into those schools.
The northeastern reaches of the DFW Metroplex is North Texas’ largest growth area, with the new Toyota plant and other big businesses moving in. You can drive through areas of West Plano and Frisco and see cows in a pasture next to new commercial development and an IKEA.
That’s emblematic of stuff I try to deal with in the play. I think the school principal’s thinking is analogous to folks trying to hold onto their land when there’s the IKEA next door; it’s the inevitability of change.
Where did the inspiration for Like a Billion Likes come from?
Before this play was one play, it was two plays. I had been working on two different pieces, one of a non-binary, non-gender-confirming character who was trying to find his way in a world of many assumptions. The other was about a teenage girl who thought she wanted to do good, but she really wanted to be noticed. Then I realized these two trains on two tracks could work on one track.
You and I are of the same generation; we didn’t grow up with social media and devices. I can’t imagine my teenage years with smartphones and social media.
I think we’re all trying to find our footing, in a world where we’re trying to find our brand. Before, teenagers could make mistakes and change their minds. Now if you make a misstep on Twitter, you could immediately be ruined by 300,000 people you don’t know. It’s this wonderful, horrible tool. [Social media is] a lot of people who are looking to be outraged; there’s a lot of opportunism, a lot of appropriation, especially around individuals who aren’t formed fully. Adolescence is hard enough, but once you add this microscope, it’s harder.
Was the play’s ending inspired by a real event?
There was an incident somewhat similar to what happens to the character Jacey, and I was horrified by the kid who went through the injury, and the kid who inflicted the harm—who was not by all accounts was not a reprehensible person. It was someone who did something stupid. I was interested as a dramatist by the outcome.
It’s scary that right now, in Trump’s America, the voices who would hold LGBTQ+ persons and “the other” back are becoming louder, despite recent advances.
That type of intolerance is something that will generationally die out. I see in young people not just an acceptance—which implies there’s a choice to reject or accept it—but a real embrace [of the fact that] there are people who are outside of the binary. It’s not just to say “look how tolerant and open I am.” They exist, they add value to our lives, and kids get that.
I think that Trump is such an extreme, he is forcing people who are not making a stand, to make a stand. That’s a positive in a really challenging way.
How did the narrative develop for you? Did the characters surprise you as you were writing them?
I’m a big planner. I believe if you don’t know where you’re headed, you’re not going to get there. I’m a big fan of outlines and index cards and pre-planning. I knew where I was going, there were times when the characters would surprise me, and they would tap me on the shoulder and tell me “no I would never do that.” Their voices felt clear to me.
You were in town visiting your family for the holidays, and participated in the early stages of rehearsal at Stage West. How did that go?
It was great. I’ve known about Stage West for a long time. They did a reading of the show, as part of the award aspect. I stayed on for the first week of rehearsal, and I’ve Facetimed in for run-throughs. [Director] Garret [Storms] is the captain of the ship. There were no major overhauls. It’s a fantastic cast; such an intelligent group of folks.