NEW YORK CITY: In one of the most significant artistic turnovers in recent years, New York Theatre Workshop has announced that Patricia McGregor will succeed James C. Nicola as artistic director of the influential Off-Broadway theatre. The hiring of McGregor, who will assume the role full-time in August, follows a yearlong search led by ALJP Consulting, a Black-owned nonprofit leadership search firm, and a dedicated search committee of artists, staff, and board trustees. McGregor joins Jeremy Blocker, who continues in the role of managing director.
Born in St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands, McGregor, 44, is a director and writer working in theatre, film, dance, and music. She was inaugural artist-in-residence for Adam Driver’s Arts in the Armed Forces and is an Old Globe resident artist. High-profile productions include Lights Out: Nat “King” Cole at the Geffen Playhouse and People’s Light, for which she served as co-writer and director; Sisters in Law at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts; Skeleton Crew at the Geffen Playhouse; Good Grief at Center Theatre Group; Hamlet with the Public Theater’s Mobile Unit; Place at Brooklyn Academy of Music; The Parchman Hour at the Guthrie Theater; Ugly Lies the Bone at Roundabout Theatre Company; brownsville song at Lincoln Center Theater; Indomitable: James Brown at the Apollo Theater; Holding It Down at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; Adoration of the Old Woman at INTAR Theatre; Blood Dazzler at Harlem Stage; Four Electric Ghosts at the Kitchen; the world premiere of Hurt Village at Signature Theatre Company; and series of productions at California Shakespeare Theater (A Raisin in the Sun, The Winter’s Tale, and Spunk) as well as at the Old Globe (Call and Response, Krapp’s Last Tape, What You Are, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Measure for Measure.
McGregor also served as director for HBO’s emerging writer’s showcase, and as tour consultant to Raphael Saadiq and J. Cole. She was associate director of Fela! on Broadway, and for many years has directed The 24 Hour Plays on Broadway. She co-founded Angela’s Pulse with her sister, choreographer and organizer Paloma McGregor. McGregor attended SMU, where she was a Presidential Scholar, and the Yale School of Drama, where she was a Paul and Daisy Soros Fellow and artistic director of Yale Cabaret.
“Patricia McGregor is a visionary artist with a long and critically recognized career as a freelance director,” said search committee co-chairs Rachel Chavkin and Noel Kirnon in a statement. “She has deep ties to the Workshop community, and the committee was particularly struck by how she demonstrated her experience with inclusive leadership, easily connecting with a wide cross-section of our community. We were moved by her intention to carry forward NYTW’s commitment to highlighting formally groundbreaking work, centering eclecticism, and valuing a director’s generative vision—a torch that Jim Nicola has long carried. Patricia will deepen this work by expanding the Workshop’s relationship to our neighborhood and the wider communities of New York City. We look forward to welcoming her this summer and supporting her in the months and years ahead.”
New York Theatre Workshop, whose budget is close to $6.9 million, has a long and impressive track record as an incubator of new work, from Rent to Quills to Slavs! to Dirty Blonde; it is the place where Hadestown and Once and Slave Play got their start, where auteur Ivo van Hove found a U.S. beachhead, and where artists ranging from Will Power to Martha Clarke, from Caryl Churchill to Aleshea Harris, have found an artistic home.
Though she has not directed on the Workshop mainstage (she came closest with a project, co-conceived with Colman Domingo, based on James Baldwin’s writing, but it foundered over rights issues), McGregor has been a longtime member of NYTW’s Usual Suspects, a cohort of affiliated artists and theatre workers, so that she considers the new job a sort of homecoming. Speaking of home: In an interview yesterday, she told me that she and her husband, Freedome Bradley-Ballentine, currently associate artistic director at San Diego’s Old Globe, plan to move with their two kids from the West Coast to the East to start this exciting new chapter.
ROB WEINERT-KENDT: Congratulations! This is such good news, not just for you but for the field.
PATRICIA MCGREGOR: Thank you. It’s very exciting!
Can you tell me a little bit about what led to this moment? Was it a long process of you and the Workshop sort of sizing each other up to see if this was the right fit?
I got a call, maybe in December. I think most people who know me knew there was going to be a time where I would take on artistic leadership in this way, but it was about what was the right place and the right time. So I was considering it, because the Workshop is so ethos-aligned; I love that place so much. For a variety of reasons, it would be a place I would really consider. And then I got a call from the search firm saying, “People keep recommending you for this job, would you consider applying?” I take those signs seriously, because I want to be at a place that wants what I have to give, and that the fact that I was being called and they were getting the message over and over again that this might be a good match felt like a great start.
Then it was a pretty thorough process of me getting to know them and them getting to know me in this capacity. The nice thing is, it’s like returning home. When I was 21 or 22, I saw Light Raise the Roof there and loved it. So as an audience member, I’d always loved the work that was being done there, and then I got invited to start doing readings. So I’ve had a long relationship, and there have never been unanswered calls to Jim Nicola or Linda Chapman, Rachel Silverman, Aaron Malkin—I have deep collaborators at the Workshop, so it feels like a return home in that way.
I also feel that in the last 10 years I’ve built tools, relationships, and understanding of what the field needs right now, of what this is moment asking for in terms of leadership. I know I challenge institutions at times when I talk about a commitment to accessibility, social justice, Black Lives Matter. A variety of things that feel urgent now for organizations and institutions to consider how they fold into their practice have always been central to my practice.
A number of New York City theatre leaders began as directors, but very few still direct very often on their own stages. Are you planning to direct at the Workshop, or are you fully transitioning to a career more of producing and supporting other artists?
I’m an artist, but art is my tool for community-building, for democracy-building and for interrogating things. And so while my primary practice has been in my freelance work, more and more, especially over the last several years, I’ve taken on leadership roles. I have a real appetite for that, and I feel that I now have the capacity to pump the brakes on my own work and really lay down roots in an organization where I believe in what they’re doing. I’m really excited to champion artists and audiences for these next steps. That’s my next calling: being a person who figures out what stories feel most urgent to be told and what artists feel is most necessary to champion. Selectively there may be, from time to time, a piece that it feels like my voice and my particular lived experience, my particular passions, may come to bear and I would take on helming a piece. But the robust ecosystem of the Workshop and the artists that are being supported there—that’s the primary focus. Ten years ago, I wouldn’t have been ready; five years ago I wouldn’t have been ready. Today I’m ready. I don’t have the appetite to travel all the time—I feel very lucky to have traveled internationally, nationally. I’ve worked with all the places that I had on my bucket list. Now I’m really ready to lay those roots in the right place, and New York Theatre Workshop feels like the right place at the right time.
You and Jim aren’t strangers, obviously. Will be there some overlap in your leadership?
I’ll be full time mid-August. I’ve been thinking about this idea of ombré-ing. My mom was an art teacher and a painter and a union worker, and we would often talk about how some of my favorite paintings are the ones where the colors don’t go sharply from one to the other; there’s this gradual ombré-ing of colors. There’s a beauty and an art to that middle space. So while the 2022-23 season is primarily chosen, and a lot of the collaborators have been chosen, there are still some question marks, and a variety of things I’m already in conversation with people about. We will have several months where I’m wrapping up projects on the West Coast—I have one for the L.A. Philharmonic at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, and I’m shooting a movie musical and directing A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Old Globe. Those three are already so far down the track that it would it would feel disingenuous to pull out of any of them. I keep thinking of this as a baton pass, and with that baton pass, Jim is still with us in spirit, and in very practical ways.
I think in this field we are often ill-advised to try and make such a drastic division between generations of leadership. I’m really lucky that Jim and I have an authentic relationship already. I’m really interested not only in what this particular period of transition is, but what is the continuous conversation? One of the things that is centered at the Workshop is this idea of being in conversation. So while we will have a new dynamic, it’s based in an old relationship that has a lot of love and respect. I’m interested in that continued conversation.
Jim is not a founding leader, but he has been there for a long time. We’ve seen a number of cases where such successions haven’t always gone smoothly, either because a new leader doesn’t have the full support of the board, or the finances were worse than advertised, or some other unforeseen problem. How secure and supported do you feel going in?
That’s a real question that has to be asked; we know what that narrative and what those histories are. No, Jim wasn’t officially a founder, but he has that founding force and has well earned that respect. That’s part of why I am interested in this not being some abrupt drop-off in the middle of the desert. This is a continued idea, and we are playing different roles on this part of the journey. Both in conversations with Jim and the partnership with [managing director] Jeremy [Blocker], with the variety of stakeholders, from staff to audience members, I feel supported in returning to New York, having spent a lot of time there. I also have great peers in the city. Kamilah Forbes at the Apollo is a dear friend; Oskar Eustis wrote one of my recommendations; Neil Pepe—there are a variety of peer leaders who’ve been doing it for a longer period of time who are invested in me. I feel both audacious enough to know that I have a vision and some resources where I think I can build something sustainable, and humble enough to say, those of you who have been doing it for a long time, I don’t have to reinvent the wheel, I can energize things you’ve been trying to do for a while and also lean on your wisdom, so that when I have a moment of crisis, I don’t feel like I need to solve it all on my own. So there are stakeholders within the organization and within the cohort of leaders, both nationally and internationally, that we can lean on each other.
So yes, it’s good to go in eyes wide open with these things, and we’ve already done those conversations. I’m aware, both for myself for the organization, that as a Black woman leading, this is a historic moment in many ways. And so setting it up correctly, I’m aware that will help make the way for others. I know that that’s part of my journey. People held it before me, the Seret Scotts of the world and others—they held it to make it easier for me. And now my job and my joy is to be able to successfully navigate the waters so that it will be easier for other people eventually.
It’s interesting that you gestured to the wider New York theatre community in your answer about whether you felt supported. That leads to my next question: Where do you see the Workshop fitting into the ecology of both the New York’s and the national theatre scene?
I feel very strongly about that. Some of my favorite people are scientists, and I feel that in order to innovate, you need a robust laboratory that is dedicated to rigorous investigation. At the Workshop that investigation is in the aesthetics of the work and how we push the form forward; it is in which questions that are both plaguing and uplifting our culture, and how we participate in those. It is not an exaggeration to say that there are attacks on our democracy happening now, and attacks on a variety of citizens in our country. If art is one of the frontlines of that transformation, New York Theatre Workshop to me is the most potent laboratory for trying to figure out how to be the antidote, how to be the medicine. And I think it’s essential, especially in light of the end of Sundance and The Lark—places that have not only produced work but have provided resources for a variety of voices to get to the place where that work can be produced on the mainstage. I’m interested in developing, and not only writers—one of the things I love about the Workshop is that while writers are very centered, it’s also about supporting work by directors and generative artists, hybrid artists and collectives. It feels like the most essential laboratory on that scene. If that developmental model is not supported in a really robust way, we will miss so many voices and so many opportunities.
Also within the space itself, I think there’s great opportunity to make it more accessible on all fronts, both physical accessibility and also financial accessibility. Jim Houghton, who was my deepest mentor, and who I model a lot of my idea about leadership around, had the notion that if create the big idea, you can get it funded. For him, it was as important to have $20 tickets as it was to have a $40 million new building at the Signature Center—to have those orchestrated collisions in a space that is a home not just because you know the codes on the door, or it’s not just a transaction because you’re buying a ticket, but a real public space that’s a kind of hybrid Drama Bookshop and Parisian café. At the Workshop, I think we can attend more to the hyperlocal. I used to bartend in the East Village, so I know those streets very well. There are some people who feel more comfortable coming to our block from two miles away than from two blocks away. For the folks two blocks away, what’s preventing them from coming? What can we do to make sure that their voices are heard, and that they’re as welcomed as authentically as possible?
And at the same time we can be international. I was the American directing representative at the National Theatre’s first directing cohort, and we had people from Palestine and from Hungary. There were a variety of directors there who I’m interested in knowing, how are they experimenting, both formally and in terms of combating this erosion of social justice in their spaces? I just keep thinking that pound for pound, theatre is the most important fighter out there. I mean, when I watched Light Raise the Roof all those years ago at the Workshop, I had to reconsider my relationships to people who were experiencing homelessness; I still think about it. I think the artistry of productions that really land in our psyche in a way we have to wrestle with for a long period of time is essential. Creating that soft landing spot and place for connection in this very rough moment—I can’t think of anywhere I’d rather be.
Rob Weinert-Kendt (he/him) is the editor-in-chief of American Theatre.
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