History Of New York Theatre Workshop


The genesis of New York Theatre Workshop began with Founding Trustee Stephen Graham in 1979. Stephen envisioned an organization which would support and encourage outstanding new playwrights and directors outside the commercial area and to develop inventive new works for the theatre. The very first production was A Day in the Life of the Czar, by Frank O'Hara and V.R. Lang, directed by then-unknown artist Peter Sellars in one of his earliest professional credits. Other artists who participated in these early workshops and developed their work were Marc Shaiman, Mark O'Donnell, and Harry Kondoleon.

Incorporated as New York Theatre Workshop in February 1982, the Workshop began to expand its activities. Harry Kondoleon's Christmas on Mars was staged in a co-production with Playwrights Horizons. Jean Passanante, NYTW's first artistic director, was hired. Jean's abiding interest in fostering the growth of writers and honoring the artistic process remains a hallmark of the Workshop. NYTW also signed a seasonal lease for the 99-seat Perry Street Theatre, giving the Workshop its first consistent performing venue. In the 1984/85 season, NYTW inaugurated the New Director's Project, giving emerging talents like Michael Greif, Lisa Peterson, David Esbjornson, and Elizabeth Diamond invaluable experience in a professional setting.

James Nicola became NYTW's Artistic Director in February 1988. With Nicola's arrival, NYTW's theatre producing activities and workshop activities became clearly separated and due emphasis was placed on developing and mounting theatre productions consistent in quality. One year into Nicola's tenure, the Workshop was already growing dramatically. After a preliminary assessment of NYTW's programs and capital campaign potential during the 1988/89 season, to expand the number of artists the Workshop had contact with and served, NYTW inaugurated Mondays @ 3, a weekly reading series. Mondays @ 3 equally acted as a regular meeting place for NYTW's large community of artists to interact and exchange ideas.

Artists participating in the New Director's Project became part of a group called the Curators (later the Usual Suspects) and were given responsibility for organizing a number of the Mondays @ 3 readings. From the very beginning, Nicola stressed the importance of including underrepresented constituencies in all of the developmental programs. In the 1991/92 season for example, 149 artists applied to the New Directors Series program, of the 30 that were invited to participate, one-third were from minority backgrounds. Inclusion continues today as a defining value of New York Theatre Workshop.

To achieve greater parity in the quality of the presentations, in 1989/90 the Workshop put increased funds into fewer New Director productions and extended the scheduled rehearsal and performance periods for each work in the New Directors/New Directions Series. The intent with the Series was to mix emerging, mid-career and established artists with one another in order for them to learn and benefit from each another. Additionally, in July 1990 NYTW began a summer residency program for new directors and writers at the Hotchkiss School in Lakeville, Connecticut (the program now takes place at Dartmouth and Vassar Colleges). During this season, NYTW produced Athol Fugard's My Children! My Africa!, directed by Mr. Fugard himself.

In 1991/92, NYTW began the Writer's Circle to support the genesis and development of a single work by a playwright and a select group of artists in a concentrated period of time. The Curators and Writer's Circle combined shortly thereafter to become the Usual Suspects. During this same season NYTW produced Caryl Churchill's Mad Forest, directed by Mark Wing-Davey, its biggest audience and critical success to date. Sensing an opportunity to expand its services to artists and audience, NYTW undertook a capital campaign to purchase its current home at 79-83 East 4th Street in the East Village.

In October 1992, Leo Bassi's C. Colombo Inc. became NYTW's first production in 79 East 4th Street. Artists participating in workshop activities include Claudia Shear, Sybille Pearson, Robert Woodruff, Doug Wright and Anne Bogart. On the producing side NYTW re-committed itself to serve the needs of artists and audiences with more energy and definition of purpose. Major productions of the mid-1990's include Doug Wright's Quills, Claudia Shear's Blown Sideways Through Life, Tony Kushner's Slavs!, and The Secretaries by The Five Lesbian Brothers.

Jonathan Larson's Rent began performances at NYTW on January 26, 1996. Rent had been developed intensively during two years of workshop activities. The workshop side of NYTW is dedicated primarily to serving the needs of artists. Productions in workshop are intended to serve as a means for artists to "hear" what a new work sounds like in front of an invited audience. Rent's evolution from concept to readings, workshop, studio production and, finally, full production, is emblematic of NYTW's commitment to nurturing artists and projects in a truly individualized manner. In a tragic turn, Jonathan Larson died the night before the first NYTW performance. His legacy, Rent, played a record-breaking engagement at NYTW, moved to Broadway's Nederlander Theatre and won the 1996 Tony Award for Best Musical as well as the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It is now the seventh longest running show in Broadway history.

Over the next ten years, the Workshop continued to hone and expand its programs to serve artists, inaugurating a number of new initiatives, including Minority Fellowships for writers and directors and becoming a "year-round" producing organization for challenging and unpredictable new theatre and fostering the creative work of artists. Productions during this period of growth include Tony Kushner's Homebody/Kabul, Kia Corthron's Light Raise the Roof, Caryl Churchill's Far Away and A Number, Paul Rudnick's The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told, Amy Freed's The Beard of Avon, Will Power's FLOW and The Seven, Martha Clarke's Vienna: Lusthaus (revisited) and KAOS, and Oedipus at Palm Springs by The Five Lesbian Brothers. In recent years, Artistic Director Nicola enlarged the scope of activities to include international artists -- including playwrights, directors and designers - and to focus upon issues of non-traditional casting and the inclusion of diverse voices, representing all of the constituencies in NYTW's theatrical community.

In 2005, NYTW launched Learning Workshop, a multifaceted arts education program for high school students, and in 2006, a new series of Public Programs was inaugurated. Public Programs include panel discussion, Storyboard Cafés, Artist Dialogues, and online resources, as well as NYTW's long-standing AfterWords post-performance discussions.

NYTW continues to grow. In October 2005, NYTW was granted the vacant building at 72 East 4th Street, a former New York City storage facility, "as is," by New York City's Department Housing Preservation and Development as part of the creation of the Fourth Arts Block (FAB) Cultural District. That space is now used as a new scenery, costume and prop workshop.

To find more history of the East Village, please visit The East Village History Project