Thursday, May 24, 2007

Jim Nicola Interview

Beyond Rent

James C. Nicola is the artistic director of the New York Theatre Workshop, a position he's held since 1988.

This June, Off Broadway's New York Theatre Workshop (NYTW) turns 25. Known as an incubator for new and challenging theater, often with a decidedly queer bent, the theater's major hit has been the musical "Rent," which is to NYTW what "A Chorus Line" was to the New York Shakespeare Festival, a high water mark in terms of mainstream and artistic success and an ongoing presence on Broadway.

NYTW has also been an artistic home for the most talented theater artists working today, many gay, including Tony Kushner, the Five Lesbian Brothers, Doug Wright, Charles Busch, David Greenspan, and Paul Rudnick, to name a few.

James C. Nicola, the artistic director of NYTW since 1988, is the organizing intelligence behind the theater's success. Although originally founded by the philanthropist Stephen Graham, the son of the late Washington Post publishers Katharine and Philip Graham, as a sort of producing entity-cum-foundation to support the work of specific artists, Nicola's impeccable nose for talent and technique has set NYTW apart.Nicola cut his eyeteeth as a casting associate for Joseph Papp at the Public Theater in the late '70s. But since going to NYTW, his role has been as shaper of seasons and high priest of artistic marriages, bringing together writers with directors to generate creativity and sometimes conflict.

CHRISTOPHER MURRAY: What's new at New York Theatre Workshop?

JIM NICOLA: Our upcoming season. There's a new music theater piece by Rinde Ekert, a wonderful play by a Palestinian-American playwright called "The Black Eye," then Moliere's "The Misanthrope" with our frequent collaborator from Sweden, director Ivo van Hove, and his American muse Elizabeth Marvel.

Later JoAnne Akalitis directs Mikhail Baryshnikov in short works by Beckett, a new play by Naomi Wallace about race and the American Communist Party in the 1930s, and finally the Elevator Repair Service's take on Faulkner's "The Sound and the Fury."

CM: How does that compare to what the theater was doing 25 years ago?

JN: I like to think of it as the logical growth out of the original ideas upon which the theater was founded. It was always to be a resource for artists. The most important idea I take from that is the theater's structure shouldn't precede an artist's need, it follows and is dictated by it. Most places, artists have to follow grant deadlines and other stuff, we try to the extent we can to follow the dictates of the artist.

CM: How has the theater grown to do that?

JN: A good example is what happened with Jonathan Larson's "Rent." We had never done a major musical. When I met him and responded to his work, we needed to figure that out. We learned that when you do a reading of a musical, you need a piano in the room. We knew how to Xerox a script, but not copy musical scores. We learned in response to an artist we believed in. That's the idea, we don't always live up to that.

CM: Doesn't that mean you spend a lot of time fucking up?

JN: Of course!

CM: Don't you think that's a bad way to run a theater?

JN: I think that's the way you learn. It's another way we take a cue from artists who know the best thing is to be lost, not to follow received wisdom. Failure is a very creative place.

CM: Ten years ago you told me conflict is a creative force.

JN: Conflict and chaos and being lost and a failure are all creative. Being a staff member at NYTW is a special challenge because they have to deal with the demands of the outside world, like a development director needing something specific for a grant application and I might not have the information to give them that immediately. They need to exercise tremendous patience and trust that the best answer isn't always the first answer. We spend a lot of time on process.

CM: That makes me think of lesbians. NYTW has a special relationship with the Five Lesbian Brothers and with many queer theater artists.

JN: I would describe the work we generally do is trying to connect an individual's experience to a larger context. A lot of gay work does that, too. In Tony Kushner's work, a strong gay sensibility is his lens to larger concerns and issues.

CM: Where is NYTW going?

JN: We are in the middle of planning and thinking about that and I do think it's ready to take another step of transformation. Twenty-five years ago the theater did transform itself from a foundation into a theater workshop. I think we are looking for another moment like that. Our next round of discussion will be how to interface with the community in better, bigger and louder ways.

CM: What does the theater generally give you as a gay man?

JN: It was my salvation as an adolescent. Around 10 or 11, I saw and ad in the newspaper that a Manchester theater was starting a children's unit. I knew somehow in a deep and profound way that I needed to be part of that. I don't know where that comes from, but it was true. From then on there was never any doubt about where I was heading. That was the Little Theatre of Manchester, Connecticut. They did "Alice in Wonderland" and I played the Mock Turtle.

CM: I'll bet you were a brilliant Mock Turtle.

JN: I was terrible. I'm not an actor. It took me until college to figure that out. The theater is my point of reference for life, though. How I know what I know about the world is from following my passion for the theater.

CM: Many gay kids who grow up to work in the theater remember some iconic performance. Do you?

JC: The theater was always a window on a larger world for me, not a white suburban world I didn't fit in to and where I didn't see anyone like me. It made me realize that there were many big, important stories out there, not only in the present but historically as well. Probably Rodgers & Hammerstein had the biggest impact on me as a kid. Those stories about Anna and the King of Siam and about the prairies of Oklahoma. These were political stories. I didn't experience them that way originally, but they were social dramas of a simple kind, but they were the only ones I knew. "South Pacific" with its theme about race and tolerance is the best example.

CM: When you think about a gay theater audience in New York City today, what do they need?

JN: It's what I needed as a child, to connect my experience to others, intellectually, emotionally, historically. I think that is what's unique about that essential human impulse in the theater. Its medium is other people, not paint on a canvas. It's other people acting in concert. When I go to the theater now, I spend a fair amount of time watching the audience.The first performance we did at NYTW after 9/11, you could feel how important it was for those people to be there together, behaving together spontaneously, laughing together, clapping together. It's a whole sequence of events that is an essential communion.As we progress technologically, we are getting fewer and fewer of those kinds of opportunities, and providing them is the hope of the theater, it will be our selling point in the future. The theater has always been the way for me to feel part of community when I felt so outside it. It still does that for me, as a gay man and as a New Yorker in 2007.

New York Theatre Workshop will present Rock The Boat! an anniversary fundraiser aboard World Yacht Cruises on Monday, June 4 with John Fugelsang, Charles Busch, Frenchie Davis, Judy Gold, Lisa Kron, and Doug Wright. Information at

©GayCityNews 2007

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