When Jim Nicola was five, he dreamed of becoming a minister. It didn’t last long. A few years later, he discovered the theatre, and “it was pretty clear,” he says, “from very early on, that [theatre] would be my life’s work.”
Nicola has been at the helm of New York Theatre Workshop since 1988, during which time he has helped the downtown theatre distinguish itself as a Tony-winning producer of groundbreaking new works like Rent, Once, Lazarus, and the Sam Gold–helmed Othello with Daniel Craig and David Oyelowo, shows that speak to our time and expand the boundaries of theatre. It’s a theatre known for taking risks that pay off.
Despite having been at NYTW for nearly 30 years, Nicola is reluctant to claim responsibility for the theatre’s identity as an Off-Broadway stalwart. Yes, he’s personally connected to every show, “But I wouldn’t confuse that with the identity of the theatre. That isn’t crafted by me,” he says. “It’s crafted by the accumulation of the artists on this stage.” He’s referring to NYTW’s roster of returning theatremakers: acclaimed playwrights like Caryl Churchill and Amy Herzog, and Tony-winning directors like Gold and Ivo van Hove.
Part of his job as an artistic director is giving back to the artists by offering resources and mentorship, primarily through NYTW’s Usual Suspects initiative. The program has generated a community of over 500 affiliated artists who use both the theatre, its staff, and one another as a support network in the development of new work. It’s their growth and success that have allowed Nicola’s love of theatre to thrive for all these years.
In that way, Nicola’s early aspirations of becoming a minister make sense. “That was all about healing and tending to a flock… an artistic director, in a secular frame, is also tending to a flock,” says the theatre veteran. He believes wholeheartedly in the healing nature of theatre. “That search for excellence, for the most beautiful, the most realized—that virtuosity. It makes me realize that we are capable of beautiful things,” he says. “It’s possible that the world can be better than what it is. Having that kind of hope is what’s most important for me.”
Watch Nicola and original Rent cast members talk about the birth of the hit during the 20th Anniversary Rent Panel at BroadwayCon 2016: