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New York Theatre Workshop artistic director James Nicola: ‘The stakes are higher than ever for the artistic community’

James Nicola, artistic director of New York Theatre Workshop

As head of New York Theatre Workshop, James Nicola has originated hits from Rent to Hadestown. He tells Howard Sherman about working with Caryl Churchill and Ivo van Hove and why he lets others do the directing

When Hadestown won this year’s Tony award for best musical, it was the third time the prize went to a show originated at Off-Broadway’s New York Theatre Workshop, following Rent in 1996 and Once in 2012.

While some artistic directors stamp their own persona on their theatres and brandish their prizes at every opportunity, that’s not the case at the 40-year-old NYTW. Despite having led the company for 31 of those years, artistic director James Nicola largely lets the work do all the talking.

Thinking back over his tenure, Nicola quickly turns, not to his own philosophical ideas, but the questions he finds essential in terms of the audience for whom he produces.

“I try to think about where people are in their lives,” he says. “What’s on their minds? What do they need to hear? Where do they need to be affirmed? Where do they need to be  challenged? What we try to do, I think, is not tell people what they should feel or think.”

That thinking, Nicola says, comes from his youth. “I grew up in the Baptist Church, and according to family lore, my earliest announced intent on what I wanted to be when I grew up was a minister. In some ways, I think that’s exactly where I landed, just in a more secular frame.”

Nicola’s church metaphor might strike some as conservative thinking, but New York Theatre Workshop is unabashedly progressive. As well as the award-winning musicals, the theatre’s programming under Nicola has included Doug Wright’s Quills, Paula Vogel’s A Civil War Christmas, Tony Kushner’s works Slavs! and Homebody/Kabul, Amy Herzog’s Mary Jane and Jeremy O Harris’ New York debut this past season with Slave Play.

Hadestown was one of two NYTW-originated contenders at this year’s Tonys, joined by Heidi Schreck’s What the Constitution Means to Me. NYTW has also hosted multiple US debuts of plays by Caryl Churchill and Nicola introduced Ivo van Hove to the United States with a series of productions, primarily of American classics.

What the Constitution Means to Me review at Helen Hayes Theater, New York – ‘personal, political, powerful’

His successes, both commercially and critically, have seemed to come ever more rapidly in the past few seasons, which could be ascribed to Nicola’s skill in gauging the mood and interest of artists and audiences.

“I keep thinking about the fact that in 2016, with that election, we had maybe the most radical shift in the artistic community in the course of my lifetime,” he says. “There’s an intensity, an emotional intensity, beneath it all now. The stakes are so much higher than they ever were.”

The US-born-and-raised Nicola came to NYTW having started his theatrical career at London’s Royal Court and then the Young Vic, after attending college outside Boston. After returning to the US, he spent five years in the casting office of the Public Theater during the tenure of its founder, Joseph Papp. Subsequently, he became a directing fellow, and later a producing associate, at Arena Stage in Washington DC. But while he began directing at Arena Stage and continued to do so in his earliest years at NYTW, Nicola soon left the rehearsal room to concentrate on organisational leadership.

‘If you’re an artistic director and a director, one of those is really going to suffer and you have to make your mind up about that’

He says: “At Arena, I could go into rehearsal and come back at the end of the day and there were enough staff to pick up the slack. In this job at the Workshop, it was too tiny, there was too much.”

Nicola came to realise that his interest lay more in seeing what other directors might do with a work, and that artistic directing was really where his talents lay. He remembers thinking: “There are lots of other directors who are a lot better at it than I am. And the artistic director took over and said: ‘You’re second-rate, so let those other people direct.’ ” He compares the job of artistic leader to being a museum curator, saying: “I think that if you’re an artistic director and a director, one of those is really going to suffer and you have to make your mind up about that.”


Q&A James Nicola

What was your first non-theatre job?
Newspaper delivery person.

What was your first theatre job?
Student stage manager at Jerwood Theatre Upstairs in London.

What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
Find the people – not the situations, jobs or roles – who are going to mentor you and take an interest in your growth.

Who or what was your biggest influence?
My theatrical father is Joe Papp and my theatrical mother is Zelda Fichandler.

What’s your best advice for auditions?
Remember that the people on the other side of the table want you to succeed.

If you hadn’t been an artistic director, what would you have been?
I probably wouldn’t have stayed in the theatre. There were two directions: either the psychological or psychiatric world, or, I have a real obsession with what we called in high school ‘earth sciences’ – geology, meteorology.

Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
I am never in the theatre at New York Theatre Workshop when we’re opening something and the press is in.

The works that have defined NYTW for so many years are those that have reached Broadway and achieved commercial success, with that acclaim, in turn, bringing revenue back to the theatre. At this point in the company’s life, with only a four-play season each year, does Nicola consciously have to choose work that has the potential for success beyond the theatre’s East Village home?

“The more challenging things that are asking us deeper, harder questions are going to be less popular,” Nicola says. “The things that are more affirmative and more joyful are more commercially appealing. I don’t ever want to not be both of those things, because I don’t think you can have a conversation that is long-running if it’s all just misery. It has to be comprehensive and it has to be a cumulative experience.”

Nicola cited NYTW’s experience with two very different works staged in a short time: Dael Orlandersmith’s one-person show Forever, and Othello, with Daniel Craig and David Oyelowo. The former sold $50,000 in tickets, while the latter sold $1 million. “That is the kind of range,” he says. “We have to have room for both of those in our work. They have to be there.”

Othello starring David Oyelowo and Daniel Craig – review at New York Theatre Workshop

That the NYTW, along with the Public Theater, has been one of the primary outlets for US premieres of Churchill’s plays, Nicola puts down to his early production of Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, which director Les Waters saw and commended to the playwright. Having subsequently developed his own personal and professional relationship with Churchill, he says: “She embodies everything that we respond to.”

As for Van Hove, Nicola describes how he was invited on a trip to visit the Netherlands, but while he had heard about Van Hove’s work, nothing was playing, so he watched productions on video. “I sat for an afternoon in a room there,” he recalls, “fast-forwarding through these videos because they’re all in Dutch. But looking at these productions of Mourning Becomes Electra, Streetcar, Desire Under the Elms and seeing this extraordinary work, it knocked me out.”

Van Hove would go on to direct eight productions at NYTW between 1997 and 2015, but now Nicola is less confident of whether the Belgian director will work at the company again, given his commercial success and the demands of his own theatre in Amsterdam. Though Nicola adds: “He did a production of Caligula that I keep hounding him about. In the era of Trump, we should do this. It speaks to the time.”

Michael C Hall in Lazarus at the New York Theatre Workshop in 2015. Photo: Jan Versweyveld

Asked whether there are artists he’d like to have work at NYTW, he reels off the names of Milo Rau, Katie Mitchell, Joël Pommerat and Romeo Castellucci. But, he says, a priority is dealing with an ageing facility. This follows a growth spurt that saw the budget – with particular focus on investing in compensation for artists and staff – jump from $5 million only five years ago to $8 million now.

However, Nicola’s greatest focus for the future is to build the theatre’s artistic community. He thinks back to one of the company’s annual retreats – at Dartmouth College in the early 1990s – and relates something he observed as emblematic of his dreams for the future.

“I was standing on the waterfront of the Connecticut River, watching a canoe go by. Anne Bogart and JoAnne Akalaitis are at either end of the canoe and in the middle is Lisa Peterson, very young, at the beginning of her career, and they’re having this intense conversation that I can’t hear. I see that and I think: ‘This is actually what’s important about what we do.’ The work is good of course. But look at what’s happening there.”

CV James Nicola

Born: Hartford, Connecticut, 1950
Training: Tufts University, BA in theatre and music
Landmark productions (all NYTW):
• Rent (1995)

• Homebody / Kabul (2001)
• Once (2011)
• Peter and The Starcatcher (2011)
• Lazarus (2015)
• Hadestown (2016)
• Slave Play (2018)
• What the Constitution Means to Me (2018)
• Tufts University PT Barnum Award (2008)

• Miss Lilly Award for supporting women in theatre (2015)
• Erwin Piscator Award (2017)
• Obie award (2019)
Agent: None

Hadestown is booking at New York’s Walter Kerr Theatre until January 5, Details: hadestown.com; nytw.org

Hadestown review at National Theatre, London – ‘stunning new folk opera’

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