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Over the Edge: Inside A.C.T.'s World Premiere of Niagara Falls

With no script, no set, and no fear, the American Conservatory Theater goes from a prayer to a play in three months. Inside the exhilarating and exhausting world premiere of Niagara Falls.

 A.C.T. presents the world premie of Steve Yockey's Niagara Falls, December 12-14. Directed by Melissa Smith, it features a cast of students in the MFA program. 

 “All that I knew was that there was this guy who was going to write a play based on what we did,” says first-year MFA student and actor Stefanée Martin. Before this summer, the Maryland native, who plays a fortune teller in the American Conservatory Theater’s upcoming show Niagara Falls (December 12–14), had never been to San Francisco. In the last week of September she found herself here in a three-day workshop with playwright Steven Yockey, director Melissa Smith, and about dozen other MFA students. Their shared goal: to write, direct, and act in a show that would open in December.

At that moment, they had no script, no set, and no plan. After three months of work, they ended up with a supernaturally-inflected play about honeymooning newly-weds who put themselves, and their relationship, under the microscope.

Yockey, a brainy young writer, is in his second year of partnership with this A.C.T. program which trains young actors. Along with Smith, he leads the actors in three days of improvisation workshops, all based upon material that he provides. Last year, he brought two Japanese ghost tales to the table. This time around, he showed up with three poems by Billy Collins, asking the students to reflect on them and create loose monologues—riffs, really—on their themes. He, in turn, promised to write parts that reflected the actors. But Yockey left them with a warning: “What I deliver won’t be what you expect.”

Writing so quickly, Yockey says, "Is more risky, but it’s also more fun.” As he hammered the words into place, the actors were hard at work in their classes, which covered everything from physical movement to field trips to local theaters. After four weeks and two drafts, Yockey turned in a seventy page script.

McRae admits, “On our first read we thought it was a wild quantum physics play. We were a little dumfounded.” But because Yockey had written the parts based on the actors’ personalities, it began to come together. "Martin found things in my character that resonate on a very deep level. I don’t even know how Steve would have picked up on those things. But he did," says McRae.

The world premiere of the play goes live tomorrow. Is Smith panicked on behalf of the actors? Not really. She thinks that the work the students have put in will pay off. But, she shrugs, “There is always an element of prayer.”

Niagara Falls runs from December 12th to 14th at the Hastings Studio Theater on 77 Geary Street. For more information and tickets, click here.

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