NYU’s Skirball Center for the Performing Arts underwent a leadership change in 2016 when Jay Wegman, a highly regarded veteran of the NYC downtown arts scene, took over the top position from Michael Harrington, the center’s former director. Mr. Wegman has always been a champion of innovative and international programming and during his time at the Abrons Arts Center, the position he held prior to making the move to NYU, he transformed it from what most considered to be an off-the-beaten-path venue to an essential, award-winning arts destination.
At Skirball, Mr. Wegman is making his mark by presenting shows that are worldly, audacious, and inventive, while remaining entertaining and accessible. The shows I have attended over the past year all shared a spirit of adventure and felt urgently contemporary: White Noise was a hypnotizing—and sometimes dizzying—journey into the imagery and themes of Don DeLillo’s best-selling novel. Wild Bore was an original, funny, and totally delightful examination of professional critics told in a highly theatrical, yet unconventional way.
Not surprisingly, Wegman is also committed to ancillary programming and digital materials that complement the onstage work and provide audience members with a more in-depth and richer experience—and he is working with different faculty and departments to integrate the productions into their curriculums. Ideally, even the most experimental of works needn’t feel esoteric to an audience that comes prepared. One positive outcome of Mr. Wegman’s programming and outreach efforts is the fact that more students than ever are attending performances at Skirball.
I spoke with Wegman about his move to NYU, his programming ideas for the future, and having student audiences to contend with.
Nella Vera: Prior to this you were at the Abrons Arts Center, which is a wonderful hub in the Lower East side. Why did you decide to make the change to Skirball?
Jay Wegman: I had been there ten and a half years and I think I had probably done as much as I could do there. When I first started, the place was really basically a rental place for not very interesting artists. So, I changed the programming model and did away with the rental stuff and we started programming emerging artists or artists who were trans-genre or no-genre, or had a hard time finding places to perform. I called that the “karma pot.” We started offering rehearsal space to artists and then programming them and commissioning them. And, it took a few years to get off the ground with that. After we got the OBIE award and we got some other awards, I thought, maybe I can check out something else. And then this position at NYU had opened.
NV: For those people who are not familiar with Skirball, can you tell us a little bit about it?
JW: Skirball is
New York University’s performing arts center.
I’ve changed the programming model here in the last three years to have
a more international and more experimental focus. There are not very many
venues in New York City that can, because of their size or their limitations,
bring in some of these larger international works. At the same time we want to
honor those artists who are making work in New York City and the United States
who probably have outgrown smaller venues such as Abrons or even The Joyce
(because we’re about twice the size of The Joyce in terms of our audience
capacity and in terms of our stage) –some of those are artists who aren’t quite
yet ready for City Center or Lincoln Center because of how large those spaces
are. I’m trying to find a nice balance between some interesting international
work—I like to call it “smart art”—and local folks who are ready to move on to
a larger venue.
NV: Skirball is unique because it’s at a university, but the work that you present is not just for students because you’re presenting these world class events. How does the student population affect your programming choices and what do they bring to the events?
JW: NYU prides itself on being one of the world-class research universities. I kind of envision Skirball as being a classroom as well. And we are assisting our students with research. So instead of having to trot off to Tokyo or to, you know, Santiago, Chile or someplace like that, we bring the work here as much as we can. We also contextualize everything with reading lists, we commission essays from faculty, etc. And these aren’t just for our students. We provide this for anybody who wants to come here. We’re starting to broaden that circle. During the first three years I was here, it was important to tie in the fact that we were of NYU. So, we’re doing that. I actually go to a lot of faculty meetings to see what classes are being developed and what curricular interests are. And that also ties into my programming choices. The good news is that student attendance has increased here from roughly 3% to 18% over the last three years. So, I’m really happy about that.
It can be an
uphill climb. The faculty is great, but at the same time, students, especially
students who go to college in New York City have so many opportunities. I
assumed at first that Tisch students be our go-to audience and we really tried
to cultivate that but they’re so busy; Tisch has conservatory model and it’s
really kind of difficult at times for them to attend. The ones who seem to
grooving on us are the engineering students and I am fascinated by that! I
don’t know what it is. I tend to think of engineering students as brainiacs
anyway, so there might be something in the productions we’re bringing that
really appeals to them on an intellectual level, but also maybe they don’t have
the wherewithal to look outside and so they end up coming to us.
I mean, whatever it is, it’s working and they’re incredibly engaged. I love that.
One reason I was hired was to reframe the place. It’s a great location. It’s a great resource for the city and for the students and for artists. It was a win-win situation in terms of the choice to come here. Right now, it’s kind of baby steps for us, but we’re going full steam ahead. Again, we try to do mainly premieres. Sometimes we’ll bring back things if I sense that there’s a demand for that work, such as GATZ from Elevator Repair Service. It had not been revived in New York for about eight years. I knew that there were cast members who were very eager to do it at least one more time. And the stars aligned, everybody was available. We also brought back The Builders Association, they have a wonderful show called The Elements of Oz and it’s actually been around for about three years. I wanted to do something kind of lighthearted in December (even though there is a gravitas to it.) It was also a show that tied nicely into NYU’s digital program because they’ve got a really incredible one in ITP, the Interactive Telecommunications Program. (Note from editor: The Elements from Oz is a show that invites audience members to keep their phones on and interact with stage action via a special app.)
It’s important for me to have all these curricular inroads, but the shows are also for “normal” people who want to do something a little bit more expansive or be a little more adventurous in their choices.
NV: Can you talk about the programming in particular? I know that you have these main stage events, but you also have a lot of other things. I know some of them are probably rentals, but I was looking on the website and there are things that I didn’t know even existed before, like the Book Club or the National Theatre LIVE screenings.
JW: Most of the
stuff we do, we are presenting. I actually inherited NT Live. It was here before
I arrived, but it’s an incredibly popular program and a wonderful way to
enhance our international programming. Skirball is part of the university and we’re
trying to contextualize each of our productions. That’s why we started the Book
Club. Each week a different book is chosen by our director of engagement that
thematically coincides with the production. We also have something called Prep School,
which lives on the website and contains interviews with the artists in the
productions or set design sketches—information that we can give anybody who’s
interested in expanding their experience of the show. Our engagement person was
the first hire I made.
I created the position because I knew that we really needed somebody here to start weaving the programs together within each other, but also within the season, within the year—and with as many resources, digital or otherwise as possible.
We are going to
continue to try to do interesting things that nobody else is for now to get
people thinking outside the box because in this day and age, it’s a challenge
more and more to get people to come out—especially with Netflix and Amazon
Prime where you can just go home and watch anything you want anytime you want.
I’m trying to give people a reason to get outside of the house to see something
that they probably have never seen before.
NV: Are there any dream projects that you would love to produce or companies that you hope to present in the future?
JW: We’d like to
do a summer festival. You know, now with the demise of Lincoln Center Festival
there’s nothing really going on in the summer unless you want to go to see a
In addition to Skirball, there are some other theaters at NYU that are empty over the summer and they’re all within three blocks of each other. There’s also the huge Plaza on in front of Stern [Business School] where we could do public programming. My dream is within the next five years to start maybe a modest international festival and grow it and see where that goes. We have also started commissioning—Skirball hadn’t commissioned before—so we are now doing that and we’d like to start to do more artists in residencies now. New York artists have been here: Daniel Fish worked on White Noise here over the last two years. We’ve given space to a lot of other people and now we’d like to expand that to artists who live outside of New York.
We’re always trying to expand and do more. Not everything we do works, but that’s true of any arts organization. We plan to keep on taking risks and keep on taking chances.