Catch him if you can: At 21, Chris Jackson is a local theater artist to watch

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I sat down with the lanky, amicable Jackson at the Indigo Café in Hyde Park Village recently, and asked him how he got his start. He told me he grew up in Valrico “on an orange grove” and auditioned as an actor for the Blake High School for the Performing Arts so he could be near his girlfriend. In his first week at the school, he met the teacher and mentor who still means so much to him — James Rayfield — and discovered a drive to compete with the other actors among his peers. He also started writing — notably a play about a cheerleader who seduces her teacher that was accepted for the Young Dramatists Project (YDP) at Gorilla Theater. When Jackson’s parents moved to North Carolina, though (2007), Jackson had to leave Blake. But he didn’t like his new home, came back to the Bay area, essentially dropped out of high school and began auditioning full-time.

He was first cast in Aubrey Hampton’s Christmas Gremlins II at Gorilla Theatre — a gig, he said, that taught him much he didn’t know about professional etiquette — and went on to perform in two YDP’s at Gorilla, a Stageworks school tour, John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation, also at Gorilla, and freeFall’s Sleeping Beauty. He turned his attention to film, writing, directing, and starring in a movie called Past the Fields, and performing the same three roles for a shorter film called The Last One. Then in 2010 he enlisted Rayfield and actress/producer Jessica Alexander to join him in launching the Revolve Theatre Company, for which he directed Caryl Churchill’s mysterious Far Away. Jekyll & Hyde came next — he was one of four Hydes — and now he’s preparing to direct and act in the Pinter evening that opens January 26. And oh yes, he’s scheduled to play the male lead in Scott Hudson’s Sweet Storm at Gorilla, opening February 24.

I wondered why Jackson started Revolve. “I felt that there was room for a theater company in Tampa to showcase experimental work,” he said. The problem was a certain sameness to Bay area productions – a pretty exclusive focus on realism, to be specific — that he thought Revolve could relieve. “I think Tampa is a garden of jasmine. And it’s pretty to look at. But I think there’s always room for a rose...We constantly have to change.” Among area stages, he especially has high hopes for freeFall — “they’re going to raise the bar for Tampa area theater.” But Revolve, he added, will continue to offer the sort of challenging work that local audiences mostly miss.

But will Chris Jackson stay in this area? “I’m going to stay here as long as I think it’s necessary,” he said. “Until I can’t go any further. I’m thinking that a move would really open me up to new experiences, and a new kind of maturity. So it’s definitely not out of the question.” Where would he move? Los Angeles, he told me — and not New York. “I think L.A. is more aggressive,” he said, “in some ways that suit me better. And I need that kind of aggressiveness, I need that kind of constant competition to help me feel I’m moving forward.”

That’s just where Chris Jackson is moving these days. Keep an eye out for him.

Every few years or so, local audiences discover an actor or actress with miles of talent and a wide-open future. A decade ago, it was Stephen Clark Pachosa. Early in 2010 it was Dahlia Legault. But these days, the impressive figure is Chris Jackson, the 21-year-old actor, director, writer and producer who recently shone in Jekyll & Hyde at freeFall Theatre, and is about to present A Kind of Alaska and other short plays by Harold Pinter at The [email protected] Jackson is a dynamo, a multi-talented natural who’s just beginning to show his stuff. He has a lot to offer local audiences — if we can keep him.

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