The arrivals area was tight and packed. Cramped even.
Actors, directors, playwrights, producers, all the titans of the Off-Broadway theatre world were sifting through the red carpet sieve, posing for pictures and giving interviews to seemingly infinite multitude of reporters looking for a scoop (yes, that includes me). But, surprisingly, it all felt very low-pressure. It was a time to honor the work of the theatrical world, and everybody was there to have a good night.
On May 23rd, the 61st Annual Obie Awards were held at Webster Hall in New York City, hosted once again by comedian and actress Lea DeLaria. The Obies are given annually by The Village Voice and the American Theatre Wing to honor the very best in Off-Broadway and Off-Off-Broadway theatre and are among the highest honors in the downtown scene. Shorthand: the Obies are like the Tonys of Off/Off-Off-Broadway.
But unlike the Tonys, the Obies, fittingly in the spirit of downtown theatre, don’t have set categories. Rather, the panel selects whatever shows, performers, theaters, writers, directors, etc., they feel should be recognized and give them an Obie, sometimes even making up categories as they see fit. After all, how can you recognize groundbreaking theatre by only recognizing the same ground year after year?
Before the show, I was able to briefly catch up with a couple of people on the red carpet. First of all was actor Ben Platt, who would later that night win an Obie for his performance in the musical Dear Evan Hansen.
How are you feeling about tonight?
Ben Platt: Feeling really good. Feeling really really honored to be included, and being a part of this community is kind of all I’ve ever wanted — to be a part of the New York theatre community. So I’m feeling really wonderful to be here.
What’s the journey been like getting Dear Evan Hansen onto the stage?
Platt: It’s been one of the most rewarding of my life for sure. We’ve been working on it for about two-and-a-half years now, since the first table read. And [then] we had a production in Washington D.C., and now to bring it to New York finally is just incredibly rewarding. To be able to sculpt something sort of from scratch has been really incredible.
How has the show changed and reshaped throughout that process?
Platt: You know, I think [the writing team] always knew what it was they wanted to say, I think they were just trying to figure out the most effective way to say it and the most specific way to say it. The show started as a more general theme-based piece and now it’s really specifically the story of this one really lonely kid, through which you [the audience] get to learn about these themes rather than just the themes themselves. Which is what I think made the piece as effective as it is.
A little later, I was able to speak with Danai Gurira, who was recently nominated for a Tony for her play Eclipsed.
How has the play evolved throughout it’s journey to Broadway?
Danai Gurira: This play has been a very interesting journey, because it’s not new. It is, but it’s not. I created it in 2008, 2009, and, in fact, the first production was then. It’s gone across the world. It’s gone to Africa, it’s gone to London. [But] it never came to New York. So it is a new play written in recent years, and also [it’s] never been in New York. I didn’t know if we’d ever get to New York. I just kept writing other plays and moving along.
So I knew something wasn’t finished about this play, but I knew I had to keep writing other narratives. So when it all came around that it connected with Lupita [Nyong’o], who had been an understudy for the play when she was at Yale when she was still a first year, we embraced her as our little sister. And she would constantly tell me whenever she saw me when everything was happening: “I’ve got to get back on the stage. I want to do Eclipsed.” And I was like, “Listen, I will make no objection to that.” And so when the conversation came about for her to do the play, and my relationship with the Public Theater was very strong, it sort of all came together. And that’s been really exciting. And then it was a question of getting a cast together around that. And some of the girls are the usual— my usual suspects, who were at Yale in my other plays. And [they] created a stunning ensemble. And it’s just really exciting to see it coming to this type of fruition along with the theaters I respect more than anything: the Public up the road and then on Broadway.
So it’s been a beautiful journey. A long one. I had no anticipation of it getting to where it got when I created it in 2009 and we did it at Yale Rep. I never saw Broadway. And I never even imagined necessarily the Public. So it’s been amazing.
In true downtown fashion, the show itself was fast and loose. There was none of the pomp and circumstance you might find at your Tonys or your Oscars. Instead, the whole affair seemed like one giant party. Sure, there were presenters giving out awards and some performances to watch… if you wanted to pay attention. But, unlike some other awards shows where the production is the end rather than the means to celebrate artistic achievement, what was happening on stage at the Obies was a good entertaining backdrop for a night of celebration.
If there’s one thing that came across very clearly at the Obies, it was the strong sense of community the Off-Broadway and Off-Off-Broadway theatre scene has. It’s very tight-knit and supportive, as indicated by the lack of set categories (just give awards to those who deserve one). The opening performance by the cast of Orange is the New Black was a musical number full of theatrical in-jokes and insider humor, a good-natured ribbing of the industry as a whole. It really set the tone of the whole evening, one where people can have a little fun with their friends (and drink a little too).
But that’s not to say that the whole thing was just a bunch of drunk theatre people stumbling around all night. There was still that sense of reverence and respect. After all, they were there to honor each other. This was especially true during the performances. Ben Platt gave a wonderful show doing a song from Dear Evan Hansen, and Leslie Odom, Jr. was incredibly moving and powerful singing a selection from Rent during the In Memoriam.
As I was cruising the arrivals area and later the balcony of the theater in Webster Hall, theatre-makers of all kinds were running into each other, joyously hugging and congratulating each other. It’s something, as playwright and 2016 Obie Lifetime Achievement Award winner A.R. Gurney noted during his acceptance speech, that Broadway doesn’t have: that sense of community.
While I’m no New York theatre business insider, it doesn’t take a high-level producer to know that Broadway today, like Hollywood, is increasingly risk-averse. It’s an insular business driven entirely by the bottom line. Now, I’m not saying that Broadway is bad or boring. And I know full-well that Off-Broadway isn’t immune to this. But I also know that Off-Broadway and Off-Off-Broadway, largely driven by non-profit theaters and organizations, is more willing to take artistic chances. So it’s refreshing, then, to see an awards show that reflects the community it seeks to honor. The whole night was about support and collaboration, which is what theatre, and the arts, is all about in the first place.