What the Constitution Means to Me and Hadestown, two of the most of the acclaimed Broadway shows of the season, were both developed at New York Theatre Workshop. Last night, Artistic Director James C. Nicola received an Obie Award for lifetime achievement and discussed theater’s role as a haven and a vehicle for rebellion. An excerpt of his acceptance follows:
Somewhere along the way, I understood the absolute primacy of sitting in a dark room, with other people, watching other humans re-enact, ritualistically, that which we lived in daylight outside the holy space.
In the anonymity the darkness provided, I was no longer the gay boy, paralyzed by shame, every waking second striving to please so no one would ever guess my terrible, shameful secret—all that was gone. I was amongst a group of people, free of judgement, accepted and valued equally in the group. It became the space where I could safely express my feelings, thoughts and self.
And somewhere along the way, that unconscious appreciation of that isle of inquiry, adventure and safety—a theater space–became the singular focus of my life. I wanted to be there always, amongst like-minded folk, learning and growing, not singularly but collectively. This communal act—the shared opening of hearts and minds—remains for me the peak experience of being human. I decided that my life’s task was to share what I had been given with others. To be a part of those who insist that theater prevail.
Another significant life discovery—made back in Nixon time, in Stonewall time, in civil rights movement time—was the world of downtown Manhattan theater. Off Broadway, Off-Off Broadway.
Downtown was the place where I found like-minded people—unashamedly, deliciously, rapturously, rebelliously themselves. Probably sitting at Phebe’s one night, amongst the denizens of LaMama, the WPA, The Jean Cocteau, the NY Theater Ensemble, the Theater For the New City, the New York Shakespeare Festival, the Performing Garage.
Our doings and experiments rigorously chronicled by the Village Voice and its armies of thoughtful, brave critics (How we still miss that publication. In fact, it was Miriam Felton-Dansky, writing in those pages shortly before its demise that uncannily described what had eluded me for so long—an actual statement in specific evocative language of the purpose of a life in theater. I’ve referred to Miriam’s sentences countless times ever since—both to communicate to the world the essential purpose of NYTW, and, more quietly, I repeat the words to myself—to remind me of why I live. She said:
“Theater is a place to think out loud, find common cause with people very unlike ourselves, and to take the long view of historical change.”
At 68, I’ve finally understood there the only thing to rely on in a life is change, and that I can best make my way to acceptance of that fact collectively, not in isolation.)
I have always been of two minds about the term Off Broadway. I have always resisted the notion that a movement, a community defines itself by stating its opposition to something—and thereby indirectly giving that thing homage and power. And then, feeling like the spirit of difference, of otherness captured in that title kept us focused on our rebellion and our disruption. But I’ve finally come to understand that the only things in life worth holding on to are the contradictions, the paradoxes, because they contain the truth of life. So Off-Broadway it is—with the contradictions fully embraced and its essence layed out
It’s hard for me to believe that this community that has meant so much to me over so many years has recognized my so-called “achievements”. I think of my life as extraordinary privileged, lucky and unearned. It isn’t my doing that I get to be amongst you all.
The pleasure has been mine—to have found my place to be my authentic self, something not many have the luxury of. So many of my friends in my early days downtown did not get to live to be old like me. I get to share this deep and privileged comfort, this knowledge with whoever wanders into our dark room on East 4th Street. I get to be of support to so many earthshaking artists who keep me/us learning and growing every day. How LUCKY I am—-to be in the company of human beings who seldom accept the easy answer, who hungrily strive to go further, to know more, to quest into a better world.
I intend to be here for quite awhile longer, hoping to be a part of this community’s continuing evolution. Ya ain’t rid of me yet.
Thank you for allowing me to find my way.