Children's Program Coordinator and Children's Playwright in Residence at SkyPilot Theatre in Los Angeles, Nicole B. Adkins holds her MFA in Children’s Literature with an emphasis in playwriting from Hollins University. She has a BA in Theatre Arts from the University of Central Oklahoma, and studied Shakespeare at London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts. A playwright for youth and adults, Nicole has worked with children’s theatres as a performer and teacher for over a decade. She is a winner of the 2011 National Waldo M. and Grace C. Bonderman Playwriting Workshop, was invited to participate in the 2009 Bonderman Symposium Playwright Slam, and has been showcased in the annual Best of No Shame Theatre Virginia. She is a member of The Dramatists Guild of America, Inc., Theatre for Young Audiences/USA, Alliance of Los Angeles Playwrights, and the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. Website: www.nicolebadkins.com
1. Why do you personally choose to write for young audiences?
I’m the oldest sibling and made most of my money as a kid babysitting. I grew up participating in a multi-age theatre scene. As a young person I always enjoyed interacting with and mentoring the younger set. But it didn’t occur to me to pursue a related career until my college years. Then it just kind of sneaked up on me. I heard about a job teaching summer camp at a local children’s theatre. I applied for and got the teaching position. It was transformative. I helped 5-7-year-olds write and produce an original play. I was so proud of their work, and of my own with them. Soon after I began acting in productions for youth. Onstage performing for young people I felt truly plugged in. I was blown away by the uninhibited responsiveness of the audience. They were either completely committed or utterly disinterested, but any “polite” veneer was absent. It was freeing, intense, hilarious, and profound. When one child told me “You are my favorite puppet I ever saw,” I knew I was hooked for life. I found myself more and more able to connect with my child self, which made me giddy and felt absolutely true to my being. During this time, I also read a great deal of children’s literature and went back to get my master’s degree in children’s literature with an emphasis in playwriting. The more I read the stories that speak to youth, the more I acted for youth, and wrote about youth, the more these mediums began to intertwine… the more I understood without any doubt that what I really wanted was to be a part of writing and developing plays that spoke to and with the young people that I knew… Including my own child self - who has always stuck with me.
2. What have you sacrificed for your career?
I feel a great deal of obligation in general to devote energies and time to my friends and family. I am inordinately blessed - surrounded by a lot of love and a lot of precious people. I feel really guilty when I don’t put in the time I think is necessary to acknowledge and tend these gifts. However, as a writer, I understand the endless commitment necessary to hone and shape my craft and nurture my career. I am very lucky in that others never place this burden upon me. It’s pretty much self-inflicted. However, accepting my own guilt about not being able to do everything; accepting that sometimes I can’t be the wife, aunt, sister, daughter, etc. that I would ideally choose to be; and being OK with missing out on some of the fun have probably been my greatest sacrifice (Anyway, I tell myself that guilt is a healthy indulgence to sacrifice.)
Ironically, having a daughter has made some of this easier. She inspires my thinking and writing. She helps me to identify my priorities and make the best use of my limited time. Additionally, I feel that I owe some of my tenacity in continuing to chase my dreams to my resolve that she will always have that example to follow.
Second, I’ve had to sacrifice a lot of my comfort zone. While an outgoing person where affection is concerned, I’ve had to put myself out there – on the page and in life – in ways that leave me occasionally feeling unnervingly vulnerable. But there have also been many great returns on that.
Finally, my husband and I have sacrificed many material comforts. While I cannot speak to his feeling about this, though it’s no picnic, this is the least of the sacrifices for me. I grew up with parents who followed their dreams, so the constant financial pressure is less of a burden than the social one… except that we live far away from family, and it takes money to buy plane tickets. That’s when it becomes a rub. However, I believe that if you know what you were meant to do in this life, to ignore that call is sacrifice your most sacred self.
3. What is most helpful to you as you sit down to write a first draft?
A big chunk of time. Quiet, or white noise. A cup of coffee and a glass of water, good lighting, a comfortable chair and an uncluttered surface on which to put my computer. My computer, as well as a piece of paper and pen for notes. Time prior to writing to envision the world I will be creating and the journey my characters will take. Writing down a quick, bulleted outline, and then mostly ignoring that brain dump in order to let the characters choose their own way. Forcing myself to take the occasional break to eat snacks and go outside. Arming myself with fearlessness and quieting my inner-critic. Having originally entered the world of theatre as an actor, for me getting silly is enormously helpful. I like standing up sometimes, affecting postures, making weird noises, and speaking the lines as if I were the character.
4. If for some reason you were suddenly forbidden to write, what would you end up doing?
Painting. Becoming a yoga instructor. Joining a hiking club. Taking circus classes. Generally still following penniless pursuits. But I think I’d start to go nuts. God willing, such an edict will never occur.
5. Is there a book you read, play or movie you saw, or story you heard as a child that had a significant impact on you?
Besides always performing in a play of some sort, I was a reader, an avid, constant, and voracious reader. There are so many books that have formed and influenced my imagination. As a young kid the books I read were often too old for me. As I grew older the literature I read became more and more for younger people -- it was a funny turnabout. I did always love fairytales and mythology. They were probably my most formative storytelling sources. D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths was the first item I bought with my allowance money. I had coveted it for months, touching the cover and gently poring over it in the bookstore until I could bring it home and devour it. I also loved Hans Christian Anderson, and the most real, gritty fairytales I could find, as well as an exquisite book of Russian fairytales that had been passed down by an aunt; the retellings and illustrations of Errol le Cain; George MacDonald’s original fairytales; and all the Andrew Lang “Coloured” Fairy Books, filled with stories from around the world. (Years later I was rather horrified to learn that it was Lang’s wife who had done the majority of the translations and retelling of those stories and yet had received no credit. However, I felt some happiness in learning of her secret contributions.) As a 6th grader I was forced to read The Pearl by John Steinbeck and hated it more than any other book I’d ever read. As a teenager I read Steinbeck’s East of Eden and was so blown away by its magnificence that I felt forever altered. I’m not sure I could pinpoint ONE book, but reading was definitely the biggest influence on the bones of my storytelling; and I would say participating in theatre created my writing voice and story-telling techniques. As a child, I participated in a lot of plays that were chosen for how well they leant themselves to casting youth. I don’t think I discovered my favorite plays until I was well in my teens and beyond.
6. What is the biggest obstacle or setback you've ever faced in creating a play, and how did you move past it?
I was adapting Hans Christian Anderson’s The Fir Tree when my Dad suddenly died. That story is so full of light and shadows, life and death, joy, sorrow, and pathos that I simply couldn’t continue to write it. Not the way I had before anyway. I eventually went back and rewrote it in a completely different way. While the end result of the rewrite was cathartic for me, it wasn’t a faithful adaptation or really a work for anyone else. I put it aside, to return to it someday when I feel ready. Otherwise, the setbacks I experience while writing are more often than not related to my own evolving aesthetic or philosophy about the piece itself. In those cases, I set the work aside for a while (a few days, a week, 2 months), and then I go at it again until it feels true to my feelings, to the characters, and to the world I’ve created. This has happened with almost every play I’ve ever written.
7. How has your writing changed over time?
I definitely believe you become more skilled with each play you write, each reading a play receives, and each time you have a play produced. Because plays are meant to be collaborative efforts that live on their feet, I think you learn the fastest in the latter scenario. I think the biggest change is that I know I can write whatever I can imagine. No matter how intimidated I feel by the empty page or by deleting / reworking darlings, I’ve learned that taking on the “scariest” projects yields the most profound results. I become more fearless with each script.
8. If you could ask another playwright, living or dead, to read your work and give you notes on your latest play, who would that playwright be and why would you ask him/her?
Honestly, this has already happened for me. Last time I sent a script to the Write Now Competition (formerly the Bonderman Playwriting for Youth National Competition), though I did not place, I was honored when I received an email from one of the administrators telling me that there was a playwright / reader who was willing to have further discussions with me about my script. It turned out that that person was Suzan Zeder, a playwright whose works inspired me long before I even knew what an enormously big deal she was in this field, as a playwright and teacher. As a writer whose work is original, moving, poetic, incredibly inventive, often humorous, and filled with active characters who are making important decisions, I was totally floored by the fact that she was also so generous. Her notes were invaluable, helpful not only for my play, but also for my writing in general. I highly recommend that writers send their work to competitions and festivals. You never know whom you might meet, and what you might learn!
9. Tina Howe has been quoted as saying that her characters are splinters of herself. Is this true for you and your characters? Where do your characters come from?
I heard someone say once that empathy could be defined as emotional imagination. I would say empathy is my primary writing ingredient. I’ve learned it as an actor, a reader, from my friends and family, from those I may perceive as hostile, from the news, from those I know and those I only hear about. I learn more about it every day. Anytime I understand something new about someone – how they feel, their perspective, where they come from, I learn something new about myself, and that understanding is added to my artist’s palette. But it is always, no matter how exotic that new information may feel, ultimately understood through the lens of my own perception and experiences. So yes, I would say there is some part of me in every character I write.