8 Ways NYTW Develops Artists and Audiences Alike

Photo Source: Alexander Santiago-Jirau

When Alexander Santiago-Jirau answers the phone, New York Theatre Workshop is operating at full capacity. “Today it’s our first tech rehearsal for [David Greig’s] ‘The Events,’ which is our next play, but at the same time in our rehearsal space we’re having a rehearsal for our Mondays @ 3 reading,” says the director of education. Between a main-stage show requiring a new community choir at each performance, a weekly reading to cast and organize, and the plethora of workshops and other events in the pipeline, it’s a wonder Santiago-Jirau can keep his cool. There are, to put it mildly, “a lot of things going on.”

For the countless artists passing through the theater’s doors, it’s just another day in the life. Since 1979, NYTW has lived up to its name, helping launch new work from Caryl Churchill and Tony Kushner, putting on productions that have earned several Tony, Obie, and Drama Desk awards, and developing the late Jonathan Larson’s “Rent,” which won a Pulitzer Prize. But running concurrently with the theater’s lauded main-stage productions are the educational programs Santiago-Jirau manages, offering both early-career and established New York artists a laboratory in which to play.

“We are a producing theater and we have four main-stage productions every year, but the work that takes place artistically and developmentally in our workshops is perhaps busier than the theater itself,” says Santiago-Jirau. Master classes led by the likes of casting director Jack Doulin and playwright Kate Moira Ryan provide audiences with what he calls “a window into the development process,” while the Mondays @ 3 series invites members of the community to hear a partially staged new play. Last season alone the readings brought in over 300 actors, playwrights, directors, and dramaturgs.

Several of NYTW’s efforts involve a kind of outreach that can’t be found anywhere else. High schoolers studying theater have the opportunity to participate in every production’s pre- and postshow workshops, as well as yearlong residencies geared toward bringing literature to life onstage. Mind the Gap, an intergenerational program that pairs teenagers and the elderly, works with community organizations such as the Staten Island LGBT Community Center and DOROT, a charitable nonprofit.

Interacting and cross-pollinating with many of these programs are NYTW’s 2050 Fellows, a handful of burgeoning playwrights and directors from underrepresented communities, and the theater’s interns. Last year, Christopher Campbell-Orrock began a nine-month internship in the artistic department, reading scripts, prepping and managing readings, and communicating with the theater’s 500 veteran artists known as the Usual Suspects. Because of the internship’s impressive breadth, he is now a research assistant to Ayad Akhtar, whose play “The Invisible Hand” he saw through multiple drafts leading up to its main-stage production.

“The most valuable thing was learning how to talk with artists, how to give feedback, how to negotiate all that to best serve the artist,” Campbell-Orrock says. Getting acquainted with an eclectic variety of theatrical styles, he believes, provided a perspective on that developmental process that will continue to enrich his education. “They want dynamic work that is developmentally and structurally challenging as well as thematically challenging.”

When asked about the theater’s place in the New York community, Santiago-Jirau echoes that sentiment. In postshow discussions, he has seen patrons young and old grapple with pressing issues, supplying feedback that directly informs the artists’ development. The education department’s mission, he says, is about “experiencing theater that asks tough questions and asks audiences how they see themselves represented in the work we put onstage.”

Ultimately, the well-oiled machine that is NYTW’s theater training programs can be attributed to its dedication to that fearlessness. “We’re not afraid,” says Santiago-Jirau. “We’re not afraid of challenging work and challenging conversations.”

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Jack Smart
Jack Smart is the awards editor at Backstage, where he covers all things Emmy, SAG, Oscar, and Tony Awards. He also produces and hosts Backstage’s awards podcast “In the Envelope” and has interviewed some of the biggest stars of stage and screen.
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