James Nicola, A72, Wins Special Tony Award

The longtime artistic director of New York Theatre Workshop says Tufts helped him find his calling

Tufts alumnus James C. Nicola, A72, has received a Special Tony Award in recognition of his successful 34-year run as artistic director of New York Theatre Workshop, an Off-Broadway nonprofit with a reputation for incubating important new plays and musicals.

When Nicola learned of the honor in May, his first thought was disbelief. The second was to wonder if someone had made a mistake by adding a guy from a small theater group in Manhattan’s East Village to the list of awardees. “We’ve certainly had a few visits up there,” he said, referring to Broadway, “but I wouldn’t have thought of it as my community. So it was a surprise.”

Those “few visits” would be the plays and musicals that originated at the workshop but later had Broadway runs that earned them 25 Tony Awards. Among them were the Pulitzer Prize-winning smash hit Rent, which the workshop staged in 1996, as well as the musicals Once and Hadestown and the play Peter and the Starcatcher.

Once the surprise of the award wore off, Nicola, who has been at the helm of the workshop since 1988, said it felt like “the completion of a dream.”

“I keep thinking about how much this would have meant to 16-year-old me,” he said. As a closeted gay teenager in the 1960s, he felt that he would never fit in. Then he saw a production of Oklahoma! at the high school in town, fell in with the theater crowd, and could picture how he could go forward.

“Early in my life, the Broadway musical theater saved me,” Nicola said in his acceptance speech.  “It gave me hope for a future that I didn’t think I had.”

“This award, in my mind, is a recognition of the power and significance of the Tufts theater program.

James Nicola, artistic director of New York Theatre Workshop

After high school, he applied to music schools. “But something in me knew that was not the right choice for me,” he said, “that I was too unschooled and unaware of the world and history and all of that, and I needed a good education.” He enrolled at Tufts instead, where he could experience the full complement of liberal arts, including music and theater.

“This award, in my mind, is a recognition of the power and significance of the Tufts theater program,” he wrote in an email. “It changed everything for me, and I am so very grateful it came to be.”

At Tufts, he had many transformative moments. In his second year, he was cast in a student play as a young man visiting a prostitute. The woman playing the prostitute was his best friend, but it was still awkward. Plus, he had to appear in his underwear.

“It was so stressful, I blanked on my next line, and in that one little moment I had this flash of insight,” he recalled. Whether physically or emotionally, actors need to want to be on stage naked in front of people, he said, and “I knew I was never going to be that person.”

The next semester, he directed his first play, and discovered his calling. But his experience taking the stage left him with “an incredible lifelong respect for those who do.”

While the workshop has launched some hits, Nicola has embraced plays that challenge audiences—works he sees as art, rather than entertainment—and that are sometimes less than crowd pleasing.

Having a place where such works can live—and sometimes fail—is important because American culture, he said, doesn’t value actors, playwrights, and other artists unless they make money. “My whole life has been battles in that war,” he said.

Last year, Nicola, 71, announced that he will retire from the workshop this summer. Asked what accomplishments he is most proud of, he did not point to the inclusive fellowship program for early career theater-makers he established, or the vast network of artists he nurtured, or the public programs and community partnerships he fostered. Rather, he’s pleased that the nonprofit has simply stayed afloat while still adhering to its mission.

“That a place like New York Theatre Workshop has survived,” he said, “is probably my most significant gift to the world.”

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