Hometown: Grandville, MI
The holiday season is in full-swing and so is our interview series of the 2013 National Competition Winners! This week we’re thrilled to introduce you to Niki Acton, whose play War is a tense drama that explores the pressures put on relationships. In it, Tucker needs Lucy to keep him awake – his life depends on it.
I wanted to start by asking what your trick is because you’re a very prolific writer. You’ve submitted a lot of work to us over the years! How do you keep yourself writing at such a high volume?
For the last four years I’ve been in playwriting classes pretty consistently. I went to an art high school and majored in creative writing there. So I guess I’ve been required to produce a lot of work. And there are definitely plays that I’m more fond of and that have been more meaningful to me to work on than others.
I’ve noticed some threads run through your plays. War has a bit of a connection to some other plays you’ve written, right?
Yeah! I think recently I’ve realized that a couple recurring themes in my work are the mythological elements of medicine, and mythology as a whole. I’m working on a novel now about these three children who have a heart defect, and the youngest thinks it’s a curse and is setting out to break this curse. And I’ve written about conjoined twins, and other medical pieces. So, War is very much in line with that. And I really enjoy doing the research about these odd medical disorders and finding ways to make them poetic, and beautiful, and strange.
I think you find a lot of compassion for the people in your plays who have these medical conditions. Was there a particular idea or image that inspired War?
I think I got lost in some medical site online one day and discovered this disorder called Ondine’s curse, or – a long medical name that I don’t really know how to pronounce. And I thought it was just so interesting: the idea that when you sleep you lose your ability to regulate your own breathing. I thought there was a lot of potential for that. One of my friends at the time was working on this short story about this really religious young girl who was using religion to cope with her parents’ divorce. I was reading her story and she included the prayer Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep. And I really wanted to include that but with this version I just couldn’t really get in there… But sort of this haunting idea that when you fall asleep you may not wake up. And the reliance that you would have to have on other people when you have that sort of condition.
You capture the tension of that really well in this piece. Have you learned anything about the play as you’ve been working on it through the Young Playwrights process?
I think as I was writing this play my biggest struggle was with the relationship between the two characters because there has to be such a delicate balance in order for the ending to be effective. We can’t hate either of them, and what Lucy decides to do has to be justifiable in the mind of the audience. So there has to be a certain element of sort-of… asshole-ness to Tucker but he also has to be sweet enough that Lucy has stayed with him for so long. So, in working with my director (Amanda Junco) and my dramaturg (Sarah Gancher) I’ve been focusing on finding the balance in their relationship and making it as believable as I can.
I heard that you had quite a funny experience when talking to Sarah for the first time.
Yeah! She called me and she was like “Yeah so I’m pretty sure I’m going into labor right now. It’s fine. We’ll just do this. I wanna get this done now because if I am going into labor and I have a baby I won’t be able to help you as much.” She still managed to give me some really great advice and some really great input. And some issues that I had been struggling with… she offered some advice with that.
Great! So are you studying playwriting now?
I’m a double major in Theater and Creative Writing now. This sounds awful but I’ve gotten bored with playwriting classes. I feel like there’s so much you can learn in a classroom setting. At my school, the theater department is really small, and they encourage you to study all the different aspects of theater. So I’ve studied costume design and stage management and I’m gonna be directing next term. I’m trying to give myself a really broad education when it comes to theater that I think will help me when I’m writing plays. To know what’s possible and what makes an exciting play for everyone on the production team.
Theater’s one of those things where the more you know about every task, the better you are at your own task.
And you’re able to communicate with everyone on their own level, and I think that’s really valuable.
So what’s up next for you?
I’ve worked with the Blank Theater Company’s Young Playwrights Festival for three years. I’ve aged out of it now but I’m going back there in December. They’re doing a reading of a full-length play. I’ll be out there for a week and a half working with that team and seeing a reading of that play. At school I’m just focusing on directing next term. In my spring trimester, a friend of mine is going to try direct my play.
Sounds like you’re keeping yourself busy! What’s the play that The Blank is doing?
It’s called McComb 1964. It takes place in Mississippi during the Freedom Summer. It focuses on a family and they have two daughters, and one of them is in a relationship with the black son of the family’s maid. And the other starts to have feelings for a female freedom fighter who has come down with the movement. It’s a parallel of the struggle for civil rights and the struggle for gay rights we’re still dealing with today.
Wow! Sounds great! Well, we’ll wrap up here. We look forward to working with you onWar during the Conference!
Niki Acton will be joining six other playwrights at the 2014 Young Playwrights Conference in New York City, January 8-16. We will be inviting members of the Young Playwrights family (like you!) to the readings of these talented young writers.
The deadline for writers in the United States aged 18 and under to submit a play to our 2014 competition is January 2nd.