Matthew Nicola

Artistic Director of The Highwood Theatre
Headshot of a man.

Photo courtesy of The Highwood Theatre

Music Credit: “NY” composed and performed by Kosta T, from the album Soul Sand. Used courtesy of the Free Music Archive.

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Matthew Nicola: …we really push these students in a way that they’re treated like professionals and they do professional work. They go up on stage, they do top-rate work, they work their hardest, they give it their all, and, as a result, they just become better humans. They empathize more. They form real communities. I mean, it’s wonderful to see that professional mentality and growth…

Jo Reed: That’s Matthew Nicola, the Artistic director of The Highwood Theater and this is Art Works, the weekly podcast produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed.

Highwood is an educational theater in suburban Maryland that operates under two guiding principles: “Anyone can do theater” and “Theater Builds Community.” Begun in 2004 by then High School student Kevin Kearney, Highwood started with performances in his parents’ basement. From there it grew, from a residence in a private school to an incorporated non-profit educational theater company in downtown Silver Spring—Kevin is now its executive director and Matthew Nicola serves as The Highwood Theater’s artistic director. Highwood has an ambitious agenda, and it delivers: it has student programming of all sorts—after-school classes in all aspects of theater, with the students regularly putting on full-fledged productions, it has a Shakespeare program for home-schooled kids, and it brings in theater professionals to do mixed ensemble shows as well as run classes and workshops with the students, and it runs Highwood at School—a program that provides support to drama and theater teachers as well as high-quality theater experiences to over 35 schools in the area. This program has been so successful that Montgomery County presented Highwood with an award for distinguished service for public education. Artistic Director Matt Nicola calls Highwood “A one-stop shop for everything theatrical,” but at its heart…

Matthew Nicola: And one of the biggest principles just guiding everything of what we do is focusing on community, building community, providing a very welcoming environment where any student feels welcomed, where they can take risks, explore, and just try something new.

Jo Reed: I want to hear more about the philosophy “Anyone can do theatre.”

Matthew Nicola: Yeah, the “Anyone can do theatre” philosophy is something that-- it rings very true for the Highwood staff and people who really are on site every day. Throughout all of our work and years working with students, one of the biggest things we’ve taken away is just how much growth students can have and students you wouldn’t necessarily expect to be able to step onstage or try their hand at building a set or installing a light, or programming lights for a show. They really gain something valuable out of their experience and the-- it’s just amazing to see that transformative power. So, the “Anyone can do theatre” mission and mindset really comes from seeing students who you wouldn’t expect to enjoy and really benefit from a challenge, really growing from it.

Jo Reed: So, I just want to be clear--

Matthew Nicola: Yeah.

Jo Reed: So, we’re also not talking about “Anyone can do theatre” means anybody can play Tevye on “Fiddler on the Roof”.

Matthew Nicola: Mm-hm.

Jo Reed: “Theatre” means you can be invol-- it can be lighting, it can be costumes.

Matthew Nicola: Absolutely.

Jo Reed: It can be directing, it can be--

Matthew Nicola: Absolutely.

Jo Reed: --coaching. Or it can be playing Tevye.

Matthew Nicola: Absolutely. There’s really a role for everybody. That’s one of our other taglines is “There’s a role for everybody at Highwood.” Whether you’re an actor, whether you’re a techie, whether you prefer to write plays or even just teach, there’s a capacity for you to be involved and stay involved in theatre. We value creating well-rounded artists. So, our students, we like to think-- and many of them do have some overlap with other programs-- so, many of our actors also take some tech crew classes at some point, or vice versa, or even teaching a class down the road at some point. We have a lot of students that sort of go through the ranks and eventually become teaching artists for us. There’s many capacities for students and adults to be involved at Highwood and it’s always-- we always find ways to make them involved.

Jo Reed: And what’s the age range?

Matthew Nicola: So, we work with as young as kindergarten, all the way through 12th grade.

Jo Reed: Wow.

Matthew Nicola: It’s a wide range.

Jo Reed: And are they divided at all by ages, by grades?

Matthew Nicola: Depends on the program. So, like, our homeschool program is for first through eighth. For our productions, it depends on the show. Some have a very wide age range of four through 12th or third through 12th. Others are mainly just older. But the majority of our productions are open to four through 12th, which is a wide age range.

Jo Reed: It’s a very wide age range. And how do you prevent or work against older students sort of dominating productions like that?

Matthew Nicola: Sure. Absolutely. And that’s one aspect that is most unique to Highwood, is the community-minded atmosphere and the very welcoming environment. It’s not competitive. That’s one thing that when you step into Highwood for the first time you automatically feel. Unfortunately, in the terrain of theatre, especially in programs where you have to audition-- which we don’t for most of our shows: A lot of our programs, anybody who signs up is guaranteed a part. And--

Jo Reed: You must have pretty big casts.

Matthew Nicola: We do! It depends on the-- eventually we have to cap, but we do have big casts and that’s always the challenge is trying to find more and more ways to integrate huge volumes of people into the shows. But--

Jo Reed: Now, suppose you have a musical?

Matthew Nicola: Mm-hm.

Jo Reed: I mean, I love musicals.

Matthew Nicola: Yep.

Jo Reed: I cannot sing. And I sign up and I want to be on that stage and throwing that chorus off--

Matthew Nicola: Oh, absolutely.

Jo Reed: What do you do with me? <laughs>

Matthew Nicola: You’d be surprised. Even in shows where you wouldn’t suspect to be a lot for people to do-- so, for example, right now we have “Sweeney Todd” going on. We have a cast of 21 actors, third through 12th grade-- actually, third through rising college. And why a range of ages-- some this is literally their first ever show. Many, they’ve been doing this for their whole lives and the magic of it all is piecing all that together, and pushing them to realize what they’re capable of, even though they may not realize it. And, yeah, I mean they end up really forming a family. It’s a second family and a lot of students that walk away saying “Highwood is a second home to me.”

Jo Reed: But what’s interesting, Matt, is that I’ve read reviews of your shows and they are uniformly glowing.


Matthew Nicola: Thank you.

Jo Reed: I mean, seriously, they’re just completely over the top of-- this one reviewer kept coming back an saying, “It’s just hard to believe that they’re just students.”

Matthew Nicola: It’s true.

Jo Reed: “It’s very, very hard to believe.” But, yet, there are no auditions.

Matthew Nicola: So, some productions are audition-only. So, that’s mainly for our older student productions. So, in the past--

Jo Reed: So, explain what that is.

Matthew Nicola: So, we have sort of a few different tiers, so to speak. We have sort of our regular after-school production, which is open to anybody; anybody who signs up is guaranteed a part. Those are the ones that tend to have the biggest numbers of cast members. And then we also have some that are special productions, where we gather up students from different productions or different programs that are specifically invited to audition for it. And they’re cast if there’s a role. And then we have our conservatory program; so, that’s for students who want that extra push. So, with those, we tend to do more challenging-- we do challenging material, to begin with. One of our philosophies is never to do junior shows at Highwood. We really believe in substantial work and we believe that it’s more beneficial to the students to provide them shows that they would be seeing anywhere else, as opposed to watered down versions of it.

Jo Reed: Yeah. So, with something like “Sweeney Todd” for example, which tier--

Matthew Nicola: So, that is our regular after-school show. So, that's open to anybody.

Jo Reed: Far out. Okay.

Matthew Nicola: Yeah!

Jo Reed: Wow, Steven Sondheim is not for the faint-hearted.

Matthew Nicola: Oh, no. Our kids, they love the challenge. They love pushing themselves and they love the accessibility of doing shows that they go and see on Broadway or go and see at their regional theatres.

Jo Reed: Yeah, no, I was looking at your production list. It’s very impressive. How many shows do you put on in one year?

Matthew Nicola: Well, we do about 13 to 14 productions a year, which is a show a month, which is a lot.

Jo Reed: Yeah!

Matthew Nicola: But on that front, it gives students many, many opportunities to interact an engage with different types of material, from Shakespeare, all the way to contemporary musicals that they wouldn’t have heard of otherwise. One of my most proud achievements was-- we did a production of-- concert version of “Folly--“ Steven Sondheim’s “Follies”. And going into it, I was like, “Okay, this is one of my favorite shows. I don’t know how the kids are going to react to it,” and by the end of it, those kids were hooked. And to this day, they still come up to us and say, “When are we going to do a full production of ‘Follies’?” And, yeah, that was one of my proudest achievements was, number one, introducing them to a show that people would normally associate with just adults or, okay, only adults can truly understand the feelings of loneliness or happiness or pride or success that the show talks about. But, in actuality, I mean, these kids really connect with the material. If you present them the opportunity and the resources to understand and explore it, they’ll find a way to connect. And they want to connect.

Jo Reed: Well, that’s what-- you know, we always maintain-- art makes people empathetic.

Jo Reed: So, in a production at Highwood, who directs? Is it the students or is it an adult?

Matthew Nicola: So, we mainly have adults-- sort of our core staff members direct throughout the year. We have some productions throughout the year that are directed by students. Those tend to be smaller special productions. Sort of like the invitation-only ones we were talking about earlier. But most of them are directed by our staff members, our adult staff.

Jo Reed: And what about choreography?

Matthew Nicola: So, we tend to attract a lot of Highwood graduates, so to speak, but also we pull-- a lot of our teaching artists are from the D.C. area, working professionals in many different capacities and shows and all that.

Jo Reed: It’s extraordinary how much theatre has grown in this area in the past 20 years.

Matthew Nicola: Oh, it’s amazing and continues to grow.

Jo Reed: Yeah.

Matthew Nicola: Every day there’s just a new theatre company out there that I’ve never even heard of and I just learn about. And it’s exciting. It’s amazing and, especially for an educational theatre like Highwood to be in a very theatre-active and theatre-focused community, it’s exciting. I mean, a lot of these kids know that I mean, you may not end up performing on Broadway some day. I mean, that’s sort of the pipedream for everybody, but you can make it as a professional, if you want to. And DC is a great place for people who want to pursue the arts professionally. I mean, there’s a lot of wonderful regional work out here. There’s a lot of great educational theatre. So, it’s-- there’s no shortage of opportunities for theatre people.

Jo Reed: When you describe Highwood as educational theatre, am I right in assuming that that means you’re offering classes--

Matthew Nicola: Yes.

Jo Reed: --as well as productions.

Matthew Nicola: Yes.

Jo Reed: Okay.

Matthew Nicola: And, really, the educational side is there’s a training component in everything we do. Even in the productions. We bring artists down from New York or from the D.C. area to work with our students on master classes for particular shows, but we also-- we really challenge our students. I know we worked with Erin Discoll this past summer. She’s from Signature Theatre and she’s performed at a whole host of venues down here. She directed the wedding singer, which was part of our musical theatre intensive, which is one of the many summer programs we offer that’s two weeks. They put on a full-length show and this was a two-and-a-half-hour show they put on and put together in just two weeks.

Jo Reed: My God, it’s like Project Runway.

Matthew Nicola: Oh, yeah! No, it’s ambitious! And that’s part of the thrill. And she did an absolutely spectacular job and it was magical seeing what these kids did. One of the things that she talked about and one of the things that reminded us why we do what we do is she was talking about how we really push these students in a way that they’re treated like professionals and they do professional work. They go up on stage, they do top-rate work, they work their hardest, they give it their all, and, as a result, they just become better humans. They empathize more. They form real communities. I mean, it’s wonderful to see that professional mentality and growth in just even two weeks. And it just comes to show how just something like, doing a show for two weeks can change people and change experiences.

Jo Reed: You know, when I think about theatre, the first two things that come to mind-- and I’m sure there are more and I’d love to hear from you, but I think of first collaboration--

Matthew Nicola: Yes.

Jo Reed: It’s, everybody has to be doing their bit.

Matthew Nicola: Oh, boy.

Jo Reed: And you can’t be letting anybody down.

Matthew Nicola: Nope.

Jo Reed: But the second thing is I know there has to be something about the live aspect of performance that--

Matthew Nicola: Absolutely.

Jo Reed: --that's really appealing and I’d love to have you speak to both and add whatever else I’m missing.

Matthew Nicola: Sure. No, I mean, collaboration is-- I mean, as in any theatrical venue or organization, collaboration is a must in every respect. And one of the areas that I feel like really attracts me to Highwood is the collaboration with students, welcoming their input and ideas on particular scenes. It makes a big difference in the rehearsal room where they feel like they’re being treated like adults and they feel like that they are an integral part of the experience. And that’s why I feel like the collaboration at Highwood is not just between our wonderful staff members, but also with the wonderful students, with the parents, with the families. It’s really working together to produce an amazing theatre experience and amazing theatre education.

Jo Reed: And live performance? Performing in front of an audience in real time—that has to have an impact.

Matthew Nicola: Yeah, I mean, the live aspect is also important. There have been many, many interesting and exciting mishaps and things that we’ve had to do. One of the more interesting experiences that has happened, last year we were directing “West Side Story”-- or I was directing “West Side Story”, which is sort of like the pinnacle of anybody’s directing experience, and-- so, that was actually a year-long program. That year, before we decided to split it into two different segments, we made it year-long production. So, the kids were rehearsing choreography, music, blocking, everything throughout the entire year.

Jo Reed: That’s a tough show.

Matthew Nicola: Oh, yeah. And then we also had a-- so, we had 26 actors, we had 26 student pit members as well. And-

Jo Reed: What’s a pit member?

Matthew Nicola: So, pit orchestra. So, playing the music live.

Jo Reed: Wow.

Matthew Nicola: Every night. And with that, it’s a similar situation as with our shows. So, we had as young as third all the way through college-age students playing music. Live. We never use--

Jo Reed: I’m just closing my mouth. Go ahead.

Matthew Nicola: Oh, yeah! No, it’s a show of its own backstage, I can tell you that much.

Jo Reed: You never use canned music?

Matthew Nicola: Absolutely not. Nope, never.

Jo Reed: Whoa.

Matthew Nicola: We always do live. It adds that extra layer of excitement to things. And the kids deserve a real, genuine theatre experience. And, honestly--

Jo Reed: I’m for it.

Matthew Nicola: --theatre is not genuine unless you have live music.

Jo Reed: I completely agree.

Matthew Nicola: So, yeah, with “West Side Story” we were rehearsing great. Everything was on track. And the week before our show was going to open, we had a very last minute change of venue. This was literally the week before the show. And we have 60-plus cast members and a show that was without a venue. And we had a week to get the show in a new venue, rehearsing in a new environment, which was about as heart attack-inducing of an experience as anybody could ever imagine.

Jo Reed: Which meant you had to re-block the show.

Matthew Nicola: Well, so, we didn’t have to!

Jo Reed: Oh!

Matthew Nicola: Because we stage it in the round. The space we ended up being able to use last minute-- thank you, again, Siena School for that wonderful opportunity-- we were able to just transplant the blocking. The orchestra, which would have had an actual pit room in the previous venue, now had to be in two separate rooms. Two completely separate rooms. And the only way they could communicate was by looking down the hallway and having wireless headsets to communicate with each other. So, you literally had a band split in half unable to be in the same room to communicate.

Which was a challenge, but they pulled it off and the kids did an absolutely mind-blowing job. And it was as if nothing had ever happened. And that was the most amazing part of it, was even though the week before we were without a venue and everything was just sort of “Okay, so what do we do? How do we manage this?” it just spoke to, number one, the determination of young artists and people who love theatre to make anything work, but also you can be creative. You can be creative with everything. And even if it’s not exactly what you envision it to be, and you make it work! And it makes it all the more special by the end, because you’ve gone through it together and you've fixed it together. It’s not just “Okay, this is my problem. I have to solve it all on my own.” We all stepped up. We all realized, “Okay, this is an extraordinary circumstance. Let’s figure this out.” And that was by far one of the most amazing theatre experiences I’ve ever had on or off stage, which is pulling that off and also just delivering the same exact quality and professional of a show that we would have done if we had the original venue. If anything, there probably would have been even less of a raw sort of push to see things through to the end. So.

Jo Reed: And “raw” certainly fits with “West Side Story”.

Matthew Nicola: Oh, yeah!

Jo Reed: So, okay, with “Sweeney Todd” it’s one of the shows where anybody who signs up--

Matthew Nicola: Yes.

Jo Reed: --and then you’re the director. Are you the one who then decides who gets what part or is that--

Matthew Nicola: Yes.

Jo Reed: --done collaboratively as well?

Matthew Nicola: So, the casting process is collaborative. So, I mean, with the shows where we welcome anybody, we, number one, don’t have any auditions. To get into the program, we have placement auditions the first day. So, we welcome everybody, we get to know them a little bit, and the first rehearsal we bring them in and we do some placement work. So, we have them read some scenes from the script. We have them sing a few bars from the score, if it’s a musical. And from there we cast. And then it’s just sort of hit the ground running. I can’t even begin to speak about how being on that end really teaches you a lot, not only about people, but also just how much people oftentimes just under-look how much they’re capable of doing.

Jo Reed: You know, I have always found people can do pretty much what you expect them to do.

Matthew Nicola: It’s true.

Jo Reed: Yeah. I really do think it’s true. And low expectations--

Matthew Nicola: Oh, yeah.

Jo Reed: --results not so good.

Matthew Nicola: Oh, yeah! And one of the stories that I tell all the time and something that’s carried over-- one of our amazing students, Alana, who has gone on to be-- and I think she’s only in seventh grade and she’s done, I think, 13 shows with us, which speaks to the dedication of our students. Back when she started with us, I think it was the first year we were in Silver Spring in 2013 and first time she stepped out for the placement auditions-- this was another regular after-school show where anybody who could sign up could do it. And it was for the production of “Spamalot”. And she stepped out on stage and she refused to sing a solo. This was for the audition. She didn’t want to sing a solo. She only wanted to do dialog. And we were like, “Okay, that's fine. We’ll make it work.” Along with our mission of “Anyone can do theatre,” we’re very welcoming. We work with people with where they’re at and are willing to make accommodations. So, we allowed her not to sing a solo, but there was something in her performance-- there was a little bit of spark that we saw, a growing comfort of “Okay, she made a slightly more interesting acting choice.” She got more and more comfortable and, eventually, she ended up getting lead roles. And now she is just the most dynamic young performer you would ever see. She sang Carlotta’s song “I’m still here” in “Follies”. And she worked with Nick Blaemire, who came down and worked with the “Follies” cast among other productions at the time. And he just remarked on how amazing it was how she just connected so much with that song as a seventh grader when it’s typically sung by somebody so much older than her. And it just spoke to how, number one, talented these students are, but also just how much they really can do if they’re just given the right environment and the right push.

Jo Reed: So, they do the scenery, the costumes--?

Matthew Nicola: They-- yep.

Jo Reed: The lighting, the sound design.

Matthew Nicola: Yeah. So, we have professional artists that sort of oversee it all.

Jo Reed: Yeah.

Matthew Nicola: But they do it all. We have students that design the lights, design the sound, do the props, do the set, build a set.

Jo Reed: Because I was-- in one of the reviews I was reading, I think it was “All My Sons”--

Matthew Nicola: Oh, yes.

Jo Reed: --again, an Arthur Miller play, not lightweight by any stretch of anyone’s imagination. In the laudatory review, they really also talk about how brilliantly it was designed. I’m thinking--

Matthew Nicola: Oh, yeah.

Jo Reed: --“Was this really designed by students?” and then two paragraphs later, “All done by students!”

Matthew Nicola: To this day, that remains one of my-- the most amazing designs I’ve ever seen and especially just knowing the amount of thought and work that went into it on the students’ end.

Jo Reed: Can you describe it a little bit?

Matthew Nicola: Sure. So, I mean, “All My Sons” is set in the back yard of the Keller’s house. And one of the biggest things that we bring into the design room with all of our student designers and techies-- and it’s something that’s very true-- is “Don’t shoot too far low. We want to hear your craziest ideas.” So, with “All My Sons” the director of that show wanted it to be a very authentic backyard experience. He wanted the audience to feel like they were sitting in the backyard with the Kellers, watching all this unfold in real-time. And we said, “Okay, we’ll make that happen.” So, our student designers-- lighting, sound, and set-- really focus on ways to mimic a real backyard experience. So, with the lighting design, they specifically positioned the lights so that it mimics sort of how the sun would rotate throughout the day and then fade. And we even gave some sunglasses to audience members, because of that experience, because it was in-- it was more of a thrust stage, but because of the way that the lights were designed it would shine on their eyes at some point. And with the set, it was the most realistic backyard experience-- I mean, we had live rock-- I mean, we had real dirt, rocks, and a porch. I mean, it was-- you literally felt as if you were sitting in somebody else’s backyard, which was unsettling, but so appropriate for that particular show and just you’re on top of the actors. One aspect of our show is that we love at Highwood is black box theatre.

Jo Reed: And describe what that is.

Matthew Nicola: So, black box theatre is sort of non-traditional seating. So, you can place the audience and the stage wherever you see fit rather than a traditional stage where there’s a defined audience and defined stage. So, like, if you’re going up to New York, at lot of those stages are traditional: clear proscenium above the stage and then you have the separated audience. But with a lot of our shows, we tend to have audience and stage blurred a little bit, where the actors can go a little more into the audience, and vice versa, to really make it an immersive experience. Because it’s so much more interesting when you can take those creative risks rather than, “Okay, we have our traditional setup. Let’s do what everybody else has done.” What’s the point then? So, yeah, with our black box staging we really try to take full advantage of every little nook and cranny and every little possible use of it from-- with “All My Sons”, okay, where can we place all these rocks and actually create a real rock garden in the stage. Yeah, just trying to find more and more ways to immerse audiences in the world of the plays and musicals and make them see it in a way they wouldn’t normally set or experience it.

Jo Reed: How many students does Highwood touch in a year?

Matthew Nicola: So, in Silver Spring alone-- so, sort of our base, we work with-- I would say, about 400- 500 students and then in the community, at least, 4,000- 5,000. And that incorporates all of our student outreach with schools, productions, classes, workshops, all those different types of things.

Jo Reed: And Highwood got a Distinguished Service Award from Montgomery County.

Matthew Nicola: We did. We did.

Jo Reed: Congratulations.

Matthew Nicola: Thank you. No, that was an incredible recognition to receive. We got that back in 2017 for our work with Montgomery County Public Schools and, yeah, I mean, it’s been amazing to sort of track the trajectory of Highwood As School. Starting out, we had just about three schools. And then the next year it was seven. And then the demand was just amazing, because, I mean, schools are just-- the arts programs are just so underfunded. And one of the most-- more interesting things about being on the ground working with such a wide range of teachers is seeing how resourceful they are, as best they can be, but also seeing where the needs are truly at. And, granted, there’s a lot of different needs and different capacities, but, overarching, just general production and technical needs that you-- are just commonplace for a show, just-- schools just don’t have. And that’s the gap that Highwood has filled and we are thrilled to fill, is really making school productions, not just “Okay, this is a school show.” Because it doesn’t have to be that way. And the teachers and the students don’t view it like that. And we certainly don’t. And our mission and our community mindset really translates well to that school setting of, “Okay, so, let’s work together and let’s make the best quality show we can do as a team.” And we provide technical assistance, we provide production team members. We provide the full range of resources depending on what the school’s needs are. We’ve done a number of special projects that have been funded through the county. So, for example, with Loiederman Middle School, which is the performing arts magnet school, for a long time, even though as the magnet school, you’d think that they would have many performing arts resources at their disposal. Like, good quality sound and lighting, which you think for a school that values dance and music and theatre, they would have--

Jo Reed: Performance, yeah.

Matthew Nicola: Exactly. And nothing.

Jo Reed: Wow. In Montgomery County is not exactly poor.

Matthew Nicola: No. And that was-- Loiederman was a great partner for the few years that we were funded specifically for the Wheaton Arts Cultural project. And, for that, one year we did a co-production of “James and the Giant Peach Junior,” which was a ton of fun. And for that we had hundreds of students involved in the show from the performance end all the way to the tech. We had different technical crew teams that designed and ran the show, stage managed and all that great stuff. And then we also bussed 1,600 Wheaton Elementary School students to come and see it for free, that was the cherry on top of the experience.

Jo Reed: How big is your staff?

Matthew Nicola: So, we have about five or six core staff members. So-- in the office regularly. And then we also have a very long list of teaching artists that come in and work throughout the year in many different capacities. That includes choreographers, classroom teachers, vocal coaches, musical directors, accompanists, all those great things.

Jo Reed: How did you get in this business?

Matthew Nicola: So, I mean, I went to Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

Jo Reed: What did you study?

Matthew Nicola: I studied sociology and theatre. And--

Jo Reed: Theatre was in there.

Matthew Nicola: Oh, yeah! No, theatre has always been a huge, huge part of my life ever since I was a kid. And then I started volunteering at Highwood while I was still in college. And during that time I was managing our box office and studio events. And then, eventually, was getting more and more integrated into their year-round programming as they grew. And then became artistic director officially in May 2015. And then I graduated from Johns Hopkins in December 2016. And then, from then on out, I’ve been at Highwood full time directing, teaching, managing, all of it.

Jo Reed: <laughs>

Matthew Nicola: But I wouldn’t give it up for anything.

Jo Reed: It doesn’t sound like you would. So, what are some of the challenges?

Matthew Nicola: Okay. Challenges: Number one, space. We are in the midst of a major, major expansion and we’ll actually be announcing our next location soon. Because we severely outgrew our last space with the amount of programming we have going on on a daily basis, from classes, to productions, to rehearsals, to everything. It just-- we just didn’t have the space we needed and moving into next season, fortunately, we will, which will make things a lot easier. And the other big challenge is with the volume of shows we do, sometimes it’s “How can we try to still get the most out of our experience in just a short amount of time we have?” Because on one front, you obviously want to really focus on the show and putting on a topnotch show and making sure all the elements are together neatly, but at the same time trying to integrate the training components as much as you can physically and timewise into things. And that’s always been one-- I direct a large number of the shows through the year. So, this season I directed “Peter and the Starcatcher”. I directed-- oh, my gosh-- “Footloose”, “Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder”. I directed “Sweeney Todd”. So, it’s--

Jo Reed: That’s a lot.

Matthew Nicola: My directing lineup this year was pretty jam-packed, but I learned a lot from each of those experiences. And each teaches you a different aspect. Honestly, directing has taught me the most of really anything. Managing large groups of people, managing tight deadlines, especially when you’re directing multiple projects at once, and, yeah, just trying to figure out ways to make the most of your time. Because there’s so much you want to do even just beyond the show. There’s so much character development and so much character discussion and world-building work you want to do. And there’s just only so much time.

Jo Reed: It’s space and time.

Matthew Nicola: Exactly. Space and time. But--

Jo Reed: And what about the rewards?

Matthew Nicola: Oh! Rewards. I mean, by far, the biggest reward is just seeing how these students grow not only as performers, but as people, seeing them evolve from shy, slightly awkward, introverted students to confident, collaborative, passionate artists and people. And if anything, we want students to walk away from a Highwood show or their Highwood experience just feeling more in touch with the people around them and feeling more in touch with their communities and we want to produce socially responsible citizens, where we can feel like they feel confident of contributing to the communities they have or contributing to whatever-- really, whatever facet of life that they end up in. Just to feel empowered. And just to see how in just one show that can change somebody. It’s amazing. And then there’s the reward of the feeling of putting on such a great show with a team of people who share that same investment. It’s a very special and unique feeling and especially at Highwood where you are surrounded by very passionate students and teachers and staff. It’s a lot. It’s overwhelming. It’s an overwhelming joy and pride and it just carries over into a lot of our work and that’s-- and when people ask us, “Oh, my god, how do you handle 12 shows or 13 shows?” That’s just the Highwood spirit. It’s what you do and it’s what we enjoy and it’s what the students really want out of their time at Highwood. We are their second home and they want to be challenged and they want to dive into these shows, because they want to learn. And we’re happy to provide that.

Jo Reed: Okay, Matthew, thank you so much. I really appreciate you coming in--

Matthew Nicola: Yes--

Jo Reed: --especially now, when I know how busy you are! Thank you.

Matthew Nicola: <laughs> No, more than happy to. This has been great. Thank you.

Jo Reed: Thank you.

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Jo Reed: That’s Matt Nicola, Artistic director of the Highwood Theater. You can find more about the theater at

You've been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. You can subscribe to Art Works wherever you get your podcasts, so please do. And leave us a rating on Apple because it helps people to find us. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.

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Matt Nicola, the artistic director of the Highwood Theatre, believes deeply in the company’s double-pronged philosophy: “anyone can do theater” and “theater builds community.” Highwood is an educational theater with classes for students from kindergarten to 12th grade covering all aspects of theater, from acting to lighting to set and sound design to directing. In addition, the students put on 12-13 full-fledged shows a year, taking care of all aspects of the production with some guidance from theater professionals. The shows are sophisticated—these students are performing in shows like Sweeney Todd and Arthur Miller’s All My Sons. They are also uniformly very well-received, which is a bit of surprise since there are no auditions for the student productions. Whoever signs up, gets a part. But Highwood has discovered that given an opportunity and a certain amount of guidance, students are capable of extraordinary things. In this week’s podcast, you can hear about what theater teaches students, and what the students teach Nicola and the rest of the Highwood staff.