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Will, Technique, Stamina, Drive: An Interview with Nyla Watson, Graduate Student and Musical Theatre Performer


Nyla Watson, a graduate student in Steinhardt's Department of Music and Performing Arts, is a musical theatre actor who has appeared in PBS' Live at Lincoln Center's production of Show Boat, Gigantic the Musical (off-Broadway), as well as the touring companies of Wicked and The Color Purple. Her NYU credits include Madam Rose in Gypsy and Reno Sweeney in the concert version of Anything Goes with the Broadway Orchestra Ensemble. She is currently pursuing her masters degree in vocal performance and vocal pedagogy.  We spoke to her about how she balances coursework and teaching with a career in musical theatre.

Nyla Watson in a straw hat for her role in The Color Purple.

Nyla Watson performed in The Color Purple.

I did my very first music theater performance during my freshman year of high school. Before that, I wanted to be an accountant and a math teacher. 

When did you become interested in performing?

I became interested in performing professionally after I did my very first music theater performance during my freshman year of high school. Before that, I wanted to be an accountant and a math teacher. I loved numbers and problem solving, still do. I never really enjoyed singing as Nyla Watson in front of people when I was very young even though I would get compliments on my voice. I enjoyed choir and singing at church in small ensembles but never being front and center. One of my high school teachers heard me singing in the hallway one day and recommended that I audition for the upcoming production of Little Shop of Horrors. Being cast as one of the urchins was so much fun because I was in an ensemble again but when those lights came up and I didn’t have to be Nyla Watson and I could be as big and bold and loud as little Nyla craved to be but with someone else’s words and actions but my emotions and experiences, I knew I was home.

Why did you decide to get a graduate degree at NYU Steinhardt?

I always knew that higher education would be a part of my future. The Word Church, my home church in Cleveland, Ohio, really harped on education. I also knew that teaching would be in my future at some point. When I was in undergrad at Baldwin Wallace University, my voice teacher, Ben Czarnota, had this vocal pedagogy certificate in his office. That office became a very safe space for me. I always knew that when I went back to school, a vocal pedagogy certificate was non-negotiable because I wanted my students to get from me what I got from Ben, and I somehow tied the two together in my brain. When it was time to look for a graduate school, I googled the EXACT program I wanted: a masters of music in voice with a vocal pedagogy certificate.  NYU was the first program that popped up. I prayed; God said, “Yes.” And the rest is history.

How do you manage a career in the theatre with your studies?

I keep communication open with my teachers and my agents and say “no” to most things that come my way because my focus right now is my degree. I knew God said yes to this so if there was something career-wise that needed to get done, it would either work within my schedule or it would have to wait until May 2020. Essentially, I had to take a break from my career to further my studies because being full-time for two years is a commitment and it’s a time-consuming commitment. I’m also not only getting my degree but, as a student in the the vocal pedagogy certificate program, I've been given the amazing opportunity to teach at NYU, so I have a roster of students that are counting on me to give my all. My career has taken a bit of a back seat for now,  but there were concerts and readings that I was able to do. Communicating my priorities has been the key.

As a student in the the vocal pedagogy certificate program, I've been given the amazing opportunity to teach at NYU,

You played Madame Rose recently in Gypsy. What do you think you brought to that role?

Madam Rose has everything. Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim wrote a hell of a woman. She is full and layered and brilliant and complicated and sexy and quick. She brought more out of me than any other character I’ve ever dreamed of playing. It was a test of will, technique, stamina, drive. She required every ounce of my being. Doing this, while maintaining my studies and my students was a triumph that I BARELY managed. Lol! She made me rise to the occasion. Rose gave Nyla so much more than Nyla gave Rose, unequivocally.

What is a role that you hope you'll play one day and why do you love about that character?

Two come to mind. Sofia in The Color Purple and Persephone in Hadestown. I love playing strong women who love their men! They don’t take anyone’s crap, but are so nuanced in their approach of doing so. They’re not one thing. It’s not a broad stroke of an individual. There are so many colors and layers and levels and they are forced through their given circumstances to paint with them all. Those two are my dream roles right now.


Nyla Watson in NYU's production of Gypsy.

Nyla Watson as Rose in the NYU production of Gypsy.

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