Is New York City part of America? Off-Broadway and the Regional Theater Tony Award
“New York is the capital of no known foreign country,” Saul Bellow once said, a view that New Yorkers might hold as deeply as people in the rest of the United States, but for us it’s a reason to love the city. For them, it seems a reason to hate it—“New York,” shorthand for a host of evils.
But, as I realized with a start last week, it’s not just populists, conservatives, and bigots who resent New York. It’s theater people too.
Shortly after this year’s Tony Awards, a Tony committee announced that the regional theater Tony, which has been awarded since 1976, would for the first time now be open to theaters within the five boroughs of New York City. This meant that the “The Antoinette Perry Award for Excellence in Theatre,” as it’s officially called, might finally, after sixty-seven years, be acknowledging the possibility of excellent theater Off-Broadway.
This seemed a backdoor way for the Tonys to include Off-Broadway. There is no guarantee that a theater in New York will be chosen for the regional award, which has gone to theaters from Washington, D.C. to Los Angeles, Minneapolis to Atlanta. But, I thought, this more inclusive policy is better than nothing.
To my surprise, few people seemed to agree with me at the annual meeting last week of the American Theatre Critics Association, the only national organization of professional drama critics. ATCA is the organization that chooses the theater that is awarded the Regional Tony each year. (Technically, the association only recommends the theater for the Tony; its recommendation can be rejected, but it never has been.) The chairman of ATCA made a point of expressing the indignation of members of the executive committee.
Now, some of this had to do with the process: ATCA members were understandably miffed that they were only informed of this rule change after it had been made.
We should not be divided into red stages and blue stages. We are the united stages of America. This land is our land, and it includes the New York Island.
But a number of the members clearly felt that “regional theater” meant everything but New York. Even these savvy professional critics apparently do not make a distinction between the commercial theater represented by Broadway—no more than fifty shows a year in forty Broadway houses—and the thousands of shows in hundreds of venues that have nothing to do with Broadway. To give a glimpse of the world of New York theater outside of Broadway: A party this past Monday announced the nominees of the 2013 Independent Theater Awards—one-hundred and thirty-four individual artists, sixty different productions, and sixty Off-Off-Broadway theater companies selected from some 2,000 productions Off-Off Broadway alone.
ATCA members’ prejudice against New York theater is woven into the fabric of the organization. Each year, the association also honors a playwright with something called the Harold and Mimi Steinberg/ATCA New Play Award, a prestigious prize that carries with it a $25,000 reward, with additional monetary rewards of $7,500 each for two other outstanding plays. To qualify, a play has to have received its first professional production within the calendar year somewhere in the United States except within the five boroughs of New York City. If the play has received a professional production anywhere within the five boroughs, it’s deemed ineligible for consideration. Does a production of an emerging playwright’s work at Harbor Lights Theater Company in Staten Island, for example, or Teatro Pregones in the Bronx, or the Astoria Performing Arts Center in Queens mean that a playwright has hit the big time and can’t possibly use the recognition or the $25,000? Meanwhile, a production at the Mile Square Theater in Hoboken, New Jersey—which is miles closer to Broadway—would keep the playwright in the running for the award.
I’ve heard the arguments for such anti-New York—and/or anti-Off/Off-Off Broadway policies—and I reject them:
- The Tony Awards are about Broadway. There are other awards that focus on Off-Broadway.
The Tony Awards, which were created before Off-Broadway existed, are by far the most high-profile theater award in America—the only theater award that is broadcast on network television. The Tonys already acknowledges that Broadway has no monopoly on quality theater in the United States, and have honored non-Broadway theater since 1976—that’s when they first started awarding a Regional Theater Tony.
- The Regional Tony is an outgrowth of the regional theater movement, which came into its own in the 1960s with the specific aim of developing the art form outside the nation’s theatrical capital. Regional theater by definition does not include any theaters in New York.
This is the argument by out-of-town critics whom I greatly respect, one of whom sent me a link to a Wikipedia entry about regional theaters. But that entry said that regional theaters are “most often” outside New York City, and included a half dozen or so within the five boroughs, including Lincoln Center, Roundabout, Theater for a New Audience, and Manhattan Theater Club. (Perhaps ironically, three of those four will not be eligible for a Regional Tony because they also run Broadway houses.)
Whatever the historical definition, it is abundantly clear that many theaters in New York reflect the values—and the struggles—of regional theaters. In any case, it is the very growth of the regional theater movement that makes the exclusion of any and all theaters in New York City outmoded and unfair. Five of the theaters that have gotten Regional Theater Tonys are all located in Chicago. I don’t begrudge these selections; they are all deserving. But why then is there no similar resentment of Chicago, and a fear that Chicago will dominate and push out theaters in other cities?
At a panel during the ATCA conference, New York Times critic Jason Zinoman said that the discussions critics have been having recently reminded him of the last scenes in zombie apocalypse movies—the survivors chatter on with their petty disagreements, while the zombie horde just outside the door closes in.
Times have changed, and it’s time to adjust, putting aside the silly prejudices and resentments and uniting as one nation’s theater lovers and theater makers. To paraphrase President Obama, we hum along to the awesome Oklahoma in New York, and we wait for Godot in Oklahoma. We write about little league in NYC, and perform gay plays in Georgia. We should not be divided into red stages and blue stages. We are the united stages of America. This land is our land, and it includes the New York Island.