About Theater Awards (2005)

[This is a reprint of an article I posted on one of my old blogs, the nytheatre i, on October 14, 2005. I find it is still entirely relevant.]

Yesterday, we learned that this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature has been awarded to Harold Pinter. This is good news for the Atlantic Theatre, which is doing a double-bill of two short Pinter plays, beginning next month. It’s obviously also good news for Pinter, who will receive a large monetary award (Wikipedia says it’s about a million bucks), plus recognition as a laureate for time eternal.

The announcement reminded me that I hadn’t yet dealt with this email from Matt Freeman, which he sent to me almost a month ago, just after the NYIT Awards bash:

Hey there,

In light of the recent Innovative Theatre awards, it might be a good time to ask you, as editor of the site, about your personal view of awards ceremonies. I don’t think I’ve ever heard you publicly discuss it. I also am curious how the Innovative Theatre Awards are distinguishable from other awards given out during the year, from the largest like the Tonys, to smaller awards given out by individual bodies.

I have no personal issue with awards, as such, because hey, we all like the idea that we may well win one. But that’s entirely selfish.

Truthfully, there are so many awards given, and given by different juries and for different reasons, that they iron out into the realm of completely subjective. What value do awards have in the realm of (as Kirk Bromley called it) “Indie Theatre”? In the summer alone, the New York “Indie Theatre” must produce more than 500 shows. How can they be distinguished and recognized accurately by even several different award ceremonies?

Perhaps their value is more to bring attention to the community at large? To stir up discussion and provide the independent theatre with the functional equivalent of water cooler talk?

Matt raises many good points, and now’s a good time to talk about them. For starters, awards are NEVER objective, no matter what the awardees tell the media or themselves. The people giving the Nobel to Mr. Pinter are making one (or more) very specific statements about their values and the values they wish to espouse with their selection. Is Pinter objectively more important to the theatre than, say, Tennessee Williams or Arthur Miller or Edward Albee or the dozens of other substantial 20th century playwrights who never (or, in Albee’s case have not yet) won the Nobel?

Awards, and award ceremonies, are fun. They’re fun to go to (especially if you get to be a presenter, as I can personally attest; or, I dare say, if you’re a winner). They’re fun to talk about at the metaphorical water cooler, as Matt suggests.

They might tell us something about a historical moment, especially in hindsight: like the Nobel folks, every awarding body necessarily imposes its values and judgments when they make their selections, and the results often appear laughable with the passage of time. Does anybody today think How Green Was My Valley (which won the Best Picture Oscar in 1941) is by any measure a better film than Citizen Kane (which lost)? Would anybody nowadays judge Fiorello! and The Sound of Music to be better shows than Gypsy? (The first two tied for Best Musical at the 1960 Tonys, while Gypsy won exactly zero awards.)

Do theatre awards mean anything? Well, obviously winning a million dollars—even if you give it to charity—means something; there are several theatre awards, especially for playwrights, that come with a monetary prize, and that makes those citations absolutely valuable, particularly when the recipients are at the beginnings of their careers and can really use the support. Alas, it seems to me that the winners of these prizes are seldom the ones who would benefit most from the infusion of much-needed cash. But, hey, we all can use the dough; very few folks in the theatre biz are multi-millionaires.

But beyond bucks, what do theatre awards provide their recipients other than an ego boost? The Tony Awards, which are certainly the most hyped and best-known theatre prizes, seem to me to have less and less impact as Broadway becomes more and more the terrain of well-oiled marketing machines. Look at the last ten winners of the big prize, Best Musical: Rent, Titanic, The Lion King, Fosse, Contact, The Producers, Thoroughly Modern Millie, Hairspray, Avenue Q, Spamalot. With the exception of Avenue Q and possibly Fosse, these shows’ fates were already sealed, Tony or no: Titanic and Millie were always destined to be flops, and Rent, Lion King, Producers, Hairspray, and Spamalot were unstoppable monoliths whether they won the most Tonys ever (as Producers did) or relatively few (Spamalot only won 3, Rent, 4).

Winning the Best Play Tony guarantees neither that you’ll ever write another good (case in point: Richard Greenberg followed up Take Me Out with The Violet Hour and, just now, A Naked Girl on the Appian Way); nor, more distressingly, does it guarantee that your next play with make it to Broadway (Side Man‘s Warren Leight saw his next play off-Broadway at Manhattan Theatre Club, and his most recent one, the current No Foreigners Beyond This Point, off-off-Broadway, in the Culture Project’s basement at 45 Below).


Jill Clayburgh, Susan Kelechi Watson, Richard Thomas and Matthew Morrison in A Naked Girl on the Appian Way (photo (c) 2005 by Joan Marcus)


Matt suggests that awards are valuable because they call attention to the theatre, and that’s a very important function. The Sunday night of the Tony broadcast, and the following Monday, are traditionally the biggest 24 hours of the year in terms of hits on nytheatre.com, for example: clearly, focusing national attention on Broadway for that one night a year does tangible economic good for Broadway. (One hopes the attention might trickle down, so to speak, to the other sectors of NYC theatre.)

I doubt, however, that any of the other theatre awards (the Pulitzer Prize for drama excepted—maybe) do much to call attention to the theatre except within the theatre community itself. Now I loved the fact that NYITA celebrated the efforts of the Indie Theatre World (let’s start using that new designation right now, consistently, all the time!). But I didn’t see much of anything about the ceremony in the media, nor did I expect to. Ditto the OOBRs (which appear to be extinct; does anyone know if that’s so?), the Outer Critics Circle Awards, the Drama Desk Awards, the Obie Awards, and many others that I’m too lazy to look up and list comprehensively right now. Yes, they all get a bit of coverage on Playbill On-Line and other theatre websites for a while; they might get a Times mention. But do they get people all worked about the theatre; do they encourage people to go to the theatre?

A problem that Matt correctly points up about theatre awards—an inherent problem that I don’t imagine can actually be resolved—is that the universe of potential awardees is so large that the validity of the awards is consequently somewhat dubious. One of the smart things that the Tonys do, in fact, is to limit their universe very specifically up front: if your show plays in one of these 39 theatres that we call “Broadway houses” then it’s eligible for awards; if it doesn’t, then it’s not. This means that the Tony nominees voters actually have a very good shot at seeing all of the possible candidates. The exclusionary nature feels unfair to the excluded (and may, as the nature of Broadway evolves, continue to erode the artistic standards of the Tonys); but for those who get to play, these are very fair rules indeed. For consider the Drama Desk Awards, which are supposed to honor everything in New York theatre, regardless of the space it plays in (and for which I vote; full disclosure!): the nominators cannot see everything that’s eligible, because it’s just not humanly possibly to do so (we reviewed about 800 shows on nytheatre.com last season, and didn’t review at least that many more; no one can see 1600 shows in 365 days).

NYITA manages this quandary by making theatre companies sign up to be eligible for the awards. So the universe of possible winners is limited to the so-many-dozen shows produced during the season by the participating companies. Fair-ish, I guess; but very restrictive and reductive in terms of extrapolating from the honored shows and artists to the breadth and depth of the entire Indie Theatre Season.

And I haven’t even started to talk about the logistical difficulty of getting nominators/voters in to see productions whose runs are, per Equity rules, often limited to just 16 performances or fewer.

So about now Matt is sorry he brought this whole thing up. There’s more that can be said, but I’m only going to say this for now: people like awards—especially getting them; awards are not going to go away. But as measures of artistic quality or potential they are spotty at best; NEVER believe anyone who claims to be able to identify the “best” or even the “outstanding” this or that of a particular season: they’re deceiving themselves. I think a better alternative is to talk up the good stuff that’s going on in Indie Theatre (and on and off Broadway) as you find it. That’s what nytheatre.com does (coincidentally enough); it’s what good criticism/reviews/publicity accomplish, whether they’re in the Times or on somebody’s blog.


CODA: After this post ran on my blog, I got this email from a reader I did not know named Matt Johnston:


I just wanted to take a few minutes to formulate a quick response/answer with regards to Martin Denton’s review of Naked Girl on the Appian Way, and specifically, his question about the title.

I saw the play two weeks ago. Here’s what I think about the title. Seeing a naked woman on the Appian way is an experience that both the older and younger generations of the family experience, through the magic of theatrical plot formulation. Clayburgh and Thomas’s characters experience seeing a naked girl on the Appian Way, decades before their two children just happen to see the same exact thing. The title points to a shared experience.

I think what Greenberg was getting at was a metaphor that the older and younger generations shared the same experience. Throughout the course of the play there are countless conversations (headlined by Guilbert’s big monologue in Act II) pointing to cultural and social distinctions as they were decades ago, and as they are now. Much is debated, and the plot twists and turns gender and race over and over again as the play keeps threatening stereotypes of status quo or conservative thought in general. Guilbert’s character is the tie between the generations and seems to speak the playwright’s voice. The message that got to me was that time has not changed the social world that we live in, no matter what events we see as intensely liberal today. For every homoerotic moment and curse word we see now and think of as revolutionary and startlingly liberal, there is some sort of contextual counterpart that had the same effect decades ago. The philosophy is the same, and social distinctions do not morph and travel, but have simply stuck; they were true then and continue to be true today, so why do we think we are so special? So revolutionary? So violently non-traditional?

I think this is what Greenberg is getting at by pinpointing the common experience between the parents and children, it is a metaphor for their generations’ common everything. Greenberg is trying to make us say “Maybe it’s not so different now after all, maybe we face the same issues, in a different disguise?”

My thoughts for yours.

I love what you guys do at nytheatre.com, couldn’t live without it, take care.

– Matt Johnston
Master’s Student, CW Post, Long Island University

After I reprinted his response on my blog, Matt and I exchanged some more emails. I ultimately invited him to become a reviewer on nytheatre.com… and he stayed with us for three years, until he moved onto other projects in his life. The moral of which is: open minds and free respectful discourse leads to all kinds of unforeseen yet excellent outcomes.

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