December 10, 2015
Becky Niccum has spent a lifetime using her imagination and creating her own worlds.
“I loved going back into the woods and pretend that I was living back in Daniel Boone days,” she says. “I was perfectly happy and content to play all by myself.”
When she wasn’t playing on her own, she was inviting her neighborhood friends to put on shows in her front yard. She imbued her stuffed animals with personalities and emotions. She is the youngest of four children, and she and her sister had an especially close relationship. Young Becky would often get out of bed in the middle of the night to entertain her as Lucille Ball or other comedy show personalities or characters.
As she grew, she came to enjoy the more organized plays and holiday shows put on by her classroom.
“I played a pumpkin in the fourth grade, and that was probably when I realized I could get laughs,” she says. “I loved it.”
She continued to perform in school shows and even performed readings of short stories she had written herself. As she got older, her roles grew, and with them, her love of performing.
Her family shares her love of theater.
“My uncle performs in shows for his church,” she says. “My niece in Tennessee is a comedian who writes and performs in plays for her church. I would love to perform with her one day in a comedy sketch that she has written. My parents have always encouraged me to do what made me happy.”
She says that her mom took her to her first show (Hello, Dolly at the Foellinger Theatre) while she was still in utero. “She always believed that is why I liked performing so much,” says Niccum.
It wasn’t until she was a high school student that she auditioned for her first community theatre show, The Night of January 16th at the Arena Dinner Theatre in 1980, when they performed at the Chamber of Commerce and rehearsed in a building on Broadway.
“I was a nervous wreck,” she says, “but I had a great time.”
The teenager was cast as Mrs. John Hutchins, which required aging makeup and a wig. Niccum matured a lot offstage as well. “I definitely grew up and opened up as an individual,” she says, crediting DonEtte Harold and Elaine Nickels for mentoring her along the way.
Niccum began auditioning for more shows and worked backstage for nearly every show they produced for the next several years.
“Being at the theater was what I lived for and was totally committed to,” she says. “Back then, people made stronger commitments to the shows they were involved in. It’s sad, but people are stretched so thin today, they can no longer be totally committed to anything.”
She took a job as assistant director at the Fort Wayne Youtheatre, working directly with Harvey Cocks.
In 1986 she directed her first community show, Murder on the Nile at Arena Dinner Theatre.
“I was definitely nervous about this new undertaking,” she says, “but I was blessed with an excellent and very talented cast. At that time, Arena was performing at Sunset Catering off Old Decatur Road. One night we lost the power to the stage lights in the middle of the show and ended up finishing the show with just the overhead lights on. The audience went right along with it and didn’t seem to mind too much.”
The following year, however, she made the difficult decision to stretch herself and move east to work professionally in theater in New York and New Jersey.
She moved to Nutley, New Jersey, 20 minutes from New York City. She rented space in the home of her friend, Vicki Myers, who was the technical director at Growing Stage Theatre in Netcong, New Jersey. Myers got Niccum involved in the productions while she was there.
“It was a low-tier Equity children’s theater,” says Niccum. “They would bring in two Equity actors for each show, but everyone else volunteered. They did quality productions. I was very proud to be a part of them.”
Although she was earning the points needed to join the Actors’ Equity Union, Niccum recognized that joining would limit her casting choices. “Once you are Equity, you can only audition for Equity shows or you have to get special permission,” she says. “I wanted people to know me better before I limited my options.”
She did occasionally take Equity roles, but rather than joining, a small portion of her paycheck was deducted for the union.
She also experienced some down times. “I did an Equity showcase in New York, but it was such a bad production that I felt totally humiliated and refused to invite my agent to see it,” she says.
Niccum appeared as a background actor in numerous television productions and was in an independent film, Purple Paradise. Although it was never distributed, she did have the opportunity to see it on the big screen at Tribeca.
“It was all a great adventure that I wouldn’t change for the world,” she says, “but after four years, I needed to come home and be with family. My mom’s cancer had come back, and I wanted to be here with her and my dad. I would never change that for anything.”
She has worked steadily as an actor and a director ever since, with over 100 productions under her belt to date. Whatever role she plays, Niccum says “the only way to make your character real is by letting them grow from within you. You cannot force it; you have to feel it, by letting the words speak for them, and then you become them.”
When she directs, she guides her actors in the same way.
“I always tell people to just let the character speak the words,” she says. “They know what they want to say, and then you don’t have to worry about forgetting your lines.”
The other key to “totally becoming that character on stage” comes from listening.
“Larry Life once said that listening is one of the toughest things for people to do,” Niccum says. “And it really is. It’s so easy to just [mentally] wander off for a minute, and that’s all it takes to lose focus of what’s going on in the scene. You have to constantly force yourself to listen to every line and be there every minute.”
The other keys to successful theater, Niccum says, are commitment and a willingness to work as an ensemble.
“I would much rather work with someone who is less talented but tries really hard than someone who is full of themselves,” she says. “None of us can put on a great show alone. We need each other to make it a success. Both the cast and crew are equally important, and when I direct, I insist that the cast thanks the crew each night for all their assistance. I don’t care how big or little the part is, everyone is of equal importance. I have a real issue with arrogance.”
Arrogance has not been a problem with the cast of her current show, Exit Laughing, at Arena. Niccum plays Millie, a ditzy member of a tight-knit group of friends.
“I love this part and show so much,” she says. “Millie is completely innocent. She does things and says things that are really out there. Some people may look at her like she’s dumb, but she is just totally innocent.”
The nature of the role has presented Niccum with a major acting challenge: not breaking onstage.
“I am pretty sure that I am not going to make the entire run without laughing at least one night,” she says. “I also love working with the cast and crew on this show. They are all lots of fun, and the show will definitely bring out laughter from the audience. I really don’t think that anyone is going to leave disappointed.”
Although she has worked at other theaters in Fort Wayne, Niccum considers Arena Dinner Theatre her home.
“What makes Arena so special is the intimacy with the audience,” she says. “You just always have a homey feel there. It’s like a family. They don’t have a lot of money, but Arena has always been and always will be a survivor.”