Best Seat in the House? Don’t Get Too Comfortable

Some of Tony winner James Nicola’s productions—like Rent and Hadestown—have become smash hits. But his aim has always been to challenge his audiences

One night during the summer of 1992, James C. Nicola, A72, the artistic director of New York Theatre Workshop (NYTW), sat in his apartment perusing the rough draft of a new musical. Just that day, the show’s author had stopped by the theater out of the blue with the script and a cassette tape of himself singing some of the show’s songs, hoping someone might be interested.

Nicola was drawn to the musical, which was based on an Italian opera but set in the East Village. He had sung an aria from the original opera when he was a student at Tufts, back when he thought he might become a professional singer. And the show’s setting and its LGBTQ+ characters reflected the theater’s neighborhood, which NYTW had just made into its first permanent home—indeed, the space was still being renovated—and was looking to connect with. “We were still very much in the emotional place of the AIDS epidemic, certainly in that neighborhood,” he said.

The story, Nicola felt, needed a lot of work. But the songs were true scenes—dramatic events. He could see that the author had a gift.

“A lot of people can write a good pop song but don’t have a clue about drama,” Nicola said. “And Jonathan had both.”

Jonathan Larson’s Rent would have its first staged performance at NYTW’s modest 199-seat theater in January of 1996. By April, it moved to Broadway, where it would play for 12 years while touring companies brought it around the world.

Rent was a blessing for the small theater’s coffers, as its royalties assured the not-for-profit would stay afloat. But it was also the tiniest bit of a curse. Because while the workshop would go on to send several shows to Broadway, including Once, What the Constitution Means to Me, and the current smash Hadestown, its reputation as an incubator for hit shows sometimes conflicted with Nicola’s commitment to producing challenging works that are not crowd pleasers.

“We became the theater that was about developing musicals to move to Broadway,” Nicola said. “But I’ve tried over time to complicate that.”

Nicola recently stepped down as artistic director after an incredibly successful 34-year run, during which NYTW productions won virtually every major theater accolade, including the Pulitzer Prize and 25 Tony Awards. He himself was awarded a Special Tony Award last year for his achievements. “Fearless and impeccable” was how André Bishop, the artistic director of the Lincoln Center Theater, described Nicola’s taste in guiding NYTW’s offerings.

While all the standing ovations have been great, Nicola gets just as much pleasure out of a play that sends patrons out into the street ready to argue.

“When I go to the theater it is not my favorite, let’s say, to have my biases and beliefs affirmed. That’s not to say that sometimes I don't need to just go and have a good time and have a laugh or two … but when I walk out thinking, ‘Whoa, I don’t know what I think about that, I think that makes me angry’ or I am questioning my own self and learning something, I’m actually activated.”

As a closeted gay teenager growing up outside Hartford, Connecticut, in the 1960s, a scared Nicola knew he wasn’t cut out for an office job and a wife and kids in the suburbs, which seemed to be the only option. 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. He credits Broadway musical theater with saving his life.

Not that he entirely shed the feeling of being a misfit. He could tell his father was disappointed that his oldest son wasn’t interested in typical guy things. “I told him I didn’t understand sports. To me, it looks like people getting all sweaty and possibly breaking a bone over whether a ball is at one end of the field or the other. And he laughed and said, ‘When I sit in a theater, what I see is a bunch of people standing up there pretending to be somebody they’re not. I don’t get it.’ And we really connected over that.”

Tufts was a transformative time for him. He learned there was much more to theater than performing Rogers and Hammerstein—or even performing. In his second year, he was cast in a student play as a young man visiting a sex worker. The woman playing the sex worker 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 experience left him with “an incredible lifelong respect” for performers. As for his own place in theater, he directed his first play the next semester, and his time working at London’s Royal Court and Young Vic theaters during his study abroad affirmed he had discovered his calling.

The goal of good theater is to make each audience member “a better warrior in the fight to make the world a better place. And you don’t do that by just being nice or patting people and saying, ‘Yes, you’ve got all the answers, you know everything.’ You’ve got to figure it out and you’ve got to use your mind.”

James Nicola, A72, former artistic director of New York Theatre Workshop

Last year, when he learned he was going to be receiving a Special Tony Award, one of his first emails was to his alma mater. “This award, in my mind, is a recognition of the power and significance of the Tufts theater program,” he wrote. “It changed everything for me, and I am so very grateful.”

One of his most vivid Tufts memories is when producer Joseph Papp came to campus to give a keynote. Nicola had already identified Papp, founder of New York City’s Public Theater and Shakespeare in the Park, as his hero. So Nicola was crushed when Papp stood on stage and declared: “The problem with the American theater right now is there are too many gay people in it.”

A few years later in 1975, Nicola was offered a job at the Public Theater. He almost didn’t take it, remembering that speech, but a friend convinced him. He went on to spend five years working for Papp, whose homophobia eventually abated. Nicola even persuaded him at one point to speak at a hearing on gay rights, although he had to cajole him with the promise that Papp’s star actress, Colleen Dewhurst, would also be there.

While not a cuddly mentor, Papp was a big influence on Nicola, particularly on his drive to experiment. On Nicola’s first day on the job, Papp was workshopping a show based on conversations with Broadway chorus dancers. “The staff were like, ‘Oh God, whatever,’” Nicola recalled. When the show, A Chorus Line, opened that spring and went on to win a Pulitzer, they no longer rolled their eyes.

“That was a person who followed his gut,” Nicola said of Papp. “He believed that whatever artist was catching his eye or ear, he would put them forward and they would probably find some meaning for the community.

“What I learned in retrospect was the artistic impulse of the theater had to be lively and unpredictable because that’s what would keep an audience's attention. They don’t want to keep having the same conversation.”

Nicola absorbed that lesson and took it with him to Washington, D.C., where he worked his way through the ranks as a script developer, talent scout, and casting agent. He eventually made a name for himself as a sought-after director at the Arena Stage and other local theaters. In 1988, when he stepped into the artistic director role at NYTW, he was ready to change the conversation.

He started by embracing international perspectives. He lined up a play—the first of seven NYTW would stage—by Caryl Churchill, whose work he knew well from his study abroad time in London. She is considered one of the best living English playwrights, although—or perhaps because—her works tend to divide people. Her political play Light Shining in Buckinghamshire has been described as “difficult” and “not universally beloved.” It’s telling that Nicola called it perhaps his favorite play of all time.

Nicola is also well known for introducing Americans to the work of avant-garde, Amsterdam-based director Ivo van Hove. Celebrated by Broadway in recent years, van Hove won a Tony for his 2016 production of A View from the Bridge and directed the 2020 revival of West Side Story. But he attributes his U.S. fame to eight productions he did with Nicola over two decades, starting with the rarely performed, unfinished Eugene O’Neill play More Stately Mansions in 1997.

“Even before it opened, there was a vehement article in the New York Times that this should not be, this should not happen,” van Hove recalled. Yet Nicola insisted that it was the right play for van Hove’s New York debut, and it immediately won three Obie Awards.

“He never goes for the easy success. He wants to make a difference with the production that he presents,” van Hove said of Nicola. “Our style was very different from an American psychological, realistic style, totally different, and he supported that. He loved it. He pushed me to continue, not to give in, knowing very well how far to go in pushing the limits. And he always got it right.”

Some of van Hove’s favorite moments have been sitting on the couch in Nicola’s office talking over a rehearsal or about theater in general. “He never uses authority to implore something,” van Hove said, recalling perhaps just one small argument in eight productions. “He is a hugely sensitive person who really takes his time to discover what you really want. He has very good eyes, very good ears, and a brilliant mind.

What links us really is loyalty in good times and bad times. That means that even if not everybody loves immediately what you're doing—I have still a lot of people who love to hate me and hate to love me—he’s supportive over years.”

While Nicola likes to provoke an audience, his approach to his directors, playwrights, and actors has always been about creating community. Part of that was nurturing an official network of hundreds of theater makers called the “Usual Suspects” who return to NYTW again and again, often giving feedback on each other’s work.

“They were able to be colleagues and collaborators and not competitors in business,” Nicola said. “And that seemed really important—a sense of belonging somewhere. Just getting a message from a theater company saying, ‘We’re going to have a potluck supper next Monday, come if you want,’ meant a lot to people.” 

James Cusati-Moyer and Ato Blankson-Wood in "Slave Play."

James Cusati-Moyer and Ato Blankson-Wood in "Slave Play," produced at NYTW in 2018-2019. In his 34 years as NYTW artistic director, Nicola embraced programming that was sometimes popular but often unexpected and even outrageous. Photo: Courtesy of New York Theatre Workshop/Joan Marcus

Inevitably, Nicola has run into the problem of plays that aspire to be the next Rent. The plays that work, he said, are the ones that are designed for the workshop’s intimate theater space. “Generally when it goes wrong, it’s when people think, well, I’m going to do the $1.98 version of the Broadway thing that I really believe in. That fails.” 

His recent collaboration with playwright Jeremy O. Harris, for example, could have gone Broadway—or bust. Harris’ thesis project at the Yale School of Drama, a comedy about interracial relationships, sex, and trauma, was so controversial it caused protests among students and faculty alike. So naturally, when Harris offered it to NYTW, Nicola didn’t hesitate to schedule it for one of the workshop’s Monday read-throughs.

Listening to the play, which centers on mixed-race couples acting out sexual scenarios as enslaved people and their owners, “I was extremely uncomfortable,” Nicola said. “But I valued that.

“I could feel in my gut that I was learning so much from the experience of this play with such compassion. And it wasn’t abstracted to ideas and learning. It was watching lives unfold of people who were struggling to find their place in a complicated, compromised world.”

When Slave Play opened at NYTW in 2018, it was the talk of the town, with celebrities like Stephen Sondheim, Gloria Steinem, and Rihanna attending. Jake Gyllenhaal became a producer for its Broadway run. Throughout, it remained as controversial as it had been at Yale.

Anger? Discomfort? Confusion? Nicola embraces all those reactions. The goal of good theater, he said, is to make each audience member “a better warrior in the fight to make the world a better place. And you don't do that by just being nice or patting people and saying, ‘Yes, you’ve got all the answers, you know everything.’ You’ve got to figure it out and you’ve got to use your mind.”

In 2020, Nicola told the workshop that he was going to step down as artistic director in 2022, when he would turn 72. It was shortly before the nation’s racial reckoning called attention to the preponderance of white men who were running New York’s theaters. Nicola, always questioning his own biases, said it only confirmed his decision that it was a good time to leave.

In August, he passed the baton to director Patricia McGregor, one of NYTW’s Usual Suspects, who is Black. He’s not sure what his next project will be, but for the moment, he’s co-teaching a performance class at The New School and marveling at how quickly he has made an emotional connection with this new group of theater makers.

His hope is that the workshop will continue to be a place where unproven works can live—and sometimes fail. That’s important, he said, because American culture doesn’t value actors, playwrights, and other artists unless they make money. “My whole life has been battles in that war,” he said.

Asked what accomplishment he is most proud of, he said it was simply keeping the workshop going for decades 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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