Partnership With American Theatre Wing Takes Off-Broadway’s Obie Awards to New Level

News   Partnership With American Theatre Wing Takes Off-Broadway’s Obie Awards to New Level
The mission of the nearly century-old American Theatre Wing has long been the celebration and advancement of excellence in the theatre. Yet for much of its history, the organization has been almost wholly associated in the public mind with the Tony Awards, an honor that is synonymous solely with Broadway.

Heather Hitchens
Heather Hitchens Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

That situation suddenly changed earlier this month when the Wing announced that it had entered into a partnership with the Village Voice to co-present The Obie Awards, which have been presented by the weekly since 1955. Suddenly, the Wing — which created the Tonys and co-presents the annual broadcast with The Broadway League — had two award-giving bodies under its charge.

The new partnership takes effect immediately, and the two organizations will jointly present the 2015 Obie awards this spring at Webster Hall.

“Many good things in the theatre start and end at Yale, and the Yale mafia was at work here,” explained Heather Hitchens, president of the Wing. “Seriously, Michael Feingold was at Yale the same time as our chairman William Ivey Long.” Feingold was chief drama critic for the Village Voice for decades, until he was released by the paper in 2013. (He has, nonetheless, continued on as chair of the OBIES nominating committee.) Noted costume designer Long, meanwhile, took on the title of ATW chairman in 2012.

“I think Michael was talking to William about the Obies and wanted to make sure there was a place for the future, and what could be done to make them more visible and bolster them a little bit,” explained Hitchens.

To Hitchens, the joining of forces seemed a natural fit. “We’re about excellence in the theatre,” she said. "And I think what this says, very powerfully, is we find excellence where it lives. It certainly lives on Broadway and it certainly lives Off-Broadway and Off-Off-Broadway.”

Michael Feingold
Michael Feingold Photo by Krissie Fullerton

Though one of the oldest honors in the Off-Broadway scene, the Obies have lost some of their former luster in recent years, getting lost among the increasingly crowded field of end-of-season honors. Moreover, its fortunes have waned along with that of its mother publication, which, since its purchase by New Times Media (since renamed Village Voice Media) in 2005, has jettisoned many of its marquee writers (including Feingold), losing the clout and prestige that went along with them.

The teaming with the Wing will bring the Obies a couple critical things they lack: money and manpower.

“We certainly have some experience with awards shows,” said Hitchens. “And our mission has always been to serve the greater theatre community. We have some current ways in which we do this, but this certainly is a very powerful manifestation of our commitment to the theatre community. So, it was a win-win.”

Hitchens noted that the Wing will now be home to the Obies, which will benefit from the nonprofit’s staff. Also, the annual grants and cash awards that the OBIES hand out — to playwrights and theatre companies — will be beefed up from their current, relatively meager $1,000-$2,500 range.

“We all know how difficult the newspaper business is,” said Hitchens. “There’s been less money available for grants. It’s our hope to rebuild the size of the grants they give away. And just provide stability and expertise.”

Some things about the OBIES, however, will not change. Hitchens wants to make it clear that the Off-Broadway accolades will retain their distinctive alternative spirit and character.

“The main thing that’s important, since people know us best for the Tony Awards: We’re not going to make this the Tony Awards,” she said. “We’re committed to maintaining the downtown spirit of the awards.”

That means that the awards ceremony’s home will remain, for the time being, Webster Hall in the East Village. And the OBIES committee will continue to bestow honors outright where they feel they are deserved, eschewing the common award practice of first announcing nominees. There are also no fixed award categories, or fixed number of awards that may be given out.

“That is reflective of the Off-Broadway and Off-Off-Broadway community,” said Hitchens. “It’s worked for many years. We’re not going to mess with things that work.”

Other things are up to discussion: Should the ceremony be live-streamed, for example? Should it be bigger? Should it eventually be moved to a larger venue?

For now, though, it’s baby steps.

“We at the very beginning of this,” said Hitchens. “We’re in our ‘listening tour.’”

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