It matters who you know, and in 1997, the 21-year-old Jason Eagan knew almost no one in New York. But quality can indeed make up for quantity. One contact — the illustrator Ian Falconer, now of “Olivia” fame — ushered him into a glamorous downtown crowd. Another, Julie Taymor, pointed him toward a behind-the-scenes job on “The Lion King.”
In the half a lifetime since he arrived from his native Los Angeles with dreams of directing on Broadway, Mr. Eagan has made himself into a vital New York someone for many other artists to know.
For the past 15 years, he has been the remarkably well-connected, stealthily low-profile, principal creative force shaping the innovative Off Broadway incubator Ars Nova. From its base on West 54th Street in Hell’s Kitchen, Mr. Eagan, the 43-year-old founding artistic director, has built a formidable record as a spotter and nurturer of outside-the-box talent.
He’s the guy who plucked an obscure Billy Eichner out of one Manhattan basement and an unknown Lin-Manuel Miranda out of another; who discovered the alt-cabaret comedian Bridget Everett at midnight at a karaoke bar; who looked upon the glorious excess of Dave Malloy’s nascent “War and Peace” musical, “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812,” and said, in effect: “More.” “Keep going.” And “Yes.”
“The joy for me,” Mr. Eagan explained over a glass of wine recently, “is finding the thing — the person or the show — that’s completely mesmerizing. Then the job is to figure out what we can do with that.”
His genre-mashing taste is the unifying aesthetic at a company known for pop-culture-savvy experimentation, with a hipness that sets it apart. In a theater industry reliant on the M.F.A. pipeline to replenish its talent supply, Mr. Eagan is the rare gatekeeper who actively seeks out extraordinary artists on the fringes who need someone to help them through.
“Jason’s always three steps ahead of the culture,” said Mr. Eichner, who spent two years developing his overwrought, celebrity-obsessed “Billy on the Street” persona in monthly live talk shows on Ars Nova’s stage, beginning in 2005.
Stardom was still a long way away, but simply being there put him on the radar.
Artist by artist, show by show, Ars Nova has been filtering into the mainstream.
You can see it in the alumni rolls of its playwriting residency, Play Group; the inaugural bunch, formed in 2007, includes such TV heavyweights as Elizabeth Meriwether (“New Girl”), Beau Willimon (“House of Cards”), Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch (“GLOW”).
You can see it in Ars Nova hits that lately have gone off into the wider world — like Bess Wohl’s “Small Mouth Sounds,” born in Play Group; Jennifer Kidwell and Scott R. Sheppard’s “Underground Railroad Game,” which in January toured to Australia; and the groundbreaking “Comet,” whose lauded transfer to Broadway in 2016 was a glittering but bittersweet triumph.
And you could see it one evening this month, when Mr. Miranda — also part of that first Play Group — took the stage of the Greenwich House Theater with his hip-hop improv group, Freestyle Love Supreme. With tickets priced at $ 1,000 to $ 2,500, it was a sold-out benefit for Ars Nova, celebrating its expansion to the former Barrow Street Theater in Greenwich Village. (The Mad Ones’ latest show, “Mrs. Murray’s Menagerie,” starts performances there on March 26.)
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When Mr. Eagan first saw Freestyle Love Supreme, in 2004, they were performing in the basement of the Drama Book Shop. Their eight-week Ars Nova run that fall was Mr. Miranda’s first professional New York show, sharing a bill with a trapeze act.
In 2005, Mr. Eagan took the troupe to the HBO Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen, Colo., to put them in front of an industry audience. Mr. Miranda was his roommate on the trip, and when he suggested watching a movie, he handed Mr. Eagan a case of DVDs he’d brought.
“I started flipping through, and it’s all musicals,” said Mr. Eagan. “It was this penny-drop moment for me, where I was like, ‘Right: If you want to break the form, you have to know the form that you’re breaking.’ ”
For his part, Mr. Miranda doesn’t recall the DVDs, or that (as Mr. Eagan says) they settled on the TV version of Stephen Sondheim’s “Passion.”
“What I remember from the Aspen trip,” he said, “was actually getting very sick, and Jason was kind of the one who took care of me. He was getting me soup so that I could then rap at high altitudes.
“So he was like my Aspen wife,” Mr. Miranda added, cheerfully.
Playground and Launchpad
In a series of hourslong interviews for this story, Mr. Eagan was thoughtful, funny and self-scrutinizing, with an appealing lack of pretense. These days he lives in Bushwick, Brooklyn, with his partner of 13 years, Zach Shaffer, an actor; their cat, Scout; and their dog, Benny. But in 2003, when Ars Nova’s founders, Jenny and Jon Steingart, hired him, he was a 27-year-old with instructions to program performances that he felt passionate about.
So he filled the 99-seat space with a nonstop mix of comedy, music and theater, whose creators ended up watching one another’s work — an organic, accidental cross-fertilization.
As Ars Nova evolved — toning down the chaos of the early years, creating residencies to bring artists into the fold, commissioning playwrights and composers — it has always been intended as both playground and launchpad.
Dedicated to discovering artists and supporting them in the emergent stages of their careers, it then aims to nudge them out the door. “But we are terrible at saying goodbye,” Mr. Eagan said.
Keeping Sorrow to Himself
Ask the director Rachel Chavkin for a Jason Eagan story, and she flashes back to her first big opening: “Comet” at Ars Nova, in 2012. As they stood outside on 54th Street, Mr. Eagan talked her through what to expect from the attention to come — from critics and producers. He was “such a good caretaker of me at this huge moment of segue in my career,” she said.
Tending to others was a skill he learned early, or at least that’s the way he thinks of his childhood, in the San Fernando Valley. His parents were high school sweethearts who taught tap dance together as teenagers, and they married young. His mother was 20 when she had him, his father 21. Before he turned a year old, they split up.
He remembers, when he was small, feeling that he “had to be a grown-up” for his mother, because she had it hard enough, and flying alone to Northern California to visit his father, who was gay and by then also out. Close to both of them, he didn’t let on when he overheard his mother say that his father was H.I.V.-positive.
Until his father sat him down to say that he was sick, he quietly hoped it wasn’t true. His father’s death from AIDS in 1988, when Jason had just turned 13, was the mostly secret trauma of his childhood, in an era when AIDS was surrounded by stigma and silence. In eighth grade at a new school where he didn’t have any friends yet, he kept his sorrow to himself.
His childhood was also marked, though, by a sustaining love of music and performance — singing for years in children’s choirs; backing up REO Speedwagon, with some other kids, on the “Goonies” soundtrack; being a supernumerary at Los Angeles Opera, starting in junior high. At his performing arts high school — where he was the mascot, a bewigged Alexander Hamilton — he gravitated toward musical theater, discovering almost by chance that he liked directing.
Given his curious, lightning-fast mind and attention to detail, it’s surprising that he had no interest in formal education after that. His only college experience was part of a single semester that he felt pressured into, until he decided it was a waste of time. A leader now in a milieu where college, if not graduate school, is the rule, he makes self-conscious jokes about that blank on his résumé. But Mr. Eagan has always charted his own path.
‘Fear Can Be Exhilarating’
If he had been a student somewhere, instead of a stage manager at Los Angeles Opera, he probably wouldn’t have met Ms. Taymor when she came to direct “The Flying Dutchman.” He was only 19, and she remembers him as talented and eager — while he remembers his thrill at her work, and the postcards he wrote relentlessly to stay in touch. As “The Lion King” got ready for Broadway, Disney Theatrical Productions hired him to manage the design studio.
On his second night as a New Yorker, some people he’d met through his friend Mr. Falconer brought him along to an invite-only workshop by a friend of theirs. The show, almost a year before it opened Off Broadway, was “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” starring John Cameron Mitchell, who also wrote the book.
Mr. Eagan would go on to direct “Hedwig” outside the city, and to stage-manage it in New York. In 2003, he was working for Mr. Mitchell on what would become the movie “Shortbus” when he got the Ars Nova job.
He fell for it so hard that in his first two years, by choice, he didn’t take a day off. He sounds genuinely happy about what he and the team there have built. Even after “Great Comet” — and the public fight with commercial producers over proper program credit on Broadway — the company’s agenda is unchanged.
But if you ask Mr. Eagan about his future, or his personal ambitions, he turns pleasantly vague.
Over a long lunch one February afternoon in the West Village, he reminisced about his early days in the city. Back in the ’90s, he said, he was out every night, basking in the gay culture downtown, with “drag and go-go and burlesque and everything going on in every bar.”
All of that was theater; all of that was formative. But as much as it piqued his curiosity, he felt a constant fear deep inside. The way his father suffered toward the end of his life, so frail that he needed his son to bathe him, “it’s like burned in my brain,” he said.
“I was enamored by that culture and night life, and the sex of it and the drugs of it and doing it all,” Mr. Eagan continued. “But his story and what happened to him is very much a part of my identity as a gay man in New York, too.” He stopped himself. “I don’t know why I’m even talking about that, or what it means.”
Isn’t it about fear being paired with joy? And maybe with fully living?
“Yes,” he said, instantly. “And the fear can be exhilarating, too.”
Half a moment later, in a perfectly smooth hairpin turn, he connected that emotional combination to his work at Ars Nova, where what he wants is to “create this place where people can step into the darkness with exhilaration and joy and fear all at once, and try anything and everything.”
“But I’m also trying to create the safest place to do that,” he said. “So people can go as far as they want to go, and try everything they want to try, but be, like, swaddled” — and here he mimed rocking an infant in his arms — “as they develop their artistic voice.”
“And then,” he added, as if he were a person who has no trouble with goodbyes, “they go out into the big, bad, show-business world.”
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Review: ‘Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812,’ on the Heels of ‘Hamilton’