The awards system for independent theatre in New York is broken. I have a proposal for a way to fix it. But first, I should explain why I think it’s broken, and why I feel that’s it is so very important for it to be fixed.
To do so, I am going to look at the history of the Obie Award, which for many years served a very central role in downtown and independent theatre. In 1956, Ed Fancher, publisher of The Village Voice, and Jerry Tallmer, their chief theatre critic, noticed a problem in New York theatre. There was a growing number of productions that were classified as Off-Broadway, and the work being done there often equaled or exceeded the work being done on Broadway. The Off-Broadway productions tended to be more experimental and to include newer plays and younger artists, who lacked recognition. So they formed the Obie Awards.
By 1964, The Village Voice realized that the Off-Broadway designation was in itself limiting to the flourishing new world of independent theatre, what some were calling Off-Off-Broadway at the time. So he included them as well. That year, the Living Theatre and Judson Memorial Church, both young and exciting Off-Off-Broadway innovators, were the big winners. They are still operating today, buoyed by that early recognition The Living Theatre’s production of The Brig, which won the Obie in 1964, most recently won for the revival of the production in 2007).
Nowadays, New York’s Off-Off-Broadway, or, as many modern practitioners refer to the movement, independent theatre, is booming. The number of productions has increased tenfold. The talent on display in small venues throughout the boroughs is mind bending. The chances for recognition, however, have become fewer.
The Obie Awards have become an institution, and like many institutions, they have evolved to mostly recognize other institutions. The chances of being recognized or even being seen by an Obie voter in a non-institutional production are extremely slim. In 2014, I wrote a blog post, noting that under 10 percent of the work recognized has a budget of $250,000 or less.
Since then, the situation has gotten worse. In 2016, of the 20 awards connected to a specific theatrical production, only one (I’ll Never Love Again, at the Bushwick Starr) conceivably dips below the $250,000 threshold (I base the number on my own experience as a theatre producer and general manager). Note the institutional producers of the other shows receiving Obies: The Public, The Atlantic, Roundabout, New York Theatre Workshop, Signature, Second Stage, Playwrights Horizons, and New World Stages.
Furthermore, American Theatre Wing, producer of the Tonys, has taken over production of the Obies as well, making it a more star-studded event. And last year’s Obies did not even announce its judges until February, making it difficult for less visible productions to encourage those judges to attend.
Why is this important? Because for years, the Obies were one of the best ways to recognize the work being done in those small, independent theatres. And that recognition led to those artists being seen (and paid) on a larger scale. There is a myth that this is the function The Obies still serves. As I demonstrated, it does not. And there is no replacement for this very valuable and important job.
There are a few smaller awards given out, most notably the New York Innovative Theatre Awards. (I have received an IT Award and was nominated for two others, so I certainly appreciate them.) The folks who run the awards do an admirably industrious job in service of the theatre community. But they do not have the high profile of the Obies, and cannot influence careers in the same manner. This is partly because of how they are determined, via audience vote mixed with three random judges culled from a hundred different artists who are themselves under consideration for an award.
So here is my proposal: a new award, given not at an awards ceremony nor awarded by a panel of judges, but a gesture of recognition, from one artist to another. My ideal would be to have a small set of theatre artists who have received some recognition in the field choose one or two artists each. Who would be giving these awards? Perhaps Taylor Mac, or Suzan Lori-Parks, or John Jesurun, or Mimi Lien, or Lisa Kron, or anyone who has a particular interest in perpetuating the legacy of downtown theatre.
The awards would be confined to shows with budgets of $100,000 or less, and they would be given in a lunch arranged between the artists. There is no money behind this idea, so I envision no cash reward. But it would amount to a personal endorsement, not by a panel of judges, but by one particular artist to another artist (or set of artists, if the award is more broadly for a production).
It also seems to me to be a more honest sort of award. I have always had an ambivalent attitude towards awards. The judges change, tastes are particular, and sometimes they seem to award what’s popular over what’s artistically innovative. Here, the only statement being made is that this particular artist was impressed by this particular piece of work.
I have pondered trying to put together something like this on my own. I know some potential judges, and could make the proposal. But I realized I neither have the time, with my own artistic work, nor honestly the profile to make this happen on my own. So I have decided to place the idea into the wild/the commons to see if it resonates, and whether I can find partners, judges, or even volunteers.
Ideally, the announcement would be made in a publication. I even suggested HowlRound, though understandably, since this is a New York-centric project (right now), they demurred. However, I will say that, with the right partners, this could be a national project. Small, exciting theatre exists across the country, and this may be a chance to nurture it.
But for now, this is just a proposal, in need of feedback, and in need of help. I present it to you here. Please let me know your thoughts in the comments.