Nikole Beckwith is a celebrated director of playwright and more in Hollywood, on Broadway. Her movie Stockholm, Pennsylvania premiered at Sundance in which she directed Academy Award nominees Saoirse Ronan as well as Cynthia Nixon of Sex and The City fame who had just done well running for governor of New York, and of course that one movie is just the tip of the iceberg. I approached Nikole not because of all that but because she graduated from Sudbury Valley School. It’s a different school than any that you’ve heard of. And as an educator I am fascinated by its success and more importantly how it overturns my view of childhood and education and humanity and not just childhood in general but my childhood personally. I think it may have a similar effect with you. Nikole explains all about it in the conversation. Also please click the link in the right up to my blog post with all the links in video about self-directed learning as well as my Inc. article about it. This episode is longer than most in part because I believe that you will find self-directed learning as fascinating as I do. I recommend learning about self-directed learning and all it means as part of learning about yourself, about democracy, about many important things in life.
Joshua: Hello and welcome to the Leadership and the Environment podcast. This is Joshua Spodek and I’m here with Nikole Beckwith. Nikole, how are you?
Nikole: I’m good. How are you?
Joshua: I’m great. And we were just talking before we turned the microphone on. There are two big directions I could go with and I’m going to indulge myself and ask you about the education system that you went through. So people who read my blog will know that I’ve been enamored with the Sudbury Valley School model and if you’ve never heard that before, I’ll put links in this to read my stuff on it and then point to Peter Grace stuff on it. And I learn about the style of education which is very different than the mine, very out there and then I saw you speak about it and I read stuff and so I’ll have links for that. But I wonder if you could share… And actually, when I wrote you I said, “I’d love to learn more about this.” And you’re like, “Yeah. I love talking about it.” I wonder if it’s not too broad of a question, could you tell me about Sudbury Valley? I guess how you began there.
Nikole: I read about it in the Boston Globe and I was in eighth grade and I’d never had an easy time in public school. Starting from first grade had a pretty rough go of it. And I read about the school and there’s like these beautiful pictures of the campus and the article was not unlike anything you would read about the school basically like an overview and the self-directed learning and independent study and the students.
Joshua: In a second we’re going to describe what those things mean. I wanted to start like in the middle of it.
Nikole: Yeah. And so I asked my parents and I was like, “Here’s my dream school.” And they were like, “You’ve got to be joking. There’s no way we’re going to send you here.” Then I started high school shortly after that and was really dreading it and just really rebelled. I just was very like forget it.
Joshua: From first grade to eighth grade or after the decision that they said, “No, you can’t do Sudbury.”?
Nikole: Well, from first grade to eighth grade I did spend my fair amount of time in the principal’s office and I definitely wasn’t a conformist by any means but I was also quiet. I was more quiet. I just you know public school in my experience, I don’t know what it’s like now, but in my experience it was like really focused on a certain kind of mind and very focused on this kind of right way and wrong way to think and learn. And I didn’t think or learn in those ways and was then continually being told that I was less, that I was failing, that I was not a good student, that I was not smart. And deep inside myself I knew that not to be true. And so I just kept pushing. I just kept pushing against that system. And at the time I got to high school I hated my quiet… Something just snapped in me when I started high school and I was just like, “Forget it. I can’t believe that this is what I’m stuck with.” And my quietness and my introversion went away and I became a very loud kind of rebel against what I felt to be a very short-sighted and like detrimental mode of interacting with growing minds.
Joshua: So you knew that there was something wrong but you couldn’t put your finger on it and you knew like, “I am successful. I can do this.” Not “I can do it.” like “I’m not a failure but the system makes me feel that way.”
Nikole: Yeah. I’d like a very rich inner world in a very intense relationship to like my imagination and also of questioning things and curiosity and I knew that those things were indicative of like an expensive relationship with the world and with a future and with myself but because I wasn’t good at taking tests or something and I wasn’t good at like just reading something and then knowing it somehow, being told that those other things didn’t matter felt insane to me and felt incongruous with being alive kind of. And so I just became like a real challenger of every teacher I had. I decided to treat the system with as much disregard as I felt it was treating me. So I didn’t care about going to classes, I didn’t care about the authority of the teachers, I didn’t care about the rules of the school, principal, vice principal – none of that meant anything to me.
Joshua: Didn’t care or like anti-cared?
Nikole: Anti-cared like really, really pushed it and really made sure everyone knew that I was like, “This is all a farce. This is just a hierarchy that was created by man and we’re just following these rules blindly and it doesn’t matter, none of this matter. And that like I live in a different mindset.” All of us have different mindsets and it just felt like it just, yeah, it just felt insane to me and like alien. And so I just was very loud and very, very disruptive and was eventually… I can’t remember. I guess I was partway through my sophomore year was suspended indefinitely for whatever a whole catalogue of behavior written down by many teachers and then they said that I was also like a disruption to other students because my questioning and railing against the system inspired other children or students or whatever.
Nikole: Also like dissent basically where people would be like, “Yeah. This is dumb. Like I can skip this class.” Or like, “Yeah. I don’t believe in this test either so like I’m not going to take it either.” And they didn’t like that at all. So they removed me from the equation but I was only 15 then.
Joshua: Yeah. You know one of the main things that drove me to teaching leadership was I took classes in leadership and it really came from watching Inside the Actors Studio and I took these classes in leadership and we did case studies and I read psychology papers and I write analytical papers. And it didn’t help me lead… It didn’t help me develop the social emotional skills within it or underlying it. And then I’m watching Inside the Actors Studio and I’m seeing social emotional skills like off the charts. You know Al Pacino is like pretty good at emoting and reading other people’s emotions and they’re all dropouts. I mean like 75 percent or more never went to school you know they left after high school or something like that. They have stories kind of like yours. Everyone’s unique. And so I had to contrast what I was seeing there with Ivy League business school professors who are like nowhere close, not even remotely in the same ballpark. And one is the pinnacle of our system and the other one is left our system. And I was like, “Something’s missing here.”
Nikole: What’s really strange is that like you know from kindergarten through fourth grade or whatever it’s like feelings, feelings, let’s learn about our feelings, can you identify your feelings. How are you making your neighbor feel? And it’s very much about our feelings. Then you get into middle school and high school and it’s like your feelings don’t matter. So forget all that concentrating you did on your feelings. We don’t care how you feel. We only care how you act and nobody is even asking about why are you acting this way. What are you feeling that’s making you act this way?
Joshua: They just want you to act a certain way. “We’re telling you how to act. Do it.”
Nikole: It’s very strange and then also like you know I would argue middle school and high school like some of the most emotional years of one’s life. It’s all so concentrated and so that also felt insane to me. I was an actor during that time and working that way so I had an outlet for those things. I started taking acting classes when I was 10 I think. And so I had a world where my feelings mattered and the exploration of that stuff mattered. And so then it also felt even more bizarre to me to then go back into a world where they’re like, “But it doesn’t matter here in the real world where you’re being graded and evaluated and it’s going on a permanent record.” I felt strange that the only place where creativity and feelings and relating to each other and connecting with each other matter was this like after school island that was like a luxury or something that felt bizarre.
Joshua: It’s hard for me while I am listening to you… I’m also translating not translating but putting what you’re saying in the context of acting on one’s environmental values in the context of a system that is not particularly conducive to… It’s just everyone buys stuff that gets thrown away really quick. So it’s not you talking about. It’s slightly different. Just to recontextualize, you know John Dewey wrote this book Democracy and Education. I thought it’s not a bit much like democracy is important, education is important. Now I see them… I don’t think you can have one without the other. And so from a leadership perspective teaching people to conform through coercion which is how I view… I didn’t think this when I was in school but looking back now I feel like that’s what school is about behavior wise. It gives you this really interesting content but that’s kind of abstract.
Nikole: Well, I think true leadership is empowering the people around you. So that’s the last thing we want to do in… Whatever reason it felt like you know you’re not supposed to have any power, you are not supposed to have any power over your experience in school, you’re not supposed to have any say in what’s going on, it’s just like this is an education model that’s been moving on blindly since the early nineteen hundred or whenever.
Joshua: Peter Grace is like back to the church in Western Europe of who’s allowed to learn and who’s not allowed to learn.
Nikole: And so it’s like just the mere act of questioning anything and to have someone be like, “Be quiet. That question doesn’t matter.” It’s just like, “What are you talking about that question doesn’t matter?” And yeah, I mean I just think like truly excellent leaders empower everyone around them to feel as though and to take a risk to have a hand on the wheel and a leader is not someone doing the steering for everybody else. And that’s exactly what my public school experience was, “Here. We’re going to steer for you. And like not only don’t ask questions like don’t even look where we’re going. Just like trust that like we’re going to end up is where you’re supposed to be and this is the only way to get there.” And I was like, “What? This is my life and the way that my relationship with the world is forming during this time and I’m supposed to take that after I graduate from high school and I go out into the world with it?” And like I just don’t understand how that kind of straight line “don’t look where you’re going, don’t ask any questions” mentality and mode of operating is supposed to prepare you to be engaged with the world in a way that’s like whatever all the cliché is about going to college it’s like the freshman 15 or whatever it’s like yeah, of course everybody needs like an insane coping mechanism for the fact that now that they’re out in the world they’re making choices and asking questions after having come from a system that didn’t allow for that.
Joshua: You rebelling, you weren’t, correct me if I’m wrong, you weren’t hurting people, you weren’t hurting yourself. You were just pushing back. You’re like the system doesn’t…
Nikole: I’m pretty sure I was hurting people’s feelings like hurting some teacher’s feelings probably and definitely making it harder for them to do their jobs. And like I remember being in like the photo class taking photography and they give you a camera and they’re like, “All right. Here’s your artsy fartsy black and white film. Go out into the school for 40 minutes and take pictures and then we’re going to develop this film into contact sheets and…”
Joshua: I remember that.
Nikole: So I go out with the camera to take pictures of the school and I went to school in beautiful New England, it’s a gorgeous school building, everything’s brick and cobblestone and archways and pretty magic ceilings…
Nikole: Pre-Sudbury. But the things that I was taking pictures of were like a chain as thick as my arm wrapped four times around a door to the outside and padlocks and clogged toilet, a pile of cigarettes in an overturned shopping cart under the bleachers, like somebody crying in a hallway.
And then when we developed those pictures into the contact sheet the teacher told me that I wasn’t allowed to develop any of those photos, that I didn’t follow the assignment. I was like, “What was the assignment?” Like I did follow the assignment but they didn’t approve of the pictures and they didn’t approve of what I was saying in my photographs. And so he said that in order to learn to take the next step in the class and learn how to make prints and to print somebody else’s photographs. And so I refused to do that. And so then I opted to just sit in the room while everyone else was in the darkroom so I was just sitting in the room by myself. And I remember eating like a tapioca pudding. And then he came out for some reason as for the teacher and was like, “You can’t eat in here.” I was like I can’t take the class, I can’t do that. And I was like, “I’m going to eat in here.” and he’s like, “You can’t eat here.” and I said, “Fine.” I took the pudding and I was like I just flung it at him and it went from his glasses to his belt. And then I was like, “Goodbye.” and left and I never went back to that class. I was very angry.
Joshua: Very angry but I mean it’s infuriating.
Nikole: It is infuriating.
Joshua: They say, “Take pictures of what you want to take pictures of.” and you want to express yourself. And I’m reading something like, “You want me to take beautiful pictures but there’s a world here that’s like I am taking pictures of what I’m actually seeing.” And then they’re like, “Well, that’s not what’s there.” It is what’s there. And now you tell me what’s beautiful too? Something like that. Now you tell me what I express. What we do to kids is like… They’re not stupid or blind.
Nikole: Right. I mean yeah, it’s just strange. And I have a lot of like that. I remember making like Valentine’s Day. I made Valentine’s Day Sucks shirt and wore it into school and it offended my biology teacher or whatever and he is like, “You have to take that shirt off.” And I was like, “I’m sorry. Did you just tell me to take my shirt off?” And I was really razzing him that way and he is like you know, “Go down to the principal’s office.” And so I go down to the principal’s office, the vice principal’s office and say, “Mr. [unintelligible] is like all bombed on my shirt but whatever.” And the principal’s like, “Yeah. That’s offensive. You have to take it off.” And this was during like this huge boom of Mean People Suck shirts.
Joshua: So people had the word suck on their shirts a lot.
Nikole: Yeah. But Valentine’s Day sucks they’re like, “Oh St. Valentine’s like love blah blah blah.” And I was like, “Well it’s an invented Hallmark holiday, number one. Number two like mean people suck shirts are everywhere. There are a million mean people in this school that are reading those shirts every day that and so that’s not offensive like St. Valentine is like nowhere to be seen. And I still I’m not supposed to wear the shirt?” And he’s like, “If you want to keep going to class, you have to turn your shirt inside out.” And I was like, “I’m not turning it. I’m out of here.” And so I just leave. Just like things like that happening all the time and…
Joshua: I feel like you… Can I share a story of mine from my childhood?
Nikole: Of course.
Joshua: I could do this. I could do plenty about school. I think if you read the Inc. article, you read about how I went back to my fifth grade teacher of… Well, I haven’t had one like you. I completely forgot that I’d been so disruptive. Anyway. At home we used to have chores and we used to have an allowance. And once my mom and step father got together and they said, “We’re going to connect these things so each chore we’ll have a money value attached to it and the kids will get paid for their chores.” So all right. Then one time I decided I don’t want to do the chores and I also didn’t need the money so I didn’t do the chores. And so like, “You got to do the chores.” I said, “I don’t want to.” and they were like, “Then you’re not going to get paid.” And I was like, “Fine.” and then they’re like, “Well, you got to do the chores.” And I was like, “You made the system. You made the rules. I’m following your rules and now you’re punishing me.” And something that hit me in learning about Sudbury… I want to transition to Sudbury is that we teach children the behavior is so authoritarian opposite of democracy. And I never would have believed that little kids could participate in democracy to the extent that they can that I read about. I am going to transition to Sudbury.
Joshua: So you’re rebelling and you find out about the school you’ve told your parents you want to go there but they say, “No, you can’t”.
Nikole: I burned every bridge. I made it impossible. So I got kicked out of public school basically. And then my mom tried to homeschool me for like two seconds from out of her office. She was working as a real estate officer, as a paralegal or something and she couldn’t keep tabs on me. And they just basically they had nothing else to do. And then I was like, “Hey…”
Joshua: Do you want to go to Sudbury or you want to try it out or do you want out of any system at all?
Nikole: No, I wanted to go Sudbury. And there were some kids that I knew in my town that were going there, a surprising number actually because we ended up carpooling. There’s like six of us or something, all different ages. So I floated it to my parents. It’s like you know it’s a private school but I think at the time that I was there it was like forty-five hundred dollars a year.
Joshua: So really cheap, relatively speaking.
Nikole: Yeah. It’s just a private school so that they don’t have to get state accredited. I mean it’s like it wouldn’t be a private school like if it didn’t have to be a private school basically, it was my understanding. So my family didn’t have a lot of money but that wasn’t a lot of money in terms of private school. So I burned all my bridges. I made it impossible for me to do anything else. And then I revisited the topic with my parents who were then divorced in the middle of quite a spell. And as a last ditch effort they were open to it. So we went, I did my interview, I did my visiting week and was accepted or whatever.
Joshua: And you had three years left of school?
Nikole: Technically two. Technically I was going for my junior and senior year. I got kicked out of school Iike halfway through my sophomore year and then did my visiting week and my interview all that year but they didn’t have any more slots for enrollment. I think when I first started the cap was 200 students. And when I left the cap was 215 but I did ultimately stay three years.
Joshua: What did you learn about what brought you to it as opposed to “I want out of all school.” you were like “I want that school.”?
Nikole: I mean who wants out of all school? I mean like who… I don’t know. I wanted to be part of a community, I wanted to be around people who were like interested in things and I was interested in things. And the school is just like a wonderland.
Joshua: Yeah. What did you learn about? Before you went there, what was the appeal?
Nikole: Just like the resources, the darkroom, the dance studio, the pottery studio, the barn, like they just have everything you want and then just reading about like staff being called staff and instead of teachers because by calling them teachers it feels like they’re the people who are going to teach you or whatever you know just like the vocabulary around it, everybody being on a first name basis, the freedom of speech, the no age group separation and the voting. The fact that like a five-year-old has the same vote as the founder of the school is like mind-blowing to me. And that’s what I was really interested in. And by that time also like I was assisting acting classes for younger kids as a trade so that I could take acting classes in a studio.
Joshua: Separate from school?
Nikole: Separate from school. And so I worked a lot with kids and really liked kids and the idea of getting to go to a school where it’s like all together was really a cool idea for me. And then the people that I knew that had been homeschooling and then when that school kind of came into like the greater awareness of that New England area they stopped homeschooling and started going to that school [unintelligible] namely with someone who had been… We never went to public school at the same time. She was homeschooling by the time I like ended up from public school. Then she started going to SVS and I was like… She was just so rad. She was like a radical thing or we spent so much time together, we [unintelligible] together like we were just really in sync. And the idea she was really loving it and I knew that I would really love it too.
Joshua: So you’re doing all this. You’re like very active and doing things, you’re teaching and rebelling.
Nikole: Yeah. I mean I was acting a lot too. Even in my freshman year of high school and I was like full rebellion I was in the production of Romeo and Juliet at the proscenium theater in my hometown that my school went to go see on a class trip. So I was like working professionally as an actor at the same time that I was like doing this. So that’s like another thing where it was like the school kept telling me that I was like a worthless…
Nikole: …failure that’s like lazy and not doing anything. And meanwhile…
Joshua: They’re paying to come and see you.
Joshua: I know that there’s a later thing where I think you… There’s some stuff that… So what was it like when you began?
Nikole: Well, I mean it was just incredible.
Joshua: Did you start in September or do you…
Nikole: I started in September of the following year.
Joshua: And there’s still summer vacation from Sudbury. So everyone came in the same time. You were a new one.
Nikole: I know. We wish that there wasn’t summer vacation.
Joshua: By “we” you mean the Sudbury students. Students – is that the right word?
Nikole: Yeah. Students. I don’t know. I guess. I mean the drive was so long. I like on a good traffic day if you left at the right time you could get there between 45 minutes to an hour and a half. But there were days where we would hit rush hour and he would take us four hours to get home or four hours to get into school. It is really nuts.
Joshua: Does your mom and dad drive you home?
Nikole: No. The student just carpooled with kids. No, my parents would have never driven me.
Joshua: You were older than 16 so you could drive.
Nikole: I never drove. I think I was still 15 when I started there and maybe I was 16, I don’t remember.16 I think. But I didn’t drove. I never got my license but other people that my friend David drove, my friend [unintelligible] drove.
Joshua: So school continued after you’re like there’s still community in that car.
Nikole: Yeah, yeah. Sometimes we would be really zonked and sometimes we’d be really talkative. Sometimes when traffic was bad, we’d stop and all have dinner together or whatever, yeah.
Joshua: This is not what my school was like.
Nikole: It was just an incredible experience. I think pretty quickly and you know I was still a punk kid like I showed up fresh off my rebellion trainer, whatever, [unintelligible], I smoked cigarettes, I had purple hair, I was like you know whatever. And I was still that and I was very into writing so I was doing a lot of writing myself and I think I like spent a lot of talking time just like sitting around talking to people, drawing things, making things and kind of like healing a wound basically that had been created through years of that stuff being kind of oppressed in my daily routine. So my first year I spent a lot of time doing that and I pretty quickly became an office brat what we call an office brat which is that I hung out in the main office all the time and talked to the staff. I really developed very close relationships with Mimsy Sadofsky, Danny and Hannah Greenberg.
Joshua: Greenberg. That’s the founder, right?
Nikole: Yeah. So is Mimsy. They are founders. Those were my three make real deep loves those guys but everybody… But you know Mimsy and Danny are so funny. Mimsy is like you know I’m tall, she’s tall. She’s like a big personality. I was a big personality and I was really drawn to her immediately and her name is Mimsy. And she had done my interview with Hanna and Hanna and Danny are just incredible. I mean they’re just incredible but also I think because I hadn’t had positive adult role models in my prior schooling experience at all across the board. I did in my acting classes, my theater classes. I’m still incredibly close with my two favorite teachers from that time who are now family to me but otherwise my parents were going through a divorce and I had just like this never ending resumé of terrible adult role models. So I was very hungry for that, for engaged and inquisitive kind of nonconformist minds. I wanted to be able to see myself in a future basically and to change my idea of what growing up meant which up until that point had been like “You’re miserable”.
Joshua: You mean from your perspective adults were miserable?
Nikole: Adults were miserable and restricted in the way that they engage with the world and the people around them.
Joshua: With the exception of acting teachers.
Nikole: Yes. So coming into Sudbury Valley there is this office with like all this administrative stuff is happening and the school is being run out of this office and just their banter, the way they related to each other, the way they got along and also didn’t get along sometimes but still always very constructively. That was like a huge thing for me. And so I spent a lot of time in the office more and more which was you know the opposite as one would imagine. I went from being the kid where the vice principal was very literally chasing me down the street. He had my father on speed dial on the phone. I was like a very safe by the bell like kind of rat-a-tat-tat between me and the vice principal. But then like going to Sudbury Valley I just couldn’t get enough of it. And so I sat in the office a lot and talked to those guys a lot and just kind of observe what’s going on there.
Joshua: From your perspective, can you give an overview of Sudbury how it works, what’s the principles that it works by? I know that there’s all this voting that you talked about, there’s the Judicial Committee and there’s age mixing.
Nikole: Yeah. Well, so there’s no age or class separation. It’s just kind of a big house on Callahan State Park. And the only classes are the classes that you organize so if you want to take biology or whatever, you figure out which of the staff members kind of specialize in biology, you talk to them about it and they’re like, “Okay. We’ll do you know this, this and this because these are things that you should know in order to learn, to get to the place where you’re thinking of.” They come up with a plan and then either it’s something that’s like better learned in a group or if you’re up for it totally viable thing to delve into solo. And if it’s like something that’s better learned in a group like I would then make a posting on the bulletin board…
Joshua: A literal…
Nikole: A literal bulletin board. I don’t know what they do now. Back in the 90s you make a sign and you put it on the bulletin board that’s like you know biology one-on-one or whatever you know like, “Hey, it’s Nikole and I want to take this class and Scott’s going to teach it and we’re thinking that we’ll meet in such and such room on the second floor on these days at this time. Who might be interested?” And then people sign up and then you go around and talk to them and then you show up and then you’re like Scott’s got the class, “This is what we want.” And they’re like, “All right.” And then you start doing it. And then if you don’t show up for class, class doesn’t show up for you the next time around. It’s like, “I’m busy. I got other things I can be doing.” So that’s how it goes. I didn’t do them. I was still teaching. I was still very active in theater outside of school and I just did a lot of reading and a lot of writing. It’s primarily…
Joshua: Solo, your own thing. So other people are playing around and doing their thing and you’re doing your thing. And no one’s saying like [unintelligible]. It’s just you show up in the morning and you leave…
Nikole: There is a sign-in sheet because there is an attendance policy where if you’re under 16… I think like the attendance policy shifts if you’re 16 or over and you’ve been at the school for three years or more, the attendance policy doesn’t apply to you. If you’re younger than that or 16 and haven’t been at the school for three years, you have to attend for five hours a day but whatever five hours that’s up to you. So you sign in with a time and out with the time again. It’s like on our system like nobody’s but Joanie, Joanie who I love, who was also kind of ran the art room. She was the attendance clerk and she would like chase you down if like you forgot to sign or something she’d come find you and be like, “Oh, there you are. What time did you get in today? Because you didn’t sign in.” Because she’s just trying to keep an accurate record and keep tabs because also after a certain point and I’m not exactly clear on this because I started the school at 16 so I could come and go as I wanted in terms of going to the state park and back you know I mean off campus stuff, I’m not sure if younger kids had to be with people or I don’t know because I wasn’t that young.
Joshua: So there’s rules.
Nikole: There are tons of rules. People think of it as like a school with no rules but I will say also part of my becoming a full on office brat was I became incredibly interested in the way the school was run. The other person that I always was hanging out in the office was the school chairman which is the highest office the school has and it’s always held by a student, it’s held for the term of a full year. And I just got really, really into the way the school was run and when I served on the Judicial Committee because like there’s a Judicial Committee instead of like a principal basically and so it’s one student like a group of five students one from each age group roughly chosen at random and you serve I think three months or maybe it’s just a month. I don’t remember. I think it’s one month. You serve one month on the JC and there’s one staff member in the room that changes daily. And then there’s two Judicial Committee clerk who are nominated and I think they serve three-month terms and those are two students who run together. And you don’t like campaign like that I don’t recall that but at a school meeting, school meetings happen on Thursdays and it’s the staff and the students and you do every Thursday there’s a school meeting and you kind of go over the school business for the week like what happened in the JC, if people are making motions to start new committees, if committees want to use the kitchen to make frittatas to sell to raise money to build a tree house or whatever, you talk about all that stuff and approve everything because everything’s permits.
Joshua: And this is like five-year-olds along with 16-year-olds along with grown adults?
Nikole: Yes. And so that that meeting happens in the dance studio. And so I just got really into school meeting and I got really into hanging around the office. And I served on the JC and I was so psyched to be in the JC and see how the school was like really running and to also play a part in that because the community meant so much to me so upholding its foundations and like helping it perpetuate onward in the healthiest possible way was like really gratifying for me.
So after I served on JC… So like what happens there’s complaint forms. We called it being brought up. If somebody brings you up, they’ve filled out a complaint form about you and it’s like I guess it’s kind of like filling out a police report or something where you’re like, “This person took my lunch and this other person saw it and it happened at this time in this room or whatever and here are the people I saw in the area and they took my lunch and they were real jerks.” So then also it’s like, “I saw [unintelligible] running through the hallways and here are other people that saw it.” And so then in mornings at 11:00 AM the Judicial Committee meets and you take the folder from outside the door where it sits all the time where people can always go and get the papers and bring people up. You go through all the things and you call in everyone – the person who was brought up, the person who brought them up, anyone named as witnesses and you talk about the incident. Now, if a witness witnessed the event and also didn’t bring them up [unintelligible], that’s bad for them because it’s part of the responsibility of the community too. If you see something, say something basically before that was a thing. And so you question everyone who saw it and the people who are involved in the complaint and you write a report based like a more objective kind of like this-is-what’s-going-on report that’s not written from the perspective of the person slighted because also a lot of times I’d bring you up about something but you bring me up about like the same thing. We have differing accounts of what’s going on. So you write basically the report with the help of everyone in the room, you vote on the report to be like this is what it is and then you have them plead guilty or not guilty and they sign. If they plead not guilty, they go to trial and they can appoint their own lawyer or serve as their lawyer and there’s like a jury and it’s a whole thing.
Joshua: This is very rules heavy.
Nikole: Very rules heavy. And then if they sign guilty, then you’re like OK, motions for sentences and you’re asking the room like what would an appropriate sentence be. And so like you get some ideas, then you vote on whatever sentences and you’re like, “Okay. You stole someone’s lunch. You can’t eat lunch in the room where everyone’s eating lunch for four days or whatever.” Or if it’s running and roughhousing, it’s like, “Okay. You can’t go upstairs for three days.” or “You get trash duty.” or whatever it is. And you get a sentence and then you vote on the sentence and then the person signs the sentence and then at the end of the Judicial Committee day you post everything – everybody who is found guilty and not guilty of everything.
Joshua: So this is a heavy participatory democracy.
Nikole: Massively so. And I fell in love with it.
Joshua: You thrived because like from the outside someone who didn’t get it would say, “It doesn’t make any sense at all because she hates school and now the first chance she gets she participates even more.”
Nikole: Well, I was Judicial Committee clerk after that so I got nominated to be a Judicial Committee clerk and then amazingly there was a truly massive case my first day as JC clerk and I was I served with my friend Eric and it was like a big community norms thing like whatever. There was a big to do. And ultimately we had to call a special school meeting that took place in… A special school meeting happens like the JC can sentence someone to a suspended suspension which is basically just a parent-teacher meeting. And I say a parent-teacher meeting because that’s the lingo everyone knows. But in reality it would be like a parent meeting with me.
Joshua: Your parent meeting with you?
Nikole: No. Like you’re a parent I’d be like, “Well, Josh has really been writing and roughhousing a lot. Here are these things like we’ve been trying to figure it out and it’s just too much.” So like that’s a suspended suspension and then a suspension is anywhere from 1 to however many days out of school which also comes with a meeting but the JC can’t do that. In order to do anything above a suspended suspension or above any sentence over five days I can’t sentence you to trash for six days. I could only sentence you to trash for five days but if I felt like, if we as a whole felt like it needed to be more serious than that, we refer you to the school meeting. And so then the school meeting happens in that dance studio and part of what we’re talking about is, “OK, this happened. Here’s my recommendation. I think Josh needs two weeks of trash because he’s really not getting it and blah-blah months.” And we’re engaging with you and talking about it as we’re going. And then the whole school vote on what happens. And then we post those sentences.
We had a special school meeting, I remember after these community enormous charges or whatever, that day or the next day and I remember being in the barn and I remember being really big and I remember standing up and reading the report that we had landed on where everybody had signed it and it was my friends like my good friends that had these charges and I moved for them to be expelled. I moved about one of them be expelled and the other one be suspended indefinitely. And I was crying I did it but I really did just think that it was the best thing.
Joshua: Not out of vengeance? Not out of…
Nikole: Not at all.
Joshua: I remember reading a quote of yours after rebelling you come in… You were rebelling against something you have no say in and then when you have a say in things the rules make sense.
Joshua: Can you put that in your words?
Nikole: Well, yeah I mean we’re like rebelling against something you don’t understand and trying to understand it basically. It’s like “I can’t understand the things.” like let me break it so I can look at all the parts and like figure out how to function in this world. But at Sudbury Valley it’s like you’re led into every single piece of what’s going on and you see that it all makes sense and that it’s all vital to the survival of the community which is a meaningful community for you. And also it’s just the [unintelligible] you want someone to be responsible – give them responsibility, let them opt in to something that actually means something to them. I mean my parents of course didn’t know any of this was going on but then fast forward three years or whatever at my thesis defense like just learning that and I served multiple terms as JC clerk. I think I served three consecutive terms because there was like a rash of rebellion or whatever after those expulsions and whatever it was very trial by fire. I was thrown into very complicated cases right off the bat as judicial committee clerk and I was really very dedicated to it. And JC starts at 11:00 AM every day and there were days that I would be just doing that until 5:00 PM and then I would have a meeting with a parent after that suspension meeting or something from like 5:30 to seven or whatever and I would sleep in Framingham at a friend’s house or a staff member’s house because the carpool had to leave without me. I was just like very into it. I was very dedicated to it and learned so much. But it was very meaningful to me that the school community continue on in a way that benefited everyone because everybody mattered and you could see that and you could see that all of the rules and all of the ways that the school worked fit together in a certain way and that if something looked broken to you or seemed unfair or superfluous, you had the opportunity to change it. All you had to do was make a motion or petition to the school meeting to open that up and talk about it, talk about the process and have it changed.
Joshua: What happens… The system… Correct me if I’m wrong, my view is that the system is always going to have things that you don’t like but I mean the vote goes the other way. So how do you feel about things that don’t work that way?
Nikole: The vote goes the other way. It’s the majority vote and it’s the vote of the community. And so it’s like, “OK, well, we don’t all feel that way. This is working for most people.” So it’s working for most people. The people mean something to you. It’s also kind of this thing of like what is it like the human brain like we’re really only meant to know like 250 people.
Joshua: The Dunbar’s number.
Nikole: Yeah, whatever that is. And so that is very much in play at the school because like you see everyone’s faces and even if you don’t talk to them or you don’t know them and they’re not someone that you have lunch with they’re like you know because there’s separation of interests like there is in any school – there’s the barn kids, there’s the office brats, there’s like you know the kids that always hang around in the sewing room all day, there’s the quiet room kids, there is the people playing Magic, it’s like you know that exists in every environment. And so like even if you’re not close with someone and you’re not like friends with them or whatever, you see their face and their experience means something to you, they’re part of your community, you see them every day whether it’s from a distance or not. And so whether it’s there something’s not working for them it matters to you. If something’s working for them, it matters to you.
Joshua: I really want to ask that. I am going to leave this till later if we get to it. But does that affect you today? Because there’s certainly lots of groups and I think most people characterize our country’s pretty polarized right now. So there’s going to be a lot of people that we disagree with. And I wonder if that lingers with you today. Do you empathize with groups more as a result of your experience than you might have otherwise?
Nikole: Well, the world’s so isolated now. I mean yes but like it’s also like different because we barely even see anyone’s face because we’re looking at our phones all the time. And that’s like a certain kind of connectivity but not… And I know I’m a writer I mostly work by myself. I’m like in a TV writer’s room now so I see the same like six people every day like that’s a thing. And some of us get along, some of us don’t but we live all function and we all care about each other, everybody’s experience means something to each other. It’s like we’re in that room and like seeing each other every day whether we would choose to hang out outside of work or not is relevant or this like satellite community. But I mean you just think like communication is key just [unintelligible] like I hear people out. And so like even there are a lot of people in that school, in life and wherever where I disagreed with what they thought. My friend Jasper I mean we carpooled together, Jasper March. We got along I guess but not all the time and like we would argue and carpool a lot and we’re just very different people. We were both from [unintelligible]. He’s very kind wonderful person. But I remember he was like his thesis he wanted to go into like boat building and I remember just being like listening to him and being in his thesis defense and then ultimately being like, “I’m not the best judge of whether or not he is ready to go into boat buildings.” so I abstained from voting yes or no on his thesis for some reason because I can’t like recall now but I remember sitting there thinking, of course I was 17 at the time, and really listening and knowing him but being like, and we had a lot of differences, but I was just like, “Yeah. I don’t know. Those differences don’t mean that he’s not ready to do what he set out to do. But like I actually recuse myself of this responsibility because like I don’t know if I’m making the best if I would be making those calls. So I’m just not going to vote.” And you just have to like think about that all the time and just know when… Like even in this just like voting now like there must be like daylight savings vote here about like whether to get rid of daylight savings or not.
Nikole: Yeah. [unintelligible] says, “That some like God’s stuff.” Like that it’s like the sun rises and sets but also like the people who had a lot of concerns about it or people who had children of school age and it’s like starting school at a certain time of darkness and I’m like, “You know I don’t know. So who am I to say? Maybe I would feel differently if I was in there.” So I didn’t vote. I like recused myself from that vote. And so it’s also just about that awareness. Like what makes anyone feel like if you can’t wrap your mind around same sex marriage or something but like it has no bearing on your life, then like just recuse yourself from that vote. There’s no reason to be like “no”. So it’s like also that mentality of understanding like if some community doesn’t make any sense to you, then don’t try to force your beliefs and feelings on that community. I don’t know.
Joshua: I think that’s what you were rebelling against – things being forced on you. And people push back on that. And I want to go back. What you’re talking about seems like useful stuff to learn in life. So how does it look to you people who… You didn’t take any AP classes, you weren’t working on your GPA for whatever and meanwhile that’s the motion. I mean I feel like it’s more and more and more all the time of stay in school longer hours, more testing, more preparation for tests and things like that. If I were a parent, I would be… When I first heard about Sudbury, if I were a parent, I would think, “But my kid’s not going to learn what my kid needs to learn to succeed in society.” And there’s you and there’s one of those whose name I don’t remember if I got who… Okay. I have a PhD in physics. When I started college I’d been picked on enough for being good in science and math before that I’d like kept away from it and then eventually my second semester senior year I started majoring in physics. So a lot of physics majors and no in high school that it’s going to be physics. It’s rare that someone doesn’t like leaves and comes back.
So I’m taking classes with freshmen who are advanced ahead of me and so I got to catch up and catch up. And it feels to me like a subject that is cumulative. If I miss a couple of classes, a couple sessions of a class, I might not be able to catch up in that class. And if I don’t catch up in that class, I might not be able to catch up to the next class and so on and so on. So I felt like I was on like a bucking bronco. If I’d let go for a second, I might fall off and never be able to get back on again. I still felt that way. And so when I graduated and finished the major I got into grad school, really top grad school and I like, “I did it. I made it.” And meanwhile there’s a student who was at Sudbury. I don’t know if you know the guy and he end up getting PhD in math at M.I.T. As far as I know he took no math classes.
Nikole: Well, he must have taken math classes.
Joshua: Maybe he took some. I mean I don’t know how. There were no formal classes that he was forced to take.
Nikole: No, no, no. No one’s forced to do anything but he did that, he studied that whether he did it independently. I’m sure he had like you know a staff member helping him out.
Joshua: I think he left academia for a while and kind of came back into it. I mean this is what really threw me for a loop and forced me to think a lot. I mean the thing about your experience of rebelling reminding me of my experience of rebellion I had forgotten about and his experience not having a bucking bronco that I realized you don’t have to learn all of physics up to a certain point. You just have to learn how to look at nature and solve problem. In fact, it made me look back and wonder how much of my physics education was really what I would call science as opposed to learning how to do things.
Nikole: Well, there’s two things about that. Well, one is I did have friends that took classes or whatever like studied actual subjects. And oftentimes it’s like they would do two years’ worth of public school work in one year of SVS because like you’re working at your own pace, you’re not working in like these restrictive settings. It’s like, “This is what we learn today and this is what we learn tomorrow.” It’s like if you get that and you’re excelling at that, then you’re moving at that pace. And then like, “Oh, this is a little tougher to wrap your mind around so we’re going at this pace.” And so it’s just different. And so there is also a world in which I don’t know who the person is but that they were just like blasting through those classes.
Joshua: So you don’t have to be a prodigy. You just don’t have to be stuck in something that’s designed for everybody even people who don’t freaking care about that thing.
Nikole: Yeah and I always say the most valuable thing you learn at SVS is you learn how to learn. And like the other thing that’s really detrimental about the way that school is set up now is that like you show up to school and you sit down in the classroom and you learn and you learn and you learn and then the bell rings and then you’re done for the day and then you go out into the world. It’s like, “Finally, this is me time.” or whatever after you’re done with your homework. But what SVS is all about like learning as well like how to be in the world, how to be engaged in a community and have to be learning all the time. You know like a lot of my learning was done just laying around on some couches with people talking. I spent countless hours doing that. And you could walk through and just look at that like playing cards or whatever. And look at them and just be like, “Oh, my God. These kids are not doing anything.” But that’s not true at all. You’re learning quite a bit about the world and how to look at things and what is interesting to us and how to shift perspective and how to communicate with someone that sees things differently from you and then how to like look at things from their point of view and then how does that shift your relationship to the thing that you were just thinking about and how to articulate that, how to communicate, how to let someone in, how to keep things out like just like endless learning.
Joshua: It’s funny because listening to the words it has some meaning but a meaning that came from adult life and from my perspective you can’t teach that except through going through conflict and resolving it and you can’t teach that into someone. There’s no amount of lecture, reading, testing that involves…
Nikole: No. Not at all.
Joshua: It’s the opposite. And we have a whole world full of mostly people who never learned that. And now you see things like problems happen and the first thing they do is they go to the authorities and they’ll sue or they’ll protest in some way that is not resolving things. It’s just venting or trying to have authority over someone else. And as someone who… Leadership is so fascinating to me and so useful I don’t see how, editorializing here, but I don’t see how you can teach it any other way. I don’t see how I can squash it any better than to just force people into an authoritarian and I use it deliberately. I mean it’s you must do what you’re told under threat of violence. I guess it is not only violence. I mean I got spanked up to a certain age.
Nikole: I mean like I don’t know some schools are rulers on that.
Joshua: Actually, my friend went to Catholic school. He was like yeah, knuckles got hit a lot.
Nikole: It’s terrifying. I mean I got hit by a teacher in the back of the head, my penmanship teacher just like… I mean she wasn’t supposed to but that’s all she did. She hated my handwriting so much but emotional violence is real. And like again, I’ve a teacher that back when I was quiet and made me give oral reports she couldn’t hear me or whatever. So I talked too quiet and then she would make me stand in the back of the room so that I had to project to the front of the room and I just couldn’t do it. So I would just be crying and she would be, “Louder!” It’s like how is this teaching? How is this…
Joshua: What part of life does this…?
Nikole: Yeah, like what… All I did was make me angry and it was up to me to find positive things to do with that.
Joshua: Which I guess you can learn but who wants a world in which… Like what you learn is how not to feel horrible when people make your life horrible because they have some authority over you.
Nikole: I mean I felt horrible all the time. I mean for all my rebelling and stuff I also like went to the bathroom and cried a lot and I yelled a lot. I banged on things a lot. I mean I would light a cigarette in the middle of the hallway and smoke a cigarette just in the hallway like just angry, just wanting to make people angry the way that I was angry. And that’s not OK. I mean I was like… I don’t know what I would have done if I didn’t also have that art world and theater classes and I did have there were a couple teachers at the public school like [unintelligible] who would let me hang out in her senior creative writing class like sit in the back and just listen to her class like instead of going to the stupid classes that I was skipping or whatever. [unintelligible] would do like same things. He is an English teacher. [unintelligible], was the art teacher and she was crazy and she used to hide me out in that room as much as they wanted. She knew I was skipping other classes, she knew but she thought you know it’s better that she be in here and been making something with her hands than it is for her to be outside smoking cigarettes and whatever getting us to [unintelligible] or to whatever they like I was doing. There’s excellent people everywhere and I was lucky that I kind of fish them out of that experience but by and large it was like really an emotionally volatile terrible place. And you know go to Sudbury Valley. Like my parents you could have knocked them over with a feather when like they’re at my thesis defense and basically everyone’s like, “You spend a lot of time in the office like you’re an office brat and like blah-blah-blah. You’ve served three terms as the Judicial Committee clerk and like can you talk about like blah-blah-blah?” And my parents were like, “What on earth is anyone talking about?” Because I didn’t talk about it when I would go home. I was tired.
Joshua: The rebelling you’re talking about it sounds like what’s happening in our world today. There’s a lot of rebelling because people I’m reading… I mean you’re saying what you’re saying and I’m thinking and it’s like making me think of I don’t know [unintelligible] come to campus and then they’ll protest it and they’ll be like… Sometimes there’s violence as in today’s world. I feel it’s what you were doing and if you’re in a system where you don’t feel like you have a say, you speak up, you thrash out however you can and it feels like that’s what’s happening.
Nikole: Well, also like whatever we’re living with a system that we don’t understand anymore. It’s old. It’s like the Electoral College, an ancient stupid thing that it’s not functioning it’s not serving us until just right there and then it’s like let’s get rid of the Electoral College and lie, “We can’t.” Like “Why?” Next topic.” And so if this was happening at Sudbury Valley you talk about it until you solve it. You know I mean like you figure it out it’s like, “Okay, this isn’t working for everyone. How can we amend it so that it is working?” And there’s transparency. We just don’t have that. I mean there’s no transparency. And like the way commercialism and commerce and the 1 percent kind of…
Joshua: If I want to change something in today’s world, I have to devote my entire life to it. Maybe in some future lifetime… Like if I want to change Electoral College then someone is going to have to make that their whole life and they are going to have to get a whole bunch of other people like their whole lives for that. All right. I want to switch to something else that I really want to ask about Eric Bogosian and I want to ask a whole bunch of other things but I think there might have to be a little talk because I think that… So now you’re a professional playwright, director. You’ve succeeded in our world. I mean Sundance and…
Nikole: Yeah. Like I really credit so much if not all of it to Sudbury Valley and to the people that I was. I took those acting classes in Newburyport and worked in theater the whole time that I was in school and with the exception of when I stopped being Judicial Committee clerk then I was exempt from the attendance policy. And so I used my freedom and leeway there to do more theater outside of the school and also my final year at SVS I decided to stay on an extra year because the better part of a year and a half was spent on the JC.
Joshua: Is it more like parents knocked over with a feather, “She wants more school?!”
Nikole: Yeah. And I knew that I was going to go to college afterwards and I just wanted to just spend a final year at school chilling, doing my own thing.
Joshua: So you don’t have a college degree?
Joshua: You don’t even have a high school degree?
Nikole: Well, a high school diploma.
Joshua: I mean it’s like a different kind…
Nikole: It looks the same. It’s exactly the same. People only understood if they asked for a transcript to go with your high school. I’m like I don’t have a transcript so you give them a letter on why you don’t have transcripts and they’re like what. And then you can get into the whole I mean that’s like a thousand years away from like where I am I’m. No one is going to ever ask for my…
Joshua: You have like a very non-standard education. You’re doing just fine. I mean you’re doing better than fine. There are a lot of directors who would like to be where you are.
Nikole: I mean yeah. And in TV writers’ rooms and in on the playwriting groups most of the time I’m with people who went to Ivy League schools and came out of grad programs like Harvard and Yale and Brown for writing. I didn’t do any of that. I went to Sudbury Valley.
Joshua: The first post I wrote on my blog about this was I think Mind-blowing education practices that work. And now I’m thinking more of how this could apply… The same principles are missing from regular world. I mean you know outside of school world it’s taking a lot to get through. I don’t know how people listening to this are processing it. It’s fascinating, it’s intriguing, it’s inspiring. I’m also kind of curious if there’s problems with it that could be fixed or if you like… I’m kind of looking at it like the recently converted or something like seeing all this awesome stuff.
Nikole: I think when you’re dealing with like self-directed learning and like independent and when again the school’s run on democracy as problems come up you fix them and if they’re holes in your education, you put them there. So it’s one of those things. It’s not the institution. It’s the way they use the institution.
Joshua: Dealing with the consequences of your actions not just the ones you want but the ones you don’t want. That doesn’t happen in school. There are no decisions that you make. You write the paper. It’s how you write the papers you make it judged on that but not is this class important. You don’t express your values.
Nikole: Well, to graduate you write a thesis. You do a thesis defense. Yeah. I mean instead of just getting like had I graduated from public school it would have just been like, “She scraped by on D’s” or whatever and “Here’s your diploma.” and then at Sudbury Valley you write a whole thesis is you taking proper education to prepare yourself to be a responsible member of the community at large.
Joshua: Sounds so much more meaningful although if I hadn’t researched it, I would have been like it sounds kind of frou-frou.
Nikole: It’s not. And then you do like a thesis defense for like parents and public members of the assembly and staff and the students they all come and they ask you questions for like an hour and a half and then they vote. There’s two or three votes before you get your diploma.
Joshua: So one of the things you did was called recently I guess a couple of years ago was Stockholm, Pennsylvania and the main character it’s kind of… I don’t want to read into it…. Like I know two things about you. I know this film and I know your education and so it’s hard not to look at the Lea character and be like this. She was like stuck in a system that was saying it was helping her but when she couldn’t quite get out of it and it was hard not to see, “Oh, that’s like a lot of the educational system Sudbury…” It’s not like it’s obvious how it all fits together but it seemed like there’s a lot of it. Am I reading too much into it?
Nikole: I don’t know. The movie is so it’s like my deep psychology. Like there are things that I didn’t even realize about the movie until I was like doing sound and you have to like loop a piece of dialogue or a line of dialogue and you’re just hearing it over and over and over and over and over and over while you like adjust the sound, the background sound on it and it’s not till I was like bombarded with hearing certain lines over and over and over that I was like, “Ah, so that’s what it means.” So then I cry, cry, cry. There’s a lot of that. I don’t know that story… I don’t think about what I’m writing while I am writing it that way. I’m not like, “Oh, this symbolizes this.” I don’t know any of that. It’s just that whatever is ready psychologically to come out of that rock tumbler. But I’m sure it’s all very connected and my family stuff is already connected and the way that I related to my community is all very connected and my work with Eric are all very connected to that. You know I think before the movie this movie was a play. I remember my dad going to see it or reading of it and really relating to Glen the dad and just being, “My God, Glen, like really feeling Glen.” and then talking to Eric and he was like, “That Ben character really feeling Ben.” And it’s like right you’re the guy who plucked me from my hometown and I went and worked with you and who like met me where I was and understood me on my level and like taught me how to be a writer basically. So it’s just funny. You know it’s all in there. Everything is in there. That’s like a lot of stuff.
Joshua: That reminds me of an interview I saw. Actually, that thing was on Inside the Actors Studio Dustin Hoffman. And I don’t remember the question but it was like, “Yeah. That’s why I worked on Death of a Salesman so much was my relationship with my father.” And like suddenly he gets choked up like immediately and it was very personal. And you know after Inside the Actors Studio stuff for me watching that contrast between the expressiveness and the ability to read that the actors got then I took these [unintelligible] technique classes and the honesty and the openness and expressiveness that came out… Like in business school, this is after business school, I learned the principles of emotions and I became aware of… You know in physics you don’t learn to read your emotional state. You learn the state of electrons. And so I started being aware of these things and I was like, “Oh, this is very important.” And then I had to pay to watch actors feel emotions without expressing them. You have to express it and so I started expressing stuff for the first time and I was like, “This is really…” And then you can start reading it from others. And I’m far from the level of the people on the Inside the Actors Studio but it’s certainly became important and I think a critical part of leadership.
So I look at the people getting leadership roles emerging from a system… I didn’t go to [unintelligible] Maybe it’s different there. There’s a lot of people in positions of authority in government say and CEOs and stuff that came from the Ivy League schools and a lot of them came from the feeder schools and like the [unintelligible] and stuff like that. Maybe these other schools taught in a way that my public school didn’t and they got something that’s valuable like the stuff you’ve been talking about. But I think probably the overall majority went through a course of system… I am now getting to use my local language. Sorry if I’m revealing some biases that I’ve developed but they go through a of course a system that doesn’t give them the chance to explore their values and resolve conflict. It’s resolved for them by school that tells them how it’s supposed to work. And it isn’t any wonder that we get a system that keeps… And also the system there’s this pattern that I see in life in a few places, an arch, there’s an arch over the [unintelligible], like an arch works when you put pressure on it. If you don’t put pressure on it, if you support it from below, it actually becomes weaker. And if you support it from below and you see it getting weaker and you think the solution is to support it more exacerbates the problem. And so a lot of times if you think accountability is the essential element of education or is the essential way to manage anyone including educators, then you give them more accountability and you say more testing. And if that doesn’t work, then actually that can exacerbate the problem because now the students are learning less. I mean they may be learning more facts but they’re not maturing. And so you say well, more testing and you can get in of the cycle more and more and more of what’s causing the problem. And it’s weird to think maybe not weird to you, probably as still as weird, to go the opposite direction full on to take away and put pressure on the arch. Let the student play with sharp objects.
Nikole: Yeah, it’s not weird to me at all. It’s very natural. I mean I was lucky enough to get to exercise that part of my mind and way of being you know. Also like I don’t think that I would… I have a kind of fearlessness about doing things. Yeah. The idea that you can learn from experience is also like rough where it’s like learn all the things that you can learn about a thing and then maybe you’re qualified to do it. But in reality the only things I’m qualified to do like I never actually formally studied.
Joshua: That resonates… A lot of my students in my leadership courses say, “I thought the way to become a leader was you just become better and better and better at something until you’re the best.” Like in sports oftentimes the captain of the team… When kids discipline sports the captain of the team is the one who’s the best on the team. That doesn’t mean he is the best leader. It just means that they move faster.
Nikole: Well, when I directed Stockholm I wrote it and directed it and I’d never directed a movie before. I never directed a play before. I never directed anything before. But I knew like this is my story, this is my script and I have to be the person that brings it to life. I didn’t want to hand it over and then I was like, [unintelligible] I figured out. And so like I walked on set the first day of directing this movie with 60 crew members and Oscar nominated, Golden Globe nominated actors and stuff and was just like, “Hey, I have the least one experience doing this and any of you like the PA’s have more set experience. And like thank you for trusting me and for trusting this vision and doing this and also like I’m not unapproachable. Good ideas come from anywhere. Also if I’m like making something harder for you, let me know. This is all of our movie. We all have a hand on the wheel here. My job is not more important than your job. So like we’re making a thing together and let’s do it together and I want everyone to be happy and I want everyone to feel connected and engaged with what they’re doing. And I also want you know like I don’t know what I’m doing. I haven’t done this before and I’m not going to pretend that I do but like I know the story and I know the characters and I know what I want. Those are the things that I do now and like I want us all to get there together.” Just this idea that “I am more important than the gaffer” or something is so silly and stupid to me. I actually like a director means nothing if you don’t have all of the people that are experts in their field that are helping you do the thing. So it’s just like hiring was the most important thing I did as a director, hiring the people that came in and worked together so wonderfully and made the experience amazing and I love everyone that I worked with and really don’t consider my movie blah-blah, it’s like our movie, we made it together and that was the thing for me and also like to be able to show up and be like we’ll figure it out. it’s like you know the experience of showing up to be JC clerk on the very first day that I was doing that and I had to do something very difficult. I had to like expel my friend. And it’s like really hard. And then you just figure that out as you’re going. And I was like, “I can figure this out.” but this whole thing “I’m the director. I’m so important.” Like that’s just bullshit. It’s like everybody’s important and that’s from I think a mindset that I just yeah, I went to a school where five-year-olds’ vote counted just as much as the founder of the school’s vote because no one person is more important to a community.
Joshua: So you’re describing walking into the situation with all these people professional accolades and so forth. It sounds like you’re talking about being an office brat that yeah, they have their thing but I’m here. I’m just part of this figuring it out too.
Nikole: I mean I’ve gotten used to it now. It was big… I guess I just wasn’t aware because I just have been doing things that when I started to do these playwriting groups or whatever and people would go around and introduce themselves and be like, “I just got out of Brown graduate program.” or like, “I’m out of Yale.” then I started to be like, “Oh, wow.” Like just the fact that that was the overwhelming thing and not, it doesn’t make me insecure. It’s just like, “Oh, wow.” And then like oftentimes I’m like, “I’m Nikole. I didn’t go to college. I didn’t go to grad school. I didn’t do this. I’ve never studied this. But here we are – peers.” It’s like it does kind of make people like they’re, “What?!” And then later as time goes on I’m like, “Well, for the lack of a better word I was principal of my school for X, Y and Z.” And they are like, “Wait, what?” And it’s just these different things. And I work really hard and I’m very fortunate and I continue to be very fortunate. And I know that there are some that maybe in some world it would be easier if I went to Yale because I’d have all those Yale connections or whatever that stuff is. But I just don’t know what that world is like I’ve never operated in any of the… I don’t know what it is. So it’s fine. But like to me like the path that I’ve chosen of learning things experientially and just like diving in and just like going, going, going which is what I did in school has been super beneficial. That’s why I felt like why I didn’t think twice when I had to apply for the job of being the director of Stockholm because the movie was optioned without me attached to direct so it’s like I’d pitch myself as the director and the producers were like, “We could give it to Gus Van Sant.” And I was like, “Here’s my vision.” And I figured out the materials I needed and like the things I needed to understand in which to sell myself to do this and I did it and I got the job. And then like I did the job. And again it’s like this idea of like learning isn’t separate from doing. And so like even if I had gone to school and studied homeless stuff and made student films I should still be learning on the set of any film that I’m making. But that’s not part of our collective mindset of the way things… To me there is no before learning and after learning. It’s all connected.
Joshua: And that came from Sudbury in part?
Nikole: Yeah, of course. No, completely. Yeah, completely.
Joshua: Because before that you were…
Nikole: Before that I’m just in the dark being like, “I feel like this makes sense but I have absolutely no evidence that anyone thinks that way or will let me operate that way in the world.” And then Sudbury Valley was like, “Hey, over here.”
Joshua: You don’t feel like to be let to direct a play or movie. You don’t have to be let to do stuff. You’re just like, “I’m going to do it.”
Nikole: Yeah. I am going to do it. I mean it’s hard it’s especially hard as a…
Joshua: I had to learn all that as an adult to the extent that everyone knows it.
Nikole: Well, it’s hard to talk about permission because you spend all of your growing up in the typical school format asking for permission.
Joshua: Alright. I’m going to make a big segue. So to me although we’ve been talking about is, in my mind, leadership and leadership not the guy in the corner office stuff interacting with… Anyway. The other part is the environment in this podcast. And when you think environment, what do you think of? What does it mean to you?
Nikole: Well, it makes me so sad now these days because it’s killing.
Joshua: She says that with a smile.
Nikole: It’s getting down the toilet. I mean, I don’t know, Earth, that’s what I think of. Very linear thoughts when it comes to the environment. Planet Earth.
Joshua: When you say sad, what’s the sad part?
Nikole: Well, I mean we are sitting in Los Angeles now which is like deeply on fire just a few miles that way or whatever you know. And that’s like really common.
Joshua: The environmental degradation?
Nikole: Yeah. Like you know you scroll through the news feed or whatever, you wake up in the morning, it does feel like we’re at the beginning of the end of the world where it’s like mudslide kills this many people here. These three hurricanes are happening at the same time which is unprecedented and everything’s destroyed and this many people are dead and without power. And meanwhile California is on fire and this is happening, this is happening and so you’re scrolling and I think that our capacity for that is expanding unfortunately similarly to scrolling through the news feed and it’s like Trump did this terrible thing, Trump did this terrible thing, Trump did this sneaky thing and our capacity for that is also expanding because it’s just crazy.
Joshua: So I just want to tell the listeners that we’re at Nikole’s place and I guess her neighbors just turn on some Spanish music so that’s part of the decor or part of the ambiance.
Nikole: Well, it’s Sunday.
Joshua: And it’s Veterans Day. So I feel like there’s a frustration or sadness I guess. And one of the things I try to do with this podcast is that you were laughing… The listeners might not take us up but we’re just laughing because [unintelligible]. Yeah. It’s like some people playing. And one of the points of this podcast is I want to ask people that are… I think a lot of people feel like, “Well, I want to act but if I act and no one else does, what differences does it make?”
And I think that the way I’ve been putting it lately is that the top predictor as I understand for someone getting solar on their house is not how much money they’ll save. It’s not their politics. It’s not how into the environment they are. It’s if their neighbor has it. And I think that a lot of people… There’s some people who are in everyone’s neighborhood like Oprah, LeBron you know you Elon and I want to bring them. I want on my podcast to bring the people that people are doing these things even people that are not front-page people. So what I’m trying to do is have people… What I think people don’t get is that there are a lot of people hold back on making a shift of acting on some environmental value because at least in my case I thought it was going to be really annoying and then it ended up not being annoying. And so I want people that are in other people’s communities, they’re in a lot of people’s communities to try these things out to act on their values and share the experience so that people at home can say… Not to follow what that person did necessarily specifically but to think of, “What do I care about?” And is there something I could do to act on it.?”
So I want to ask you if at your option given what the environment means to you. How do you feel about it? What do you think about it when you think about it? Is there something you could do to act on that? There’s a couple things I’ve learned to constraint it. You don’t have to solve all the world’s problems all by yourself overnight. It can’t be telling someone else what to do and it has to be something are you not already doing, something measurable so like you can’t be just like, “I’ll think about it.” or “I’ll be more aware.” Is there anything that you might do to act on…? And by the way, it doesn’t have to be forever.
Nikole: Well, you know I just I mean we’re talking on [unintelligible] in my kitchen these metal straws. I don’t use plastic straws. I try to always have like a cup with me for when I’m like out getting coffee just because like I personally can’t stop thinking about that stuff that like how many paper cups does a person use or whatever when they’re grabbing coffee all the time. And you know I’m in this writer’s room when we get lunch delivered every day and I’m using silverware instead of plastic silverware and I don’t drink water out of plastic water bottles like just that that kind of thing.
And now it’s funny it’s like when they bring me when we order out drinks or whatever like we got milkshakes the other day in the room and everybody’s came with a straw but like mine had no straw because whenever I order a drink I put no straw in parentheses because it also bothers me. I’m not going to use this straw but the straw shows up, then I know that like when I’m not going to use the straw but they’re going to throw it away.
Joshua: You got to work to get for people not to do you the favor of giving those disposable stuff.
Nikole: Right. And you know I was saying that it does drive me kind of crazy because like I don’t understand why anyone is using classic silverware in the writers’ room because we had silverware just a few feet away in the kitchen but also like no judgment like I’m not saying… But I do give them a hard time when they come into the room with water in a bottle from the kitchen because we also have reusable water bottles and glasses and a water filter [unintelligible]. So like I’ll make jokes and stuff. If someone like my friend [unintelligible] came in the room came in and he had these two little water bottles…
Joshua: The little ones? They are like [unintelligible]. You’re like that’s not even enough water to make a difference in your life.
Nikole: And I was like, “What are you doing?” And so I can’t remember exactly the exchange but it ended with me taking his… I was going to the kitchen and like, “Does anyone want anything from the kitchen?” And I was like, “It looks like you could use some water.” And I took the water bottles and everyone in the room was like OK, she’s just like straight up taking his water bottle away and I came back with a glass of water for him.
And so just things like that. Like everyone knows that if I ask, “Do you need anything from the kitchen?” and someone asks for water I’m coming back with a glass of water for them or I’ll refill their water bottle but I’m not ever going to bring anyone a bottle of water. So it’s just those little things you know and I try to remember cloth napkin, have a cloth napkin with me and keep like a mug and a travel cup and silverware and a reusable straw like all in my office. And so like I just have that and try to travel with that stuff. And again like yeah, the more people see it, the more it’s like, “Oh.” Like I started doing it when I saw my friend Emily the customer designer in Stockholm where she would show up for craft services every day with silverware, a bowl, a plate and a cup and so she never used any of that disposable craft’s service stuff and I was like, “Alright. So easy. Just bring it with you. [unintelligible].” And so I mean that switcheroo based on having her, having seen her do it so I don’t know.
Joshua: I have to share. I was just at this big conference called The Summit in L.A. and asked everyone there, “How are you environmentally going?” “Oh, very aware. I’m way ahead of the curve on this one.” And maybe they are relative to other Americans, I don’t know, which is about as low bar as you can set for environmental action. And there’s all this disposable stuff, all this packaged food being given out so everyone is taking like, “What can I do? How can I avoid it?” I’m like, “I haven’t got any.” And yeah, I took the train out here so I had to pack three [unintelligible] with the food that I cook. So I’ve always Tupperware and the Tupperware which I have from before I started all this packaging stuff so I’m not going to throw it out. So I start going to these things bring my Tupperware with me and everyone’s like, “Did you bring your lunch with you?” I’m like, “No, just the container so I don’t have to use these other containers.” And they’re like [unintelligible].
Nikole: Me and my friend Mandy brings her and my friend Dylan they live on an island of like I think [unintelligible] year round residents are eleven people but like you pay ten dollars for every bag of trash that you have picked up so they’re very reuse, reduce, and so like when we go out to a restaurant or something when they’re on the mainland they bring Tupperware for the leftovers instead of asking for a box and I’m like again and you just see somebody that you’re like, “Hey, I can just grab from home like I don’t need to just be asking for boxes.” I don’t drive and I don’t have a car so it’d be easier if I could keep those things in a car and be like, “Oh, right. I have a thing in the car.” But also I don’t have a car and no carbon footprint there.
And I remember when the environment started getting like cool to talk about being at the Tribeca Film Festival like many years ago with Eric actually and people were asking me about… Somehow it came up that I didn’t get my license and I’d never driven a car and everyone was like, “Whoa” and for the first time ever they were like, “That’s so cool. Your carbon footprint’s like small and I was like, “Oh, my gosh, this is the only time in my whole life that anyone’s ever thought it was cool that I’ve never had my license.” So that was a funny turning point around like the environment is getting cool now.
Joshua: So I’m going to persist a little bit here partly because it is more challenging for people who have made that shift, on the one hand. On the other hand, I want people to see… I believe that… How do I put it? I want to push a little bit to see if there is something that I really don’t want people at home to think, “Good! I am there.” because a lot of people who think like “I’m there.” is a long way to go. I’m putting myself in that group certainly. And so is there anything that comes to mind that…? A lot of people I think also have something in the back of their mind they’re like, “I could do X and this is like a nice excuse to try to kind of…
Nikole: [unintelligible] keep going like you know I’m constantly like… Also recently started… I’ve never been so paper towel free home or whatever. So that’s cool. It’s more laundry but whatever. And then also just I started using not that I was buying the stuff I don’t like Ziploc bags and I don’t like saran wrap and I don’t like tin foil. So to figure out what are the alternatives to that like for a while I was just wrapping things in my life napkins and like that was kind of a [unintelligible] like things get crumbs everywhere or whatever. But now there’s just like so many things like that wax.
Joshua: The Bee’s Wrap?
Nikole: Yeah, the Bee’s Wrap. So good.
Joshua: One of my guests just did that as one of her things.
Nikole: Yeah it’s great. And the Bee’s Wrap and then those washable Ziploc, they’re not Ziploc but those washable zippered pouches for snacks and sandwiches and stuff. So I have those and that’s great which is funny because it’s not like it’s replacing those things [unintelligible] I wasn’t… I was like not using Saran wrap and [unintelligible] but when I was using Saran wrap and tin foil I used to wash it and dry it and use it more than once. Once you get out of the mindset like I just had this when you kind of come into your own mind just being like wow, I can’t believe someone, because like I grew up in the 80,s or whatever and just use a Ziploc bag once and then throw it away like that’s crazy and it takes a little while to kind of get into your head like, “That’s crazy.” even though like that’s it I’ve seen over and over again.
My dad is more hippy dippy like my mom’s really into reusable straws and cups and stuff now but I think it’s still like a big paper towel user and a big tin foil user or whatever but just the things that’s just like re-evaluating what you’re used to being like oh, actually the crazy thing is using a plastic bag once and throwing it away is really, really, really crazy. Like if the only option is Styrofoam, then I say, “No, thank you.” Like if they only have Styrofoam cups or whatever and I don’t have my cup with me then I’ll get a drink somewhere else. Like I just don’t want any of that. And then also using biodegradable dish soap and laundry detergent just all that stuff that you don’t think about once it leaves your house kind of but that actually it’s going down in the drains and into everything.
Joshua: It’s so refreshing to talk to someone like this is normal because the people I’m staying with they are like when you’re in that mode of just like, “I don’t know. I throw it out and it’s gone.”, then I look weird because I’m like you know for me to ask, “Do you have compost?”, they are like, “What?” There’s friction between them and for the past this trip has basically been one… Except for when I was at Patagonia’s headquarters. It’s basically been people like, “Why are you making this difficult?” I’m like yeah, making your thing difficult. You’re making my difficult. But both of us agree that we don’t want the world to go in the direction that what you’re doing brings it and it’s refreshing to talk to someone like, “Yeah, it’s weird to throw stuff away all the time.” So yeah.
Nikole: It is. I mean and I still have a lot to… You know I want to get in to… When I go grocery shopping and not like I don’t put apples in a plastic bag in order to bring that you know. I mean I’m just like I got three apples, I think we can fit this on the way container without having to like having grouped them in a thing. But I do know that like I want to get better about packaging trying to buy things more in bulk or whatever so that I’m not throwing away.
Joshua: Yeah. This morning when… I’m staying at friends and they’re going to bring me to go shopping because I’m going to make them stew tonight and so I am going around their apartment like there’s some apples in the bag and I was like, “Oh, good. We can use that bag.” and they were like, “For what?” and I was like, “To put the bulk stuff in.” They’re like looking confused and I look at there’s some other apples in a different bag but that one ripped open so I couldn’t use that and I am like they have all these bags and they just throw them out.
Nikole: When did you start thinking all this stuff because…
Joshua: Oh, like four years ago is when… And then before that I didn’t care either. You know a lot of the emotion that I feel in this frustration like how can you blah-blah exasperation is really me looking at myself for how long that I knew what I was doing I would choose “I’m going to throw this out.”, “I’m going to buy this thing that I know is polluting.” and instead of doing something about it I would just think this makes me feel guilty or plan and that planning felt like it was doing something but I actually would keep doing the same behavior and the earth doesn’t respond to my thoughts. It responds to my behavior. I thought it might change my behavior to some degree but they weren’t in this case and so I would think about that guilt and that helplessness that I would maintain in my life instead of just turning and facing what I was doing and now the results it’s like it’s made my life by my standards better in virtually every measurable difference. I’m curious about the bulk stuff. Is there something now that you have been thinking of doing that you might be able to…This might be a place where you could do something…
Nikole: I just have to get more mindful of like when I’m grocery shopping. Because usually what just happens I’m very tired when I get out of work and come and I’m like oh crap I don’t know anything for dinner and I swing past the grocery store that doesn’t have that option. I just like grab whatever I can for that night. Mostly I’m eating like two meals a day at work – I eat a breakfast and lunch at work and then so I just seem to get more mindful but like you know these TV jobs are for 20 weeks at a time or whatever and then I’m off and then I’m back in a world where I can spend time thinking like, “I’m going to go to the farmer’s market today and do those things.” And I’m just like not in a space where I plan ahead but I’ll get back there.
But there’s always improvement. I just got dryer balls. Those wool balls instead of dryer sheets. Not that I was, again, not that I was using dryer sheets before but it’s like you just put a little essential oil on it if you want it to smell nice or otherwise you can just leave them plain and then they do exactly what dryer sheets is doing just a couple things not stick together because they’re like bouncing around the dryer. It’s like “Oh, cool” I don’t know. Just like there’s always something else to do. But you know I consider it a failure if like my recycling thing that I bring downstairs to be full but the trash thing for the same amount of time to be very empty. So that’s always cool. If I had a yard, I’d compost but I don’t. My dad does. But yeah, I don’t know. There’s always something else to do and to get better at.
Joshua: At this stage I usually ask if there’s a SMART goal that could be attached to these things too. The acronym – Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Time based
Nikole: I think that would be my…. I think the bulk thing would just like just go with my re-sealable zip bags or whatever and just be getting of that grains and stuff in that so that’s like the next step is just being more mindful of that and we plan ahead better.
Joshua: What I’d like to do is to have people on a second time sharing how their experience was.
Nikole: All right. Well, sure.
Joshua: It’s funny because most people haven’t thought it through and haven’t… Like you are like this is normal. Of course, whether you asked me to or not, I’m going to find the next thing, the next thing, the next thing anyway. So it’s almost superfluous for me to do it because you’re going to do something anyway. And I suspect that the experience each time has its own unique experience of doing something new and different. But it sounds like each time you do it, you like it and you want to do the next thing.
Nikole: Yeah. I mean I don’t know. You do. Yeah. You do one thing and then you’re like, “What else can I do?” Also just to be looking at things like when I see things out in the world I’m like “Oh, like look the dryer balls or whatever.” I was like, “Oh, yeah, I will get those.” I forget where I first had the Bee’s wrap but yeah.
Joshua: It’s funny with that one. I was interviewing this woman and she was like trying to figure out how to… She has these events where she brings challenges for people and she is wrapping them plastic and it totally by chance I’m talking to someone else and she said, “You can make these beeswax things on your own.” And she’s talking about that and I was like, “Wait. There’s something you can wrap sandwiches in?” And I wrote Don and she said, “Oh, here’s the thing.” And she started doing it. All right.
So why don’t we leave it at this if we have an opportunity to talk a second time if something comes up and you want to share, then I invite you back any time. Actually, it’s like something about this podcast it’s like, “Oh, I should put this on Joshua’s podcast.” or something like that, then I leave you an open invitation to be a guest any time. And I won’t like stick a specific thing on it and be like… We won’t have a specific thing that the next episode would be about because I do that with a lot of others. And I like to close with two questions. Is there anything you didn’t ask that would bring up? And the other’s is anything to the listeners that you’d want to say directly to them?
Nikole: Oh, gosh. What great questions. Well, you said you wanted to ask about Eric.
Joshua: Yeah. Oh, man. I mean the first there is the whole process of you getting… You’re one out of…No, you’re one of three out of thousands?
Nikole: Yeah. One of three women and they had three men as well.
Joshua: So it’s a big process to get in and then it’s working with the guy and then it’s the afterword of how that affects you later on. And I don’t even know where to begin because a lot of this show is about hustling of contacting people who are well known and experienced. I’m learning way more than expected.
Nikole: I can try to give a condensed blow by blow which is that I was very into Eric’s work. I was doing solo shows writing and performing in my own one-woman shows and…
Joshua: Winning awards, right?
Nikole: Yes. So many awards. I don’t know.
Joshua: Doing well up in Massachusetts?
Nikole: Massachusetts. Yes. And then also did the first like big time play I did was Suburbia which was written by him and I played the character of Suze. And so I was like very aware of his work, really into it. And then in like I think 2003 I got wind that he was doing this residency at Atlantic Center for the arts in Florida in New Smyrna Beach. New Smyrna, I don’t know. So I sent in an application, got asked to do an interview, I did the interview and I got one of the three female slots and went and did this month long residency. This is a side note about how amazing my small town is is that I needed money to be able to pay my rent for that. I’d never done anything like this. And so to leave for a month and airfare and you know I was like a working artist. I didn’t have like a ton of money and my like partner at the time helped organize this thing in the town where the town put on like the show because I was like doing this. And it’s a wonderful life and raised all of the money for me to be able to go and do this thing which was quite amazing.
And so I went and I was running a theater company at the time with Greg, my then partner and who’s still very good friend of mine, and so when we’re at the residency, he had five writers and six actors and like we were doing a lot of stuff and it was just like slightly chaotic the schedule because I am judicial clerk and because I was running a theater company and because I just see the way a system needs improvement and want to improve it. I was like, “Let’s do it this way.” And so I put together a schedule, a rotating schedule of who would use the theater when and what would be happening in other spaces and then allotted him writing time and then instead of all of us trying to get in touch with him to get things I was like at lunch everyone can check in with me about what they need from you. And then I’ll check in with you after dinner. And so we’ll just streamline to give him as much writing time as possible because he is writing a play for us to be on. So that’s what happened. And then Eric ended up asking me to move to New York and be his assistant.
Joshua: This is leadership. This is exactly leadership. This is what I call the grunt model of leadership which is… My model’s always Martin Luther King trying to get people not to take the bus when there’s a boycott when no one has any expectation that this is going to be some future Nobel Prize winner, no expectation to see some civil rights act a decade in the future. And I looked it up. Three months out of the year they typically get 100-degree weather and people had to wear suits back then and it’s going to be humid and that’s how you become a leader. People think… It’s like I keep talking to you about doing environmental things and they say, “I got to become a leader and I’ve got to go off and work at McKinsey.” or something like that which is following and what you did was you stepped up and you did the work that had to be done working with other people and you became… I think you merged in a leadership role.
Nikole: Yeah. I mean it was really… I mean Eric’s also from Massachusetts, we really vibed. I’m just into positive administration or it’s like OK, it’s chaotic and like we’re not getting what we need and we’re not getting the talent we want and we’re also wasting a lot of time trying to figure this out. I’ll do it like this makes sense like I’ll do it. I love being in charge of things and having a voice. I love having a say and I also love providing a service for other people. I love making an experience better for somebody else. So that just combined all those things and then I was also the only person in the acting round that had been accepted to the residency that wasn’t in New York or Los Angeles. I was just in a small Massachusetts town. He was like, “What are you doing? Move to New York.”
And so I moved to New York to work as his assistant and then worked for him for five years and really learned a lot from his work ethic. He was like one of my greatest teachers. He didn’t know he was teaching me you know. And so it’s just absorbing his work ethic, his moods, his worldview. It was partially through [unintelligible], partially through by actually being very engaged in that with him. And then he was doing a lot of work, lot of shows and stuff while I was there and we worked very closely together and I really learned how to write from just being around him and being immersed in his work. But then I like confessed to him one day when we were up at Vasser at New York stage and film to see his show happened there one plus one, I was like, “I wrote a play.” That was 2008 and he was like, “What?” And he read it and it’s very different from his work and he was very surprised and was just like… And I pointed out it’s one of the things that makes him such a great teacher is that my work isn’t anything like his. And yet he is the person who helped me learn how to do that and make that work.
Joshua: So learning the work ethic was the valuable… That was the main…
Nikole: The work ethic, the perseverance but also just like watching him right and watching things change, seeing workshops and early readings of things and then final drafts and performances of stuff like one plus one for example which was the play that I saw happen as like just like a very informal reading around the office and then move into like a full production at New York stage in films so I got to that was my first time kind of seeing like that process and then they didn’t update version of Suburbia like with cellphones and about the current political climate at that time and so watching those adaptations happen just like just kind of….Which was right and then also that he just wanted to write things that he wanted to be in and wanted to write things for his friends. And so like that’s how I look for it – what do I want to watch basically? And that’s how I learned to write and then also like the economy of like his players like all happen on one set basically and so do mine.
Joshua: So you first that you apprenticed with the master and that led you on a path to mastery. I mean I don’t know if we ever get there.
Nikole: I mean I don’t know what mastery is but sure yeah. I mean like he also still like reads early drafts when my stuff comes to readings of things. And it’s funny we joke now is that like he was my mentor for so many years and now we’re just competing for the same slots at theaters. But you know both of us have taken like a break from theater in that I’ve been writing for television and film and he’s been starring in television and film. So we’re on theater [unintelligible]. So yeah it’s like you know again learn through doing. I just like wanted to do that. When I was working with Eric I he’s also one of the greatest directors I’ve worked with though he doesn’t count himself as a director but of course his wife Jo Boney is one of the greatest living directors. She directed an early workshop of Stockholm and I love her. I am so grateful for them in my life but meeting Eric at the Atlantic Center I just like identified him right away as someone I could learn a lot from and who I could also again like streamline certain experiences for like I could anticipate and understand what he needed out of a situation and help provide it.
Joshua: What you just described about “Oh, I saw this guy. I wanted to meet him and I could work with him, he could work with me.” feels like those are the skills you learned in Sudbury of that is human being, I’m a human being, the authority stuff is not that relevant. And you just contacted them.
Nikole: Yeah. Like when I was leaving the residency I just like had like an emotional goodbye with him and then I was like, “I don’t want us to like never talk again.” And so we just started emailing and that’s how he ended up offering me the job as his assistant. And to his credit at the moment that he offered me that job he didn’t really need an assistant but he did see that I needed something to bring me out of where I was.
Joshua: It feels like apprenticeship, vocation. The word vocation in today’s world usually means like you’re going to become a mechanic or a nurse or something where it means like it’s a labor, you’re learning how to do some labor. But the original voca it means to call, it’s from a calling. And I feel like there’s a big difference between how children learn and how adults learn because apprenticeship is different than just play. And I think a main thing that we want is to discover our passions, unearth them and have a mix of what we love and also as you say helping others, serving others is a major piece of it. I think that’s one of the most important… The more effective a leader is, the more I find that they are in service of others. And so if you find that nice mix of what you’re passionate about and what other people value from you, what helps other people, then you look for a master or someone that you can learn from to learn the ropes.
Nikole: But the best version of those relationships are reciprocal you know just like you know so many people think being a leader means they’re like the people are in service of you but it’s actually the opposite. It’s like if you’re a good leader, it means you’re in service of the people. And like a great apprenticeship or a mentor – mentee relationship is that it was a reciprocal relationship. I got things from our relationship and learned things and so did he. And so that’s what made it. I think it’s one of the reasons I was so, so close. And again, I don’t believe in hierarchy. So I don’t know.
Joshua: Have you yet had someone come to you in the way that you approached him or that you came to him. Have you become the Bogosian?
Nikole: I try to help and reach out like I’ll engage with anyone who has like questions on my email like when I have time and stuff. I just am not in a place yet where I’m like, “Come in and like work on my archives.” Like I don’t have that kind of look spillover and that kind of thing. Someday maybe and I’d like that. But yeah, I mean young people all the time and still have like former students who sometimes are like, “Wait. Is that movie written and directed by my old theater teacher from Newburyport, Massachusetts?” and I would get an email where they ask question if I have time I love to engage and help in any way that I can. I am often still just like in the grind so I don’t have as much time for that as I like but…
Joshua: Any big projects coming up you can share?
Nikole: Well, let’s see. I don’t know. I’m writing on season two of YouTube’s Impulse right now. So that’s cool. So we’re in the midst of that and I’ve like attached some movie stars to a movie that I wrote a little while ago and so now we’re just trying to like work out the scheduling. I don’t want to say… I don’t want to jinx it you know plus nothing’s ever real until it’s not people drop off things on the day. Yeah. But like you know moving and taking I have some projects in here I’m looking forward to Hollywood…
Joshua: Look how you talk! “I have some projects going on. I got some stars going on.”
Nikole: I’m going to go back to New York and just try to do some more writing. I’d love to write another play. I’m very, very hungry for the theater. I’ve been away from it for too long. But it’s hard to find the time to do that when you’re trying to pay your rent you know. But yeah, working on some movie scripts, movie stuff. I saw the television show, like an original show of mine and I’m waiting to hear if it’s going to go to pilot. So I don’t know.
Joshua: So it’s really exciting. Thank you for showing it. Any… I keep asking questions following up but any message directed to the listener?
Nikole: I don’t know. About what?
Joshua: Education, leadership. I mean here are the things that I heard was education, leadership, self-expression through the arts.
Nikole: In terms of education or rebellion even like I guess to the parents out in the world and to the educators out in the world I would love for them to just listen to kids more and trust kids, to understand that they are becoming… They are self-possessed in one way or another always. And you know graduating from high school doesn’t like lift some magic veil where you’re totally different and like ready for things like you’re a person always. And so I just think they’re like yeah, if someone is rebelling, engage with them about that instead of just trying to stop them from doing it and don’t always look at it as a problem because maybe it’s not a problem. And so you just shift the way you’re engaging with them and voila, you shifted from having a troubled kid to having a nonconformist freethinker that you can engage with in a different way. It’s not about stopping people from rebelling. It’s about figuring out how to make that productive for everyone. So that’s really easy to do. You just got to trust that in some way everything that your kid is doing whether it’s your student or your child is coming from a place of self-expression, they’re trying to understand themselves or the world in a different way. So it’s not about squashing that behavior. It’s about shifting that into something that thrives. I wish that that was a practice that more people had.
Joshua: Nikole Beckwith, thank you very much.
Nikole: Thank you.
This conversation was beautiful to me which is part of why indulged in letting it go so long. I relived trials and things from my childhood that at the time I couldn’t stand but that this conversation helped fall into place. I don’t know if self-directed learning would work for me but I would love to have tried. Nikole describing democracy in action made me think about the authoritarian schooling that I suffered. Don’t get me wrong. I love school. I did very well. I reached the pinnacle of education. I have PhD in physics and an Ivy League school and I teach now at NYU which is an elite school. But I do my best and I believe I succeed in not teaching through authoritarian methods. It’s project based learning. I don’t give tests. You can read my blog about my teaching style.
If you’ve reached this far you find it fascinating too. I recommend following the link that I put in the right up to my page of links to self-directed learning. I found it fascinating. It’s one of the most important things that I’ve read in a long time. Ask anyone what their best experiences of the trial that are. I guarantee no one will say it was something in the classroom. Even if you ask them where you learn the most, it’s not going to be something in the classroom. Self-directed learning has changed my view of education more than anything that has before.
As an aside, after this conversation with Nikole, we were in Silver Lake which is where she’s working on her latest Hollywood project and I walked around Silver Lake to see the neighborhood and I went to all these taco stands and I kept asking, “Can you give me a taco without packaging?” and none of them would. They all insisted on putting it on paper plates or Styrofoam so I missed out on Silver Lake tacos.
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