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.

 

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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 Awardsone-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.

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"Whatever the historical definition, it is abundantly clear that many theaters in New York reflect the values—and the struggles—of regional theaters"

What utter nonsense. Drivel, even.

First, the theaters in New York have a major advantage over almost every other regional theater market in the country; New York City is the premiere destination for theater tourists. No one's hopping on a plane to see a play in Miami. Or Philadelphia. Or even Louisville, outside of the Humana Festival.

Second, no other market has the sheer volume of available talent that New York has, except possibly L.A. And we're not just talking actors; but designers, composers, playwrights, directors, choreographers - NYC is the heart of the nation's performing arts.

Third, consider the supply houses; rental companies, and fabrication shops.

Fourth, the volume of rehearsal space.

It may be more expensive to produce in NYC, but everything else is working with them.

I'm with the critics on this one; only an idiot could equate Off-Broadway with Regional Theater.

1. If you think tourists come to New York to see Off or Off-OffBroadway shows, I have a bridge to sell you. If you don’t like the Brooklyn Bridge, I’d be happy to sell you one that’s in Miami.

2-5. Your casual dismissal of the extra cost reminds me of the time a used-car dealer tried to sell me a brand new luxury car because, he said, it was a better investment than any jalopy I could actually afford.

There are advantages and disadvantages to making theater in New York, but we really are part of American theater. Would you disqualify the Yankees from competing in the World Series, because of their willingness to spend more money on the team?

Actually, I understand both sides in this argument, but I find it irksome that you don't see any merit to the other side. Yet here, your argument declares (without much proof but a fair amount of sarcasm) the points cljahn advances aren't advantages, even as your final analogy with the Yankees concedes an advantage: They have deeper pockets. There are, of course, many of us who loathe the Yankees because of this advantage. But even if that particular playing field were leveled, as it were, the Yankees would still outshine most other teams in the public eye: They're in New York, media capital of the world.

In other words, many off-Broadway productions already loom larger than almost any production from any other city -- despite theater artists' gripes about the lack of attention from critics, New Yorkers are swamped with hometown media coverage which also, in the case of the NYTimes and network TV, happens to be national media. The CitiBike project, to step offstage for a moment, received extensive national, even international attention. It's about rental bikes and bike lanes in NYC -- transportation innovations adapted decades ago in other US cities.

One might also add that off-Broadway, for all of its resentful, neglected sibling relationship with Broadway, lives, in fact, in something of a symbiosis with it. There is, of course, the production pipeline that sees successful off-Broadway productions moving uptown. Not often, but still: How often does that happen to resident theaters outside of the Empire State?

What's more, how many off-Broadway productions, even if they don't move to the Great Bland Way, feature Broadway talent on- and off-stage? Off-Broadway shows are simply far better connected and wired into the Broadway industry than any from outside.

(To give you a leg-up for a counter-argument: I would make the case that much of the finest off-Broadway work has been done, not by would-be Broadway babes, but precisely by the ones who took root away from Broadway, defined themselves against it and have offered shows that could never make it there. Charles Ludlam would be an excellent place to start.)

So here's my analogy. The novel-writing world has long resented and wrestled with the limitations and meaning of the vague, condescending yet unfortunately useful term, 'regional novelist.' Larry McMurtry, before Lonesome Dove made him a one-man Texas industry, used to sport a t-shirt that read, 'Minor Regional Novelist,' even though two of his books had been made into esteemed and successful Hollywood films, Hud and The Last Picture Show.

A few years ago, critic-turned-novelist Walter Kirm summed up the irrational, lopsided situation when it comes to considering the artistic achievements of writers: Anything written set in New York and certain parts of Connecticut, Pennsylvania and New Jersey, are of universal importance. Everything else in the world is regional.

Jerome, I find myself agreeing with everything you just said, except of course your characterization of what I said. Let me repeat (and emphasize): There ARE advantages that theaters have in New York over most other places in the United States. How could I deny that? There are also disadvantages. (See for example Sarah's parenthetical remark in her comment, and cljahn's comment about costs.) Another one of the disadvantages is this unfortunate resentment of anything New York.Bottom line for me:1. Off-Broadway deserves recognition at the Tonys.2. NYC is a part of America.

OK. So, bottom line:1. Off-Broadway already gets tons more media attention than resident companies elsewhere in the country. Why grant them access to the single sop those companies get from the only national theater broadcast, their one, major network recognition?2. The Tonys were never created to represent 'American theater.' They reflect the Broadway industry. The one category that does reflect something of the rest of the country is partly due to the fact that a great many Broadway voters are actually touring presenters from outside New York (that's also why the 'best musical' award often goes to the show most likely to tour well in the 'provinces' rather than the one beloved by critics or Broadway goers). That one category is specifically designated by the rather condescending term, "regional theater." By common understanding, "regional theater" means outside of New York. We are now to consider off-Broadway a "region"?

A radical, currently unrealistic idea: do away with the current format of the Tonys altogether, and do as the eastern Europeans do: have a national theater festival once a year that showcases the best performances from around the country, and then have an awards ceremony to give awards for the best productions, which would be the Tonys. I don't believe Broadway now necessarily represents the best that American theater has to offer anyway, so why keep pretending that our one nationally-recognized award represents the best American theater?

Even though I live in Chicago I welcome this change. Not only because it seems fair (given the vast majority of New York theaters are "Off-Broadway"), but because it brings us one step closer to the day when most people watching the Tony Awards realize that only a handful of plays and productions are eligible to win a Tony, and that most of the best plays, productions, and performances are elsewhere.

(I've noticed that most people [that is, people who may only see one play a year but still like to watch the Tony Awards] seem to think that to make it to Broadway in the first place a play must have already somehow "beaten out" all of the other plays in the country, and thus the Tony Awards really do represent the best of the best. They don't understand that any play, no matter how good or bad [or lewd or old] [cough] can go to Broadway if someone is willing to finance it.)

..." it brings us one step closer to the day when most people watching the Tony Awards realize that only a handful of plays and productions are eligible to win a Tony, and that most of the best plays, productions, and performances are elsewhere." This speaks to me -- as a member of ATCA, as a resident of NYC (who once lived in Chicago, and DC and Boston and ...), as a member of -- and current nominator for -- the Drama Desk Awards (the one theatre award program that DOES recognize on- and off-Broadway shows together in the same season), I'm intrigued by this new development. New York is America too .. yep.

I have been thinking about this topic a lot lately, because I definitely see both sides of the debate! While regional theatre doesn't "technically" exclude New York City, I always thought that the spirit behind the award was to provide recognition to theatres who are producing great work while constrained by certain challenges to operating outside the nation's theatre capital. Off-Broadway theatres benefit from New York's increased overall theatre audience, depth of donor pool/foundation/government support, and a large and competitive workforce (actors, admin staff, etc).

(Of course, on the flip side, the sheer volume of theatres in New York means we are all competing for those audiences, those donors, and those staff, which is a challenge in and of itself.)

However! As someone who works for an Off-Broadway theatre, I have always been frustrated by Off-Broadway's total exclusion from what is, as you say above, the most high-profile theatre award in the country. Instead of lumping Off-Broadway in with regional, why not just create an "Excellence in Off-Broadway Theatre" award in addition to the regional award? That seems like the most logical solution to me.

I agree, wholeheartedly. Despite Jonathan's pedantry about the definition of and poorly written wikipedia page about the regional movement, I think it is safe to say that when someone says "regional theater" most people think about theater outside NYC

Perhaps the Steinberg/ATCA New Play Award should expand it's boundaries to include off-off-Broadway productions. Take that up with the funder.

People mad about this change in policy aren't arguing for a lack of representation of off-Broadway houses (in the Tony's or anywhere). They are arguing for an award that does represent the distinct regions.