New York Theatre Workshop guide: Everything you need to know about the East Village institution

New York Theatre Workshop has developed now-famous musicals like Rent, Hadestown, and many more.

New York Theatre Workshop

At a recent press conference, James C. Nicola, longtime artistic director of New York Theatre Workshop (NYTW), summed up the historic theatre company with a single anecdote from decades ago, about three award-winning directors.

At an NYTW summer retreat for artists, Nicola recalled seeing “three women in a canoe: [directors] JoAnne Akalaitis, Anne Bogart, and between them, a very young and green Lisa Peterson. I can see there’s an intense conversation taking place but I can’t hear it. And I just realized that’s what New York Theatre Workshop can do: create space, make room, and encourage that kind of sharing and growing from each other. It isn’t just about the older, more mature experienced artists sharing. They also learn from the young.”

NYTW has become known over the years as an incubator for fresh new work. A lot of this work comes from emerging artists — Jonathan Larson got his big break with Rent here — but NYTW brings in writers, directors and performers of all levels. Think Anaïs Mitchell, who made a name in New York with Hadestown at NYTW but had been a fixture of the folk music scene for years.

What every NYTW artist has in common is a desire to try something new, and it pays off. Artists’ careers have taken off and propelled them to awards success. They’ve pushed the boundaries of what theatre can look like. And when you go see an NYTW show, you’re among the first people to see this artistry in action.

Before you see NYTW’s latest shows, learn more about the venue's production history (we guarantee you’ll recognize at least one show) and how you can experience all the art the surrounding East Village area has to offer while you’re there.

Why you need to visit New York Theatre Workshop in New York

Go to NYTW and you could witness New York theatre history in the making. This company has helped springboard plays and musicals — and their writers — to tremendous success. Before the next Rent or Hadestown hits the mainstream, you can say you saw it first. Plus, celebrities sometimes lead productions here, so you can see them perform right up close in NYTW’s intimate, 199-seat theatre.

Get to know the history of New York Theatre Workshop

NYTW was founded in 1980 by Stephen Graham. The company put on its first production, Frank O’Hara and V.R. Lang’s A Day in the Life of a Czar, that year, but it wouldn’t get a permanent home base until 1992, when NYTW moved into its current space at 79 East 4th Street. The first production there was Leo Bassi’s C. Colombo Inc.

Since its founding, NYTW has been the first stop for new plays by now-famous playwrights like Tony Kushner and Caryl Churchill. Leading theatre directors like Rachel Chavkin and Ivo van Hove often work there — in fact, NYTW has an actual cohort of artists called Usual Suspects, who regularly return no matter where else their careers take them. These include playwrights, directors, designers and actors, some of whom are major celebrities. Daniel Craig, for example, has starred in shows like Othello and A Number at NYTW (when he’s not busy being James Bond, of course).

In June 2022, Patricia McGregor took over as artistic director of NYTW, succeeding Nicola, who held the position since 1988. He went out on a high note, winning a 2022 Special Tony Award for all the work he’s done to support daring new work by artists of all career levels at NYTW. That award adds to the organization’s already stuffed trophy case: collectively, NYTW shows have won more than 25 Tony Awards and nearly every other major theatre award, including the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, showcasing the power of taking risks on new work.

“I hope that [NYTW] continues to to support […] what they gave to me, which was room to follow my curiosity, room to take a risk, to fall flat on my face, to put us at financial risk in pursuit of a hunch or a belief that isn’t clear yet. That’s going to pay off,” said Nicola.

Famous productions at New York Theatre Workshop

Since NYTW’s founding in 1980, tons of its shows have enjoyed long Broadway runs, Tony and Pulitzer wins, and critical and audience acclaim. Here are some of NYTW’s most well-known productions from recent years.

  • Rent: Before renting out a Broadway house for 12 years, Jonathan Larson’s most famous musical premiered with NYTW in 1996. Tragically, Larson died the day of the first Rent performance on January 25. He would posthumously win the Pulitzer Prize and multiple Tony Awards, though, once the show became a hit. To commemorate NYTW’s role in his success, part of the 2021 film adaptation of Larson’s musical tick, tick… BOOM! was filmed on the NYTW stage.
  • Once: This eight-time Tony-winning Best Musical was at NYTW once. To be more specific, Once had its world premiere here before moving to Broadway. The show is written by Enda Walsh (book) and Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová (music and lyrics) and is based on the 2007 film of the same name.
  • Hadestown: To go way down Hadestown, you first had to go way downtown. This eight-time Tony-winning Best Musical (it’s a trend!) had its New York premiere at NYTW in 2016 before moving on to Broadway success. Its road to New York was almost as long and winding as Orpheus’s road to hell, though — the first version of Anaïs Mitchell’s show premiered in Vermont 10 years before, in 2006.
  • Slave Play: Jeremy O. Harris wrote Slave Play in his first year at the Yale School of Drama, and the show had its first professional premiere at NYTW in 2018. The play would go on to have two limited Broadway runs and become the most Tony-nominated play in history with 12 nods.
  • What the Constitution Means to Me and Kristina Wong, Sweatshop Overlord: NYTW has a long history of producing Pulitzer contenders. Two shows — Heidi Schreck’s What the Constitution Means to Me and Kristina Wong’s Sweatshop Overlord — both debuted here in 2018 and 2021, respectively, before becoming Pulitzer finalists the following year. Both are women-led monologues (Schreck’s show has a couple other cast members) that deal with contemporary American sociopolitical themes. Nicola named Schreck, who ends Constitution with questions instead of answers, as someone whose work particularly inspires him: “It is that sense of an artist who doesn’t have certainty […] but understands that it’s really, maybe, you’re asking the right question at the right time.”
  • Wise Guys: You might know this one better as Road Show, the last musical Stephen Sondheim composed (alongside bookwriter John Weidman). Under the title Wise Guys, the show premiered at NYTW in 1999 starring Nathan Lane and Victor Garber. The show got multiple revisions — including name changes — and played in other U.S. cities before returning to NYC as Road Show in 2008. That version premiered with The Public Theater, just a 10-minute walk from NYTW. In 2022, NYTW is mounting another of Sondheim’s lesser-produced shows: Merrily We Roll Along, starring Daniel Radcliffe.
  • Hedda Gabler and A Streetcar Named Desire: NYTW is known for incubating new work, but the theatre brings back the classics, too. A couple of recent examples are Hedda Gabler and A Streetcar Named Desire, both given a modern edge by director Ivo van Hove. In the 2022-23 season, NYTW will produce another classic: Chekhov’s Three Sisters, adapted by Pulitzer finalist Clare Barron and starring Greta Gerwig, Oscar Isaac, Steve Buscemi, and more.

Fun things to do before a show at New York Theatre Workshop in the East Village

The East Village is a super artsy neighborhood, which is evident from the number of theatres there alone. NYTW shares a block with La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club, and other historic Off-Broadway spaces like The Public Theater, Astor Place Theatre (Blue Man Group), Orpheum Theatre (Stomp), and Connelly Theater are all within a few blocks.

But there’s plenty of more culture to explore in the area, from film to art to fashion. Here are some fun things you can do to make a day out of your East Village excursion.

  • Sing Sing Karaoke: You might not be able to step onto the NYTW stage (yet), but you can channel your inner performer at Sing Sing. There are two Sing Sing karaoke bars within walking distance: one on St. Mark’s Place just northwest of NYTW, and one a block east on Avenue A.
  • Arcadia Earth: You’ve never seen a museum like this before. The immersive Arcadia Earth hosts a rotating line-up of art exhibits that deal with nature, the environment, sustainability, and climate change, and the art isn’t just in frames. These colorful, vibrant installations are all around you from floor to ceiling as you walk through, and some are even interactive.
  • Anthology Film Archives: Catch a film and a live show all in one day! Anthology Film Archives is a museum that hosts screenings of avant-garde and independent movies, sometimes in tandem with talks and appearances from the filmmakers themselves. There’s also a massive collection of books, photos, letters, manuscripts, and other film-related materials for movie buffs to explore.
  • Merchant’s House Museum: Architecture and history buffs, this one’s for you. Built in 1832, this Greek revival building on East 4th Street (a block west of NYTW) once belonged to the Tredwells, a wealthy Irish merchant family when New York was emerging as a major seaport and landmark city. Their house, with over 3,000 of its furnishings and the Tredwells’ possessions, has been preserved all this time, and is now open to the public as the Merchant’s House Museum. You can either walk through the house at your own pace or get a guided tour, or head to one of its various events and talks.
  • Fortnight Institute and The Hole: Want to see some art, but don’t have time to explore a whole museum? Drop into the Fortnight Institute on East 3rd Street (a block directly below NYTW), or The Hole, one more block south on Bowery. Both are small galleries with rotating art exhibits of all mediums.
  • Liz Christy Garden: Take a break from the NYC concrete and enjoy some green space at the Liz Christy Garden. This blossoming garden has a pond, flowers, a little walking path, and benches. You can read, chat, or just sit and relax for a while before your show.
  • Thrift shopping: Need some “new” clothes? On Broadway, just two blocks west of NYTW, are two thrift stores right next to each other: Buffalo Exchange, which has locations all over the city and sells all kinds of secondhand swag; and 2nd Street, which specializes in unique vintage clothing. If you want to thrift stuff besides clothes, Pageant Print Shop (on the same block as NYTW) is in antique store that sells a variety of old prints and trinkets.

Where to eat and drink before a show at New York Theatre Workshop

The East Village has all types of cuisines located within mere feet of each other. Here are just a few of the restaurants you can choose from near NYTW, from American to Ukrainian to Japanese to Mexican and more.

  • Veselka: The Ukrainian restaurant Veselka on Second Avenue is a downtown Manhattan favorite — it’s been around since 1954, after all. Veselka has the casual vibe of any other diner, but pierogis and borscht are the stars of the show here. You’ve got to try at least one if you go.
  • Momofuku Ko: Momofuku is another classic NYC institution. There are locations all around the city, but this one on East 1st Street is the closest to NYTW. This upscale, Michelin-starred spot offers American dishes with a Japanese-inspired flair, and the menu changes with the seasons.
  • The Library: Hop from one theatre to another! The Library is the in-house bar and restaurant located in The Public Theater. From 5 p.m. onward, you can get pre- or post-show dinner and drinks in an old-fashioned atmosphere that will make you feel like part of Manhattan’s best-read literati.
  • KGB Bar: Since this bar doesn’t open until 7 p.m., it’s a good spot for post-show drinks. Located directly next to NYTW, KGB Bar is like the flip side of The Library. It’s another New York literary institution, but with more of a casual vibe and less food. There are poetry readings, live music performances and other events going on all the time, too.
  • The Black Ant: If you’re looking for Mexican food, The Black Ant offers creative twists on staple Mexican dishes, and there’s a 4 to 7 p.m. happy hour every day except Monday. If you want more traditional Mexican food, go two blocks south to Rosie’s for a classic tacos, enchiladas, margaritas, and other fare.
  • Phebe’s: You won’t have to worry about being late to your show after going here, since Phebe’s is located right on the same block as NYTW. This casual American restaurant is the place to go for comfort food at any time of day; there’s a brunch, lunch, and dinner menu. And if you’re going to a weekday show, swing by from 4 to 8 p.m. for happy hour.
  • Casual fare: Looking to grab a quick pre-show bite? There’s a Dig Inn, sweetgreen, Starbucks, and dollar pizza shop all located within a couple blocks of NYTW.

Get tickets to see a show at New York Theatre Workshop

NYTW’s season goes from fall to spring, ending just as summer begins. Starting in the fall, the new season will include the star-studded productions of Three Sisters and Merrily We Roll Along, as well as Victor I. Cazares’s american (tele)visionsLiliana Padilla’s How to Defend Yourself, and Inua Ellams’s The Half-God of Rainfall. Keep an eye out for information on tickets to these new and classic works — in NYTW’s hands, they’re surely not to be missed. Though, if the company’s history is any indication, you might also see them on a bigger stage someday.

Photo credit: James Ewing