In early April, Glamour Magazine included junior Niki Acton on its 2015 list of the Top 10 College Women. This week, The Knox Student sat down with Acton to discuss her personal inspirations and the writing and rehearsal processes.
The Knox Student: How did you first get introduced to playwriting? Was playwriting something you did before entering college?
Niki Acton: Yeah, I went to an art school, Interlochen Arts Academy, for my last two years of high school, and I was a fiction writer at the time and I took a playwriting class to improve my dialogue and ended up just falling in love with it. I wrote for a competition with the first play that I wrote and got to go out to L.A. and work with a professional team, which sort of sealed the deal for me. And I decided okay, this is what I want to do with my life.
TKS: Do you feel that the first play you ever wrote ended up being anything like the plays you went on to write later in your college career?
NA: No. At the time, I hadn’t really read any plays, so my first play was a very cinematic piece. It was about four kids sitting in a study room during a lockdown when there was a shooter in their school. It was very character-driven and it was very wit-driven, and my work has become a lot more lyrical and a lot more theatrical. I’ve been really influenced by some playwrights that I’ve read in the past couple of years while at Knox.
TKS: What was it like to find your influences and mold your voice as a playwright in college?
NA: Well I’m really influenced by Sarah Ruhl and Paula Vogel. Sarah Ruhl, I discovered coming to Knox. But I think that a lot of what has changed in my voice came after studying other areas of theatre. I’ve taken costume design and lighting design, and I’ve stage managed. Knowing what’s possible on stage has made me a lot braver, so I can write bizarre stage directions and trust that my creative team will make them happen, which wasn’t something I felt comfortable doing before learning about theatre as a whole rather than just the writing side of it.
TKS: As both a director and a playwright, do you feel that playwriting influences your directing, or does the directing influence the playwriting?
NA: I think both. That’s an interesting question for me because I’m working on an honors project right now where I’m directing my own work, “Lost Girls,” so I’m thinking right now about how to approach the play as a director and to separate myself from the playwright who wants to change all the lines and fix all the problems. As a director, I have to work with those problems and make them work because I don’t have time to do rewrites every week as I learn more. I think being a director has made me a better playwright because it’s made me more aware of what works on stage and how to write a scene that’s exciting for a director and has the potential for movement and interesting staging. And I think being a playwright has made me a better director because it’s taught me how to immerse myself in the text and to understand the writer’s intent and try to bring that to life.
TKS: When you pick shows to direct, do you feel that you gravitate towards shows that are more akin to your style, or do you direct works that are a bit out of your comfort zone?
NA: So far, I’ve only directed two shows that were not of my creation. The first one was “Fault Lines,” which was very far away from my style. It was realism, it was political and I didn’t love it. The second time, I directed “Crumble: Lay Me Down, Justin Timberlake,” which is what I would love my writing to be. It’s a lot better than my writing, and it’s bizarre and beautiful and strange and very funny. That was very cool for me to work on and it was very inspiring as well. I think that I am drawn to plays that do sort of have similarities to my style. Some plays that I would love to direct would be “Slaughter City,” which is sort of expressionistic and very lyrical, and some of Sarah Ruhl’s work as well, so stuff that I would love to have written.
TKS: Are there any particular elements or themes that you gravitate towards in plays?
NA: I think theme is less important to me than style. I’m really drawn to plays that are influenced by the expressionists and plays that use the stage in really interesting ways.
TKS: Recently, you were included in Glamour Magazine’s Top 10 College Women. What was that like for you to receive all that attention and to go to New York for interviews and a photo shoot?
NA: It was cool, but I don’t know. It was incredible and amazing and very flattering. But the most interesting parts of that trip were conversations that I had with other artists. They paired each of us with a mentor, and I got to talk to Quiara Alegría Hudes, who wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Water by the Spoonful.” She had all this advice for me about playwriting and grad school and how to make it in the industry. That was really amazing. Those connections that I made were the coolest parts of the trip. Like yes it was cool to have the photo shoot and to go to New York, but the people that I met were probably the most influential part of that whole experience.
TKS: What is your process from conceiving a play to producing it on a bare stage?
NA: I’m usually really inspired by news and medicine, which is a weird combination. This most recent play that I’m working on right now was inspired by a story about a woman who had just given birth to a baby from a transplanted uterus. Her family friend had donated her uterus and they had done a transplant and she had gotten pregnant through IVF and she had a baby. That was really interesting to me, so I wanted to explore that. Process is always such a weird question. I usually don’t plan too in-depth, but I have a sense of the arc that I want the play to go. Once I’m done, it sort of depends on what I hope to do with it. When I was younger, I would submit to young playwrights’ competitions and get works produced that way. Here at Knox, it’s more of having conversations with other students to direct my works. Once it gets in the rehearsal room, I sit quietly and take a lot of notes, which is really helpful to me in getting to see what the director is struggling with, what the actors are struggling with, what I can do differently to make this a better play for them to work on, and then revision, revision, revision.
TKS: When you watch other people produce your play, do you feel separated from your work, or do you still maintain this personal attachment?
NA: As a playwright, I know that I’m writing something that’s going to evolve into something completely different. It’s really exciting for me when a director or actor takes my work in a different direction that I didn’t imagine it going in. I don’t feel separate from it, because I created it. Usually, the ideal relationship between a director and a playwright, at least in my opinion, is that the playwright’s in the rehearsal room. I still feel involved, and if something goes horribly wrong, I definitely will say something. But [a play] is not fully real until it has the voices and the shape. It’s a blueprint, and ideally, it’s a very beautifully written blueprint, but it’s not the end product and it’s not meant to be.