For Andrus Nichols, artistic director of The COOP (the new company behind this fall’s world premiere of Terra Firma by Barbara Hammond), there was never any doubt that her dreams of launching a new theatre company—discussed over dinners and emails and coffees with a network of like-minded artists—would come true. “It felt real from the beginning,” says Nichols. “It’s a solid, talented group of people. We knew we could do it and we were clear about what we wanted to build.”
For a new company, The COOP, with its three-show inaugural season, is not short on ambition. Following Terra Firma, The COOP will present the New York premiere of Emily Mann’s adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, directed by James Dean Palmer, and is currently developing Hamill's first contemporary play, The Piper.
The COOP was born when Nichols, who co-founded Bedlam, decided to branch out and try something new. “The culture had shifted a bit, I was working out of town and Bedlam was going in a direction that wasn’t the artistic home I’d set out to build, initially,” explains Nichols. “Myself, [COOP resident playwright] Kate [Hamill], and a number of other artists, felt like there was a need to create a community here in New York where we could make the kind of art that we wanted to make and work in a way that we wanted to work.”
That approach to work revolved around a core principal of collaboration. “How do you create and lead a company in which everybody feels valued and unique and like they can bring their full artistic expression to the table?” asks Nichols. With this in mind, Nichols and The COOP’s members toyed with the idea of leading by artistic committee rather than a single artistic director; however in the end, it was agreed that appointing a head of the company would help to protect, and institutionalize the kind of culture they were trying to foster.
That culture is built on a collaborative approach to making art and building a business. Though Nichols holds the title of artistic director, she leads alongside an artistic staff made up of artistic producer Jacob Janssen, her assistant Evan Andrew Horwitz, resident playwright Hamill, literary manager Drew Ledbetter, an advisory board made up of 10 artists, and a youth advisory board of 10 artists, aged 18–25. The COOP itself is made up of 80 artists from different disciplines, whom, depending on schedules, are either staffed on a production or weigh in when available.
“There are a lot voices in the room talking about how to develop best practices and what kind of programming to move forward with, and who we want to produce, and how we want to produce,” says Nichols. “We want to work in a radically inclusive way and to keep that inclusion an active part of how we build this company.”
While with The COOP, Nichols is able to approach making theatre differently, her experience with Bedlam has proved invaluable in launching a new venture. Previously existing relationships with publicists, administrative staff, stage, and technical crew, were all useful—as was her access to a community of donors willing to support her new approach. “The fundraising is an ongoing challenge,” says Nichols, “but easier this time around because people have a sense of who I am, which was not the case in 2011.”
Launching The COOP with Terra Firma, directed by Shana Cooper and in which Nichols also stars, was also an opportunity to work with new people and in new spaces. The world premiere, which plays at the Baruch Performing Arts Center (September 27–November 10), marks Nichols’ first time in the theatre. Throughout the season, Nichols says, all of the artists involved will work to maintain an ethos of inclusivity on all fronts.
“We do realize that we’re doing sounds fairly idealistic," says Nichols, "but I think it’s worth really striving for. We’ll hit bumps, but we’ll solve those problems and be flexible as we hit them. We just want to keep trying to keep it collaborative and inclusive and expansive.”