Audiences see it peppered among actor bios: “Drama Desk Award.” In between listings of Tony recognitions, past productions and thanks to family lie mentions of Drama Desk nods and wins. But what is the Drama Desk?
It’s the only major New York City theatre honor that recognizes the whole of New York theatre: Off Off-Broadway, Off-Broadway and Broadway. It’s the widest net, and, therefore, honors a highly prestigious group of nominees and winners.
The Drama Desk was formed in 1949 by a group of theatre critics, editors, reporters and publishers who began handing out accolades in 1955, known as the Vernon Rice Awards. Named for the New York Post critic, Rice initiated Off-Broadway coverage in the New York press. The 1974 awards expanded to include Off Off-Broadway, and recognized the three tiers of theatre—as it does to this day. Today, a group of approximately 140 New York theatre writers (the ones who write all those chased-after reviews and more) determine the winners.
“It’s one of the most exciting nights we have to celebrate the theatre, because it encompasses everything,” said Judith Light from the red carpet on June 5. “There is an expansive and incredibly deep and rich artistic community that are doing shows Off-Broadway, Off Off-Broadway and way Off Off-Broadway. Sometimes those pieces actually come up to Broadway, so you don’t want to only look at one portion of the theatrical community.” Indeed, the earliest fans of Broadway’s Hamilton saw the show downtown at Off-Broadway’s Public Theater—also the birthplace of Tony-winning musical Fun Home.
Attendees of Sunday’s awards ranged from 24-time Drama Desk nominee Michael John La Chiusa, there to represent his First Daughter Suite, to newcomers like Bright Star’s Tony and Drama Desk nominee Carmen Cusack. “I am so new to this town,” said the actress who established herself across the pond. “I didn’t know that this existed until I got nominated for it. I started investigating and thought, ‘What a lovely lovely idea to bring us all together, because we’re here to celebrate theatre, whether it’s on this street or that street.’”
Actress Marin Ireland, nominated for Ironbound, loves the eclectic atmosphere of the Drama Desk. “You get all the glamorousness of the Tonys, but you get all the sort of wild downtown energy,” she said. “There’s people who are accustomed to awards stuff, and then there’s a lot of people here who haven’t experienced that kind of thing before and are just high on the fun of it all.”
Alex Grubbs is one of those people. “We’re a long way from Broadway,” said the musician, nominated for a Drama Desk for Outstanding Music as part of the group The Lobbyists, who wrote the music for SeaWife. “It’s really cool to be here and to be surrounded by these people and to be considered peers. It’s kind of blowing my mind.”
As Drama Desk winner and songwriter Benj Pasek exclaimed, “To our right is Chita Rivera and to our left is Zachary Levi, so we’re feeling very cool.” (He and his writing partner, Justin Paul, took home the award for Outstanding Lyrics for their work on Second Stage’s Dear Evan Hansen.)
While smaller in scale than the Tony Awards in terms of attendance and hype, being nominated for a Drama Desk may be even tougher than earning a Tony nod because of the inclusiveness. This year’s voters took in 270 productions in order to cast their ballots. “To be on a short list of honorees that includes such a wide community, it feels like a really special honor,” said Tony and Drama Desk nominee David Furr.
“It truly sends the message that it is all about art, not the number of seats in the theatre,” said Tony nominee Jennifer Simard, referring to how Off Off-Broadway, Off-Broadway and Broadway shows are technically categorized. “Truly that is what we all aspire for, isn’t it? To make great art.”