Taking Cues from a Different Audience



Mimi Panzica, Reporter

Checking in with Aaron Nichols, Executive Director at the South Bend Civic Theatre:


I met Aaron Nichols around the time he landed the title of executive director at The Civic, however I had been hearing about him for years. I remember thinking this was a guy that people really seemed to listen to. I felt like I wanted to make a good impression on him. 

The South Bend Civic Theatre has been my second home for nearly my entire theatre career, and had seen several people try to make it work. When I found out in early 2017 he’d taken the role as executive director, I knew it would be a turning point in the theatre’s history.

I sat down with Nichols recently to ask him about his career, how he got to his current role, and what it takes to run a successful community theatre in Michiana. 

“I didn’t even know about the theatre really,” Nichols said when asked about his early days. “My family was not a musical family.” It wasn’t until he saw a production at the high school he planned to attend that Nichols knew theater was for him. From there on, through college and beyond, he has worked in theater all over the Midwest, eventually landing a job Audience Development Manager for Shakespeare at Notre Dame, and volunteering with local productions on the side. 

Fun Fact: It was during one of those side gigs that a director friend asked him if he would play Captain Hook in the show he was directing at JAHS. Their Hook dropped weeks before Peter Pan opened…so the director turned to Nichols. The only problem? Nichols was in his mid 30’s, but agreed to perform because he trusted the director and had the blessing from the rest of the cast.  

Once he landed at the Civic, Nichols hasn’t had time to look back. The job hasn’t been the easiest. Running a theater means a lot of late nights with actors, tech people, and show runs. It also means a lot of early morning meetings with donors and theatre staff, parents, volunteers and vendors. 

“The hardest thing is work life balance. This is a job that demands a lot of time, and I have to wear several hats.” Nichols is both the theatre’s managing director and the artistic director, two jobs that were previously separate but combined when he started.

One thing that is unusual about Michiana is the sheer number of theaters and acting companies we have, each with their own niche. From small, edgy pieces to youth involvement, our region has a wide array in every genre. However, according to Nichols, the Civic has a very unique opportunity.

“The other theaters have their niche, but I don’t think any other theater does it all like the Civic, and I think there is a power to doing it all”. He believes the Civic provides a space where, if you see the whole season, you will be exposed to a whole spectrum of theater, not just one area. On top of that, the Civic is lucky enough to have its own building. “Yes there are other theaters that rent and have spaces where they primarily perform, but because we own our building, we can take risks.” 

Nichols also points to the Civic’s ongoing effort towards community involvement. One way they go about that is through mission-based programming. “The function of a civic theater is to reflect and represent its community,” Nichols explains. “We do that in a variety of ways from recognizing the needs of our ASD patrons by having sensory-friendly shows, and ASL interpreters. We also have ongoing, multi-year programming like the August Wilson Project. We have a plaque at our actors’ door that reads ‘We pledge to be a light to illuminate the darkness; a flame to ignite curiosity and imagination, and a beacon to guide all toward hope, unity, and understanding’. We live by that. I am just so proud of our community theatre.”

SIDEBAR: So you wanna be an actor?

Nichols has advice for people who find that theater is their passion. While he was encouraged to pursue it by teachers and his parents, he says, “You can’t just cruise on your natural talent.” Theater is a business and it takes work to get to that next step of the ladder. “You can’t become a plumber unless you know how to do certain things.” He encourages aspiring actors or theater students to take classes outside of school and do research on preparation for college and beyond. 

For more information on education classes and upcoming community-based learning opportunities, or just to see an upcoming show, visit www.sbct.org. Photo credit to