Say Hello To The Coop: Part Two – Andrus Nichols Forms An Inclusionary Theater Company

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The Interview: Andrus Nichols

Conducted by Michael Raver

So…how about this? You graduate from undergrad and set out on a path to become a working actor. You go to auditions, you go to see plays. You meet people and end up forming a successful off-broadway theater company that goes to on to have a major cultural impact across the entire country.

For actress Andrus Nichols, this is all true. As actors go, she’s one of the most grounded that you’re likely to come across. Approaching her work as a gardener might tend to plants, she’s firm when it’s necessary, but thoughtful and pert are her emotional status quo. After co-founding Bedlam, the company that had a meteoric rise to become one of the most recognized names in American theater over the last few years, she found herself yearning for a sense of community in the industry that, frankly, simply was not there. Theater producing groups were always run by a singular entity, Artistic Directors ruling roosts, as it were. While there have been strides to make theatrical storytelling more inclusive, Nichols decided that there were things that needed to change on the ground level

Converging with a handful of likeminded artists, she went on to found The Coop, which touts a jungian ethos of ‘all parts,’ allowing all of its staff to have a voice in the development of the company. No one is taken for granted and no one is ignored.

“What I really want is to be part of an artistic community that gets wider and wider and values more voices as it grows” she says. “Collaboration with other generous creative people is one of the most rewarding things in the world.”

The Coop’s first production, Barbara Hammond’s absurdist-apocalyptic Terra Firma, is but one movement in what promises to be a potent sea change in the theater industry. Nichols is doing double duty, launching the company, while playing the role of a character simply named “The Queen.”

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Gerardo Rodriguez, Andrus Nichols. Terra Firma. Photos by Ashley Garrett

How did this play come to you?

Andrus Nichols: In 2013, I was doing St Joan with Bedlam and Barbara came to see it. She sent me this play right after the recent presidential election. When The Coop was born, it seemed like a really bold, brave piece to lead with.

What excited you about it?

AN: I’ve never done a play like this before. I’ve done very little comedy, actually. People don’t write plays like this. Reading it was similar to the experience of reading Waiting for Godot. I found myself laughing and crying at the same time. It was delicious. There were parallels of The Queen trying to get the constitution written, figuring out how to organize a group of people, and legitimizing a new nation. There’s something really fun about getting to play that, while actually trying to, for the company, write best practices and policies and figuring out how to lead this group of people.

Which parallels your role in the play.

AN: Energetically and emotionally, yeah, in that you’re taking a great risk in producing a play like this…while fundraising and trying to put together a board and a staff.

You’re living and breathing in a place of very high stakes, with a lot of people’s welfare and investment resting on you. It gave me an opportunity to put some of my stress to creative use!

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T. Ryder Smith, John Keating, Andrus Nichols. Terra Firma. Photos by Ashley Garrett

Tell me about The Queen.

AN: She’s the last woman in the country, perhaps the last woman in the world. I think that she understands on a deep level, what’s really going on, which is why she meets it with the force of optimism that she does. She does understand how dire the situation is in this world. I’m endlessly fascinated by that line between optimism and delusion. It’s all for the greater good. I admire her remarkable ability cheer and lead and keep the ball in the air while the world is crumbling around them.

Why was this the piece that launched The Coop?

AN: I wanted to come out of the gate with something extremely ambitious that I knew was hard, but really relevant, unlike anything I’d ever produced before, that was a challenge for me, both as an actor and a producer. I really love how ambitious this play is. I was really excited about producing something this fully, with this much production value.

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ANDRUS NICHOLS

What do you want the audience to walk away with?

AN: To me, this play is very much a Waiting for Godot for the climate change generation. Young people who see this so hotly and immediately identify with the generation ahead of them screwing them out of the future and the people in power doing nothing to slow that down or to make it right.

Your mission statement addresses inclusion. What does including mean to you?

AN: We are deeply interested in and committed to the diversity of voices in the decision making processes and artistic vision. We want many voices. And this is why we have the two advisory boards. It gives us a way to actively and consciously expand our community of playwrights, designers, directors, and actors. It has been a priority in the process of founding this company. We have already been introduced to so many new people that we are excited about, and we can’t wait to build future seasons around their work.

What has been the most challenging part of being an artistic director?

AN: Building best practices. Starting with the ground with a group of people that I have immense respect for. We’re really trying, at every turn, to get as many voices and talents into the decision making processes. It’s exciting. I’m enjoying it. We’re figuring it out as we go. It’s wonderfully challenging and exciting to figure out a way to lead that’s flexible that will hopefully protect the kind of culture we’re trying to create here.

Terra Firma plays a limited run at The Baruch Performing Arts Center through November 10th. For tickets, visit www.thecoopnyc.org

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