NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

March 28, 2013

A comic view on survival, escape

Salem Theatre Co. showcases one-act plays by Nikole Beckwith

By Will Broaddus
Staff writer

---- — Nikole Beckwith started writing plays in New York because she was homesick for Newburyport.

She moved to New York in 2005 to be an actress — and to work as an assistant to actor, writer and Woburn native Eric Bogosian — but she missed the creative scene she had known locally.

“I was highly stimulated in Massachusetts,” said Beckwith, whose “Split — Tales of Escape” will be at the Salem Theatre Company through April 14. “A part of the draw of writing plays was to create a fictional community to be part of, because I was very new in the city and didn’t feel connected to a community anymore.”

The plays she wrote in New York included parts for herself, but it was her writing that found an audience.

“The plays themselves ushered me into the theater community and gave me a community to be part of,” she said.

That circle of support has come to include the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which last year awarded Beckwith a Nicholl Fellowship. The $35,000 stipend, one of five granted from more than 7,000 applications, was for a screenplay that Beckwith adapted from her play “Stockholm, Pennsylvania.”

This year, Beckwith was the first non-British playwright to be offered a residency at the National Theatre Studio in London.

But even as her new community has grown to include such generous benefactors, Beckwith has maintained a connection to the scene she left behind.

For 10 years, that included the theater company Independent Submarine in Newburyport, where she was an actor and eventually co-director with Greg Moss, who now teaches dramatic writing at the University of New Mexico.

“We did a bunch of plays,” Beckwith said. “Greg mostly directed, and I mostly acted.”

She and Moss have maintained a connection, sharing drafts of each other’s work.

Beckwith, whose father and stepmother live in Beverly, has also stayed in touch with John Fogle, artistic director of the Salem Theatre Company.

“Split” came about when the theater lost the rights to a musical they had planned to produce, and Fogle saw an opportunity to ask Beckwith for work they could stage.

“I sent them a bunch of plays and said, ‘Here are all of these themes of survival and escape,’” she said. “Choose whichever ones you like. He picked from those and said, ‘Do you have a couple of monologues I could throw in?’”

This production marks the New England debut of this collection of Beckwith’s works, which includes three short plays and two monologues.

Gary LaParl, who is directing “Split,” has experimented with the best sequence for these short dramas.

“At the moment, what we’ve done is put them together in the way that it makes sense for them to evolve,” he said.

LaParl, who said he has had “a blast” working on the plays, appreciates the vision that unites Beckwith’s works.

“They each hold truths about living in this modern society that has been built for us,” he said. “While these plays may not offer hard solutions, Nikole does offer the viewer the comfort of, ‘Oh, good. I’m not the only one.’”

Each play departs from a unique premise, however, which in part reflects their origins in different situations.

“One of the monologues is from a show, ‘Let Me Collect Myself,’ that happened at Ars Nova here in the city,” Beckwith said. Ars Nova is an off-Broadway, nonprofit theater in Manhattan that stages works by up-and-coming playwrights.

“It’s based on interviews and articles and imaginings of people who obsessively collect things,” she said. “It considers what their collections say about them and what it might feel like to be collected. Any obsession like that is a form of escape.”

One of the plays, “Play for an All White Stage,” got its title and parts of its plot from the circumstances in which it was originally staged.

Beckwith wrote it during her residency in London, for an evening of short plays that was performed on a set designed for another production, “The Real Thing” by Tom Stoppard. Her actors were forced to remove their shoes so they wouldn’t get dirt on some white rugs, so Beckwith incorporated this element into the story.

“I wrote a play where it’s set in the Arctic, and everyone’s stranded and they don’t have shoes because they ate them,” she said.

Beckwith likes working within definite parameters, such as the immaculate, white set that she wasn’t allowed to disturb.

“Rules give you some sort of structure,” she said. “Writing is almost structureless because it’s so much to do with the relationship between you and the muses. It’s like weather, basically.

“I like following rules, and even more than that, I like breaking them.”

The appearance of “Play for an All White Stage” in Salem allowed Beckwith to connect with her past in a new way.

“As a joke, I told my dad, who’s never acted before, I said, ‘You should go audition,’” she said. “There’s one part in ‘All White Stage’ — there’s a dead body — I said, ‘You should go audition.’”

Not only did her father, Derek Beckwith, get the part of the corpse, but he was also cast in other works in “Split.”

“Obviously, I never imagined my father as the corpse,” she said. “It’s thrilling for me. He’s done no acting I’m aware of; this is his debut.”

IF YOU GO

What: “Split — Tales of Escape” by Nikole Beckwith

When: Through April 14, Wednesday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m., Sunday at 3 p.m. No performance on Sunday, March 31.

Where: Salem Theatre Company, 90 Lafayette St.

Tickets and more information: $25 adults, $20 seniors, $10 students, available online at www.salemtheatre.com or by calling OvationTix at 866-811-4111. There will be a Name Your Own Ticket Price performance today at 7:30 p.m.