Dartmouth and New York Theater Workshop celebrate a 25 year partnership

The NYTW brings theater artists to Hanover each summer to workshop pieces, and theater students observe the creative process.

by Zach Cherian | 5/16/17 1:10am

The world-renowned production company New York Theater Workshop commemorated its quarter-century-long relationship with Dartmouth College at its annual spring gala last night at the Edison Ballroom in New York City. The ceremony was co-hosted by Rachel Dratch ’88 and Jesse Tyler Ferguson.

Every summer, Dartmouth hosts the NYTW’s artists, directors and staff on campus for a three-week intensive residency. This residency forms the third segment of Theater 65, “New Plays in Performance,” a course offered to students during the summer term.

James Nicola, the artistic director of the NYTW, explained that the organization was a synthesis of two important elements in the theater world, functioning as both a performance space and an experimental space. The experimental component functions by providing artists with opportunities to workshop ideas without forced or unhelpful artistic directions early in the creative process. Nicola noted the importance of having a space where artists could try new ideas out and collaborate without being judged.

“What I noticed when I got [to New York] was that it was almost impossible to do that in New York,” Nicola said. “The literary manager would be in the room for a reading and have an opinion about something that was still very much a process. So we thought, wouldn’t it be great to take people away from the city and put some distance between the opinion makers and the artists’ process.”

Nicola credits Esther Cohen ’79, an alumna who worked at NYTW, with initiating the link between the two institutions. The partnership formed in 1991 and shows no signs of stopping after positive results continue for both the theater department and the NYTW.

On the Dartmouth side of the operation, the New York Theater Workshop’s residency represents a precious, rare opportunity for students, according to professor Jamie Horton, who currently leads Theater 65.

“The goal over the entire summer is to give them an experiential, time-intensive course designed to expose them to the creation of new work for the theater, and so they really by the time the summer’s over [have] had more exposure to the creation of new plays than I had in the first five years of my professional career,” Horton said.

The course starts off with VoxFest, a festival that alumni theater artists participate in, and then focuses on the Frost and Dodd winners’ plays that year, according to Horton. In the final three weeks of the course, Horton introduces the students to the NYTW residency.

Dartmouth students are involved in every step of the multifaceted process, Horton said.

“Each week they’re bringing two distinguished projects to Dartmouth, and our students work on those projects as active observers, and then depending on the nature of the projects, they can sometimes be involved with them as actors, reading stage directions, they could be assistant stage managers, assistants to the directors, to the writers, and so on and so forth,” Horton said.

Sid Mehra ’18, a participant during the 2016 summer term, recounted an overwhelmingly positive experience working with the NYTW.

“It was some of the best times of my life so far,” Mehra said. “I don’t think I’ve really had any sort of exposure to that sort of making of theater for such a sustained period of time.”

Mehra noted that it was a very immersive course, necessitated by the quantity of theater he and his classmates were involved in each week. Mehra estimated a weekly involvement between 20 and 30 hours.

“The learning curve was really sharp, because you were working on stuff that was really volatile, and a lot of people had poured in very intricate and vulnerable personal stories into their work,” Mehra said.

Mehra was particularly impressed by the quality of the actors and actresses who came from the NYTW to Dartmouth.

“The artists who came through were of the highest possible caliber in the American theater circuit and even the international theater circuit,” Mehra said.

Mehra noted that the group tended to be composed of students who had extensive theater experience and were very involved with productions on campus, due to the courses advertised intense curriculum and an interview process. Horton added that he teaches somewhere between 10 and 15 students each year.

He also detailed the value students reap from access to the NYTW’s famous critique method, the Liz Lerman critical response process.

“Theater 65 is a part of all of the feedback sessions, where they see a professional feedback session in process, a very particular process, that the NYTW uses in responding to the work that’s created here,” Horton said.

Dartmouth students are not the only beneficiaries of the NYTW’s residency each summer. Notwithstanding the primary benefit of workshopping plays and performance pieces, there are numerous advantages to moving to Hanover for three weeks according to Nicola.

“What we’ve discovered over time is in fact that maybe even more powerful and important to them is being removed from the day-to-day life and circumstances of New York,” Nicola said.

To maximize the restful part of the residency, Nicola explained that participants make sure to spend time in the Upper Valley each week, setting aside an entire day of each week to be out in nature. Nicola recounted a time when he and his colleagues were canoeing out by the Connecticut River and saw how the peaceful environment actually was conducive to creativity and collaboration between the guest artists.

“I couldn’t hear them because they were out in the middle of the river, but they were in this intense conversation and I realized this was exactly what we should be doing here: Building a place for the artists who oftentimes in New York are competitors, to remember that they’re actually colleagues and collaborators, and to remind them they can’t be entrepreneurs — with freelance opportunities in New York — if they aren’t artists first,” Nicola said.

Working with Dartmouth students in the room also ends up being helpful for the artists’ creative process, Nicola said. Since students are encouraged to ask questions, the artists are prompted to think aloud and reiterate why they make certain creative decisions, Nicola said.

“We say at the beginning of every session there that there’s no failure possible at Dartmouth, because that’s what it’s about,” Nicola said. “The only failure that’s possible is if you don’t leave having made a new potential collaboration. We have never had that kind of failure.”

Over the span of 25 years, the nature of the NYTW residency’s structure has changed. Nicola explained that the artists who came to Dartmouth were initially tasked with teaching students, rather than the current workshop model which exists today.

“Thinking about the classroom experience — they don’t need NYTW for that, they have wonderful faculty there that can provide that,” Nicola said. “What we provide is something very different.”

In the workshop-based model, there are numerous opportunities for Dartmouth students to get to know these world-class theater professionals. Mehra said that being able to have dinner regularly with the artists was helpful to get to know them as people, and he still keeps in contact with many of them. According to Nicola, some Dartmouth students whom he met during their undergraduate theater careers end up joining the NYTW in professional capacities.

“We have a strong track record of them coming and being interns here. We’ve employed people we first met as students there — it’s really a way that we’ve built relationships with artists really before they were even calling themselves artists,” Nicola said.