Jun 9, 2010
I Interview Playwrights Part 191: Nikole Beckwith
Hometown: Newburyport Massachusetts
Current Town: Brooklyn
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Well, I am working on my third full length play over at The Public, as a member of their Emerging Writers Group (which is an amazing amazing group, I feel very lucky) I'd tell you about the play but, I can never really talk about a play before it's done. I can say it's darker than my other two full lengths, in a good way. I can also say that half way through act one I realized it was partly somehow a response to Greg Moss' House of Gold, a play that I love and carry around with me (metaphorically, not in script form) which is happening at Wooly Mammoth in DC this November. You just interviewed him. I've known Greg more than half my life and his plays are like nothing else out there.
Also, I've been working on this comic strip project with The Civilians and WNYC. The Civilians have this incredible show, You Better Sit Down; Tales From My Parents' Divorce which I saw at Galapagos last November and fell in love with. In love, like I still swoon on and on about it as though I saw it just yesterday. They partnered with WNYC to open up the project into a kind of diologue with every and anybody about their own parents divorce and I contributed a comic strip for their museum of "contested objects" then both The Civilians and WNYC thought it'd be great if I did the whole shabang. So I did. I was schooled on the Civilians interview technique and recorded 6 hours of my parents over the phone. I transcribe those interviews in chunks and then figure out what the mini-story is and shape it into a dozen or so frames. I've made comic strips for years now, mostly just about my daily life and/or sad yet hilarious truths (if those things are different). I consider them my shortest plays. This is the first series where I can't take artistic liberties or re-invent anything. It's also the first series that is both not about me and is still about my life. I've felt like a private detective or an archiologist; trying to find out how something that doesn't exist anymore died in the first place. And what did it eat? I feel really lucky to get to be involved with a project I was so taken by and luckier still that I get to learn about these two people I was made by (even if that part is occasionally beyond overwhelming)
Q: Can you tell me about the thing you're doing with the kids at Stella Adler?
A: Yes! So this wonderful playwright Melissa Ross invented this program at Stella Adler where she gathers up some playwrights and has them commissioned to write short plays specifically for her advanced teen students. The writers show up and meet the students about a month before class starts, each kid gets up and tells a little about themselves and after that Melissa sends us our cast list and we have about a month to write a play specifically for them. Then Melissa works with the kids all summer directing them into production, then there's a show with all the plays. It's really great. I think it's so amazing for the kids to get that experience of working with text that was made just for them and an equally great catalyst for us playwrights to create something new. This is my second go around, last year I wrote a play about conjoined twins in the hospital after their separation surgery, called Connectivity. I adore the girls I wrote it for and I adore the play. It was a lovely experience for everyone, I am thrilled to do it again. I always write with actors in mind whether they ever know it or not. It helps me develop a more concrete image of the world. I think what melissa has done for the class is amazing; when I was a teen, I was relegated to working with very out-of-date "dramatic scenes" about what "teens" had to deal with in the seventies or what people in their seventies thought teens had to deal with in the 90's. Sometimes teenagers don't need to talk about eating disorders or 90210 style pregnancy scares, they can also talk about regular things. Like getting separated from their conjoined twin.
Q: Tell me, if you will, a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person.
A: Be warned: I never tell a short story. Ok, when I was in elementary school I decided the violin was my calling, I must have been 8, maybe 9? I convinced my parents to let me take violin as an afterschool elective and knew my life would change forever. It was beautiful; the wood, the strings, the curve of it, the promise of it all. I loved the thing itself and it's potential. I also loved the hard black case with it's furry blue lining, the music stand, the bow, the rosin. I rememeber laying it all out on my bedroom floor and feeling like I had all the tools for greatness. I'd rearrange them over and over on the carpet and look at myself in the mirror holding the violin up to my chin and already feel like I had accomplished something, just by association.
After we learned a couple plinks and plucks and how to hold it I felt pretty confidient I was a virtuoso in the making, then the music sheets came out. The music sheets. I remember so distinctly being in the linoleum music room and staring at Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, or rather what said it was Twinkle Twinkle at the top of the page yet was just a series of blobs and sticks marked with swirly things. The instructor started talking us through the music and I remember thinking "Is she kidding?" I turned to another kid in class for solidarity, prolly about to say something like "What's with these dots, am I right?" but when I faced the other kids in class I realized I was the only one who didn't know what to do about these hyrogliphics mascerading as a song. Even at 8 I had a pretty horrible go at it with authority figures and teachers (I was already in my second school by this time, having transfered after an unreconsilable first grade experience and was down at the Principle's Office enough to be on a first name basis with everyone at my current school) so I opted to keep my mouth shut and pretend I knew what was going on. This pretending went deep. I mimed what I saw the other kids doing with their fingers and bows, but kept my bow a few centimeters above the strings as to not make any actual noise. I even pretended to mess up at points; squinting at the sheet music and jolting my arm in frustration, then shaking it off for the refrain of Mary Had a Little lamb. If there is a refrain. I don't know, I can't read music. I would also often volunteer to play solo in front of the class when the teacher would ask "Can anyone play the second bar for us?" - my arm would shoot up with a beliveable amount of confidience and if she actually called on me I would just say I had to go to the bathroom and excuse myself.
This went on and on and on until finally we had our concert. I was very nervous that someone in the audience would call me out as a fraud. I imagined an unknown adult standing mid song and pointing at me in slow motion "She is not really playing! The unusually tall kid doesn't have the bow on her strings!" and then my life would be over. Luckily, I made it through the concert without such incident and greeted my parents in the lobby for brownies just like everyone else. Suckers. When I saw my parents they said to me "You were great! We could hear you above everyone else! You were the best" they hugged and congratulated me, meanwhile I was more confused than ever. I thought about it all night "We could HEAR you above everyone else" I thought about those words over and over until I finally realized: parents lie. That, of course, opened a Pandora's Box that I wasn't ready for; if parents lie that means my macaroni portrait of George Washington might not have looked life-like, or that they don't enjoy the stuffed animal pageants I put on. What if Santa and the tooth fairy don't really exist, what if they DO have a favorite child and what if it's not me? My mind was basically imploding and it was too much for my single digit brain to handle. I didn't know how to go on, how would I ever glue another piece of macaroni art or make my parents watch me roller skate down the hallway ever again? Unable to face such anarchy I reasoned that they thought they heard me. They thought they heard me because I made them think they could. I had willed them to hear me with my amazing abilities as a pretender. I was too good. I was not meant to play violin, no. I was meant for the stage. I was clearly a born actor, I had, after all, convinced two perfectly sane adults with functioning ears that they heard me play an only slightly imperfect Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. I promptly gave up violin and that same year auditioned for my first play; a community production of Godspell where I not only secretly lip synced all my lines in the chorus but also not so secretly mouthed all of Jesus' lines- a feat both of my parents assured me made the play much better. And I believed them. Happily.
Q: If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?
A: (Sigh) money. I just got back from London where I was working with the Old Vic/New Voices Exchange and meeting with some theaters over there. The amount of theater that happens there is incredible, theaters produce like 17 shows in a season sometimes more, so many of them new plays and most of those by new playwrights. Their theaters are funded by the government. A portion of the money that folks spend on lottery tickets goes into the theater. On top of that they do fundraising and have donors. Therefore they do not rely on ticket sales and so they can take more risks, make more new plays. The reading circuit/"development" almost doesn't exist over there, I heard many people say "The best way to serve a playwright and their play is to put their play on" and it's true. They can do that because theater (and art in general) is not just considered a vital part of their culture, it is funded as such. If we (New York/America/Etc) didn't have to pull our hair out over ticket sales and making budget cuts we could make more of what we are capable of, actually put up the plays we hear again and again around music stands with bottled waters. That's not to say they don't have their share of hiccups across the pond, I think if we could merge our two theater climates, we would have theater-utopia.
Q: Who are or were your theatrical heroes?
A: Theatrical heroes. Well, first and foremost Eric Bogosian. I played Sooze in subUrbia in my hometown circa 1998 and like most young or formerly young folks in the theater, that play changed my life. And then in 2003 or 04 I worked with Bogosian as an actor on two new plays of his and then he gave me a job as his assistant and I moved to New York (making him a personal hero as well). He writes what he wants to see. He writes for his friends, his community, himself; and that is why his work is so immensely watchable while still challenging it's audience. It's hard to trust yourself like that. It's hard not to change with whatever way the wind is blowing at that moment, the wind in this business can blow you right off the page but he has always made exactly what he wants to make.
Charles Busch is another. If you have not read his book Whores of Lost Atlantis, I highly recommend it. It is "fiction" but it's really not; it's really about him getting his play Vampire Lesbians of Sodom into it's off-Broadway run (a play that went on to be the longest running off-Broadway non-musical) he is another example of making the plays you want to see, making the theater for your friends and community and he did whatever it took to get them up, made costumes out of anything he could find and performed in crappy bars. He did it for nothing but the love AND his plays are hilarious. I preformed in Psycho Beach Party (directed by the aforementioned Moss) on and off for about a year and laughed at every rehearsal and every show felt like well, a party- for a year. It's not easy to make something so unabashedly fun. The word "fun" sounds like a small word but it's not. It's big. It's important.
There are a bunch of theatrical heroes out there. Josh Conkel who is a dear friend is also a theatrical hero of mine, he works harder than anyone I've ever met. He is always always working on something new and producing either a play of his own or a new play he really believes in and applying to everything and applying to everything again. And his work is amazing. If the world has any sense at all he will soon be celebrated everywhere.
Q: What kind of theater excites you?
A: I don't want to sound like the Easter Bunny but I am excited about theater that is made with love; of the craft, of the unknowable, of the everything. Even if what you're making is dark or difficult, if you lose that core you've lost your play. Or your comic. Or your multi-media art installation featuring live earthworms and 100 ipads, whatever it is you are making. I get excited about things that have that core, things that were made because the person making it wanted to see it, wanted to give it to their friends. I am excited by theater when I can feel people in it.
Theater that is especially exciting to me right now: Annie Baker's plays. Duh. They are like eating the best meal ever. The kind of food you can live off of. The Debate Society, I am new to knowing this company and I can't wait to know them all the more, I want them to always be making plays. LAByrinth's summer intensive is coming up and having been there twice I can't imagine another place on earth where that many plays (40 in 2 weeks, whaaaaaaat) are orbiting each other and bouncing around in such a supportive incubator. That's exciting. I'm excited for Orange Hat and Grace this fall at SoHo Rep (with the amazing Matt Maher, also of the Civilians divorce show).
And I am pretty hot on the theater that this generation is generating, proud and pumped to be of this age.
Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?
A: Huh. Well, I am a playwright just starting out and I was once advised that one should be spending at least 20 percent of their waking time on their own work and that anything less would be a detriment. I took this advice and things changed. It was very good advice. Find a writing group, or start one. Or both. I think without a community you can become a kind of stray cat meowing at an abyss of doorsteps. Run in a pack. Also, have someone to look up to, it gives you somewhere to go. And of course see lots of things, not just plays. One of my most favorite "theater" experiences was the Tino Sehgal exhibit at the Guggenheim, so so so good. And write like it's your job, because until you do that, it never will be. I am still taking all of this advice, so let me know how it turns out if you get there first.
Q: Plugs, please:
A: My divorce comics and The Civilians on WNYC Culture page: http://culture.wnyc.org/series/divorce/
There will also be an exciting event for this project on June 28th at WNYC's Green Space, keep your eyes peeled. I'll be there doing something amazingly audio-visual with my comics!
Also on Monday June 14th some incredible friends of mine are doing a benefit to raise money for my late-stage-neurological Lyme Disease treatment. My health insurance won't cover it, obviously and my brain doesn't know the difference. The show is at Dixon Place and features (the aforementioned) Eric Bogosian, Stephen Adly Guirgis, Blazz & the 88Sound (feat. FELA!’s Kevin Mambo) plus so many more wonderfully talented people that I am forever grateful are so generous. Tickets for Nikole’s Tick Parade are $35 and are available NOW EXCLUSIVELY at http://thetickparade.eventbrite.com/ and for more info you can visit the facebook event page
AND I perform every Saturday afternoon at the Drama Book shop with The Story Pirates, (stories written by kids performed by adults who wish they still were) It is certainly the most rewarding and hilarious thing I have ever been a part of, do check it out. Our next AfterDark show (with drinks and all people your own age in the audience) is at Galapagos on July 30th. Not to be missed.