By Lynne Hendricks
---- — As a child growing up Newburyport, Nikole Beckwith was nurtured by the city’s talented resident pool of actors and artists to pursue her passion for acting and playwriting.
It was here, among her close network of friends and mentors from the Theater in the Open acting troupe and other local ensembles, that the talented teen was encouraged to take her deep observations on life and the human experience to the next level.
Now, on the heels of winning a coveted $35,000 Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Nicholl Fellowship award in screenwriting for her script, “Stockholm, Pennsylvania,” Beckwith, 32, is crediting that same network of friends for providing the inspiration that’s still fueling her today.
“They’re so much a part of why I am what I am and why I’m doing what I’m doing,” Beckwith said. “As a community, and as artists, we were so tightly bound — always inspiring each other and pushing each other and laughing with each other. Everything I write and everything I do has them inside of it.”
Beckwith, who moved to Brooklyn, N.Y., in 2005, was notified in October that her script had emerged a winner from thousands of entries, making her one of only 166 writers to have received the award since it was created in 1986.
There are five fellowships offered each year by the academy, given with the hope of identifying and promoting new screenwriting talent. Winners are required to complete a full-length feature film during the course of their yearlong fellowship.
For Beckwith, whose script was a first attempt at film writing after a career focused completely on writing plays, she’s overjoyed to be offered such an opportunity.
“It has been a real whirlwind since I got the fellowship,” Beckwith said.
Beckwith said she entered the competition as a way to test her ideas to see if they transferred from her primary medium of playwriting to another. Since it was her first time writing a movie script, she told only a few people what she doing. But as her script — an adapted play she’d written a year earlier — continued progressing to successive rounds in the competition, she shared her news with thrilled friends and family.
“I was in (Newburyport) when I found out I got the fellowship,” Beckwith said. “I’d been staying with my dad for most of October. My friend (Holly Little) lives down the street from him. Every time my phone would ring, my face would turn as white as a ghost. Holly was holding my hand through that whole thing. She was just so proud and elated.”
Originally a play written while she was in residence at the Public Theater in New York, the screenplay is an idea that came while working with friend and former Newburyport resident Greg Moss on his play “House of Gold,” which they had performed at the Firehouse Center for the Arts. It was about a girl being taken from the Earth.
“I wanted to write a play about a girl being returned to Earth, so I thought about what that might be. I came up with this idea for a script.”
The heroine in her script returns to her family 19 years after being abducted, and the play explores the idea of identity and family, nature versus nurture, and the struggle the family has in learning to relate to one another.
“They have this really rich past and she’s coming into it completely detached,” Beckwith said. “She has a longing for the man who had kidnapped her who she lived with for so long. It’s an independent struggle.”
With the fellowship win, Beckwith is proud to say she’s a full-time writer, with lots of projects in the works and ideas to explore. And with the business comes the realization that everything is happening for her at once. New contacts in the film industry are eyeing her work and, in a separate turn of events, her work over the past few years for the stage is also coming into its own.
Beckwith wrote a play three years ago when she was struggling to make it as an actor in New York — a quick-paced comedic piece written with her friends in mind, that’s garnered more attention for her in New York circles than she could have ever hoped for.
“As soon as I wrote that play a lot of things started happening,” said Beckwith.
She earned a residency at the esteemed Public Theater in New York, where she ultimately wrote the script that won the Nicholl fellowship. The play also earned her a residency at the famous National Theater in London, where she will spend two months this January.
Beckwith recalls where it all began, as a third-grader in Newburyport, when she was encouraged to write and direct a play for the elementary school stage.
“I used to write things for school all the time,” Beckwith said. “I remember writing this extremely intense skit in elementary school for the DARE program about overdosing on cocaine. I was really intense about it. I had this huge bag of powdered sugar.”
She recalls writing the skit in the shadow of the playground slide, where she could form her thoughts without interruption.
“That’s the only place where you can be without an adult standing right next to you,” she said.
In the eighth grade, she performed a skit she’d written for the Nock Middle School stage that she recalls being equally intense.
“I wrote a really horrible scene for the eighth-grade talent show at the Nock Middle School where I had schizophrenia,” Beckwith said. “I was playing cards with myself in a mental institution. It was classic middle-school angst.”
Sandwiched in between two performances of girls crooning the popular theme song from “The Rose,” Beckwith’s poignant portrayal definitely got notice — though she’s not sure if it was a favorite.
“I got applause,” she offered.
Today, her work is standing out to a larger audience.
“I wrote this screenplay by myself in my bedroom,” Beckwith said. “Nobody knew about it. Now I’ve won this fellowship and it’s, ‘What are you working on next?’”