Thursday, May 15, 2014

How the OBIES are failing New York theater

Let me start by getting one thing out of the way.  I have never won an OBIE.  I doubt that I have ever been considered for an OBIE.  In my 20 years plus of working in downtown theater, I don’t believe anyone from the OBIE committee has stepped foot in the theater for any play I have written, directed, or produced.

So any screed against the current state of the OBIE Awards (and let me make no bones about it, that is what this is) should be read with the knowledge that I, of course, have a personal stake in it.  But if this were pure sour grapes (and I have at times eaten of that fruit), without any implications beyond myself, I would confine myself to my own private 3am anxieties about my life/career and leave it at that.  However, I do think my experience with the OBIES reflects a greater problem with the awards in general, and that is why I am choosing to address it.

I wouldn’t care, of course, if I didn’t think the OBIES were important.  This is the 58th anniversary of the award, which originally was created to offset the idea that Broadway was the only place interesting and valuable can happen.  That very important work was being done in smaller theaters, with smaller budgets, with fewer commercial interests.  That in fact this is where the heart of theater lay, where the greatest theater could bloom.  The OBIES were the first to embrace the Off-Off-Broadway movement and give an equal weight to those productions.  They have gained their status through good work and high ideals.

And like many esteemed institutions of over fifty years, they have gone to pot, borne down with the weight of their own success.  Somewhere in them is the kernel of that original ideal.  But it is buried, deeply buried.

That is not to say worthy work, inspiring work, does not get recognized.  It does.  I am friends with some OBIE winners, and well do they deserve it.  I would not wish to denigrate anyone’s achievement.  But the awards now have become largely about one thing:  celebrating the achievements of those in institutional theater, perhaps a step below Broadway in budget, but nonetheless work that is highly recognized and highly touted without the help of an additional award.  It has become about the status quo.

Let us examine the awards, by the numbers.  In the last four years (I chose four instead of five because the last four were easier to research, and with the OBIES coming up Monday, I’m hoping to fill out the roster), these are the theaters which have won multiple OBIES, from the most to the least:

The Public 13, Playwrights Horizons 8, Manhattan Theater Club 6, Lincoln Center 4, Signature 4, Soho Rep 4, Foundry 3, Rattlestick 3, Classic Stage Company 2, HERE 2, Incubator Arts 2 (counting Three Pianos, which was actually on stage at New York Theater Workshop at that point), Manhattan Class Company 2, New York Theater Workshop 2 (also counting Three Pianos), St. Ann’s Warehouse 2, Theatre for a New Audience 2.

And those which have won a single OBIE in those years:  Alliance Francaise, Ars Nova (Natasha & Pierre, which had moved on to a commercial production), Atlantic Theatre Company, Barrow Street, Baryshnikov Arts Center (Fela, which had moved to Broadway), Brooklyn Academy of Music, Bushwick Star/The Debate Society , Elevator Repair Service (at The Public),  La MaMa (Good Woman of Setzuan, moved to The Public), Partial Comfort, Pig Iron, The Play Company, Primary Stages, PS 122, Second Stage, Punchdrunk, 3LD Art + Technology Center (as part of Under The Radar…not sure who main funder was…), Transport, Vineyard

Perhaps more tellingly, of 72 productions, I would say 63 unquestionably had budgets over $250,000, 2 probably were under, and 7 fall into the gray area for me.  My guess is less than 10% regardless.  I base that calculation on my years of working as a producer and occasional GM for different levels of production.

So what does all that data tell us, besides that The Public has been winning an incredible number of OBIE Awards.    In the multiple awards category, there are two champions of the indie theater scene, HERE and Incubator Arts.  Wonderful.  Among the others, Bushwick Starr, La MaMa, 3LD, and PS 122 are all represented.  Very happy to see it.  And by implication The Ohio, where Pig Iron put on Chekhov Lizardbrain. One of my favorites.

But it is not enough.  Under 10% with a budget under $250,000 is not enough.  And that is a conservative estimate, for most of these institutions have multimillion dollar budgets to sustain them that don’t even get figured into the production cost.  These are not the productions that the OBIES once endeavored to honor, productions that would be overlooked without the scrappy little awards from a scrappy downtown rag called The Village Voice.  These are highly established theaters with the budget to have themselves be seen, regardless.  The OBIES may be an extra feather in the cap or a moment of downtown cred, but you can find those same productions at the Drama Desk or the Lortel awards.

What the OBIES have done on in the past and can do, could continue to do, is to recognize the small theater productions that it first purported to promote.  And I don’t mean via the $1,000 grants that do sometimes go to small, deserving companies.  I was extremely joyful when Metropolitan Theater, which does quality work on a tiny budget, won their award a few years.  But they have been working over 20 years themselves, and it is telling that they were given an award that should by right be given to the smaller, newer companies.  But since Metropolitan had never been recognized before, the award came, well overdue.

One main reason is that the awards are a closed system.  Only a few judges are chosen, often reviewers who are only being sent to the bigger productions to begin with.  There is no easy way to invite judges in advance, nor any indication that the judges are encouraged to seek out and find the smaller productions.  The awards themselves have become star studded, competing with the Tonys in the recognition value of its presenters.  Here is Anne Hathaway!  Here is Cyndi Lauper!  Here is Meryl Streep!  They too are participating, many of them are eligible for the very same award, by dint of the fact that they chose to perform in a play with a budget of $1,000,000 instead of $5,000,000.

But I will embrace the stars.  I will even pay the $20 I am now asked for as the OBIES turn more into a money making machine and less into a celebration of downtown theater.  I will do all that if I know the names and the money are also being put towards a good cause, finding the seeds of new exciting theater and promoting it.  And I don’t mean as the exception, almost by accident, when it stumbles across a show that has received just the right amount of buzz to draw in a judge or two.  I mean consistently, as a statement of purpose.

I still believe the OBIES are capable of it.  I want them to be capable of it, because frankly no other award has the name recognition to have the same clout.  So perhaps this is no more than a plea, a call in the wilderness.  Come see us in the wilds of indie theater.  There is good work.  There is also plenty of terrible work.  But every so often, there is life-changing work.  If only it could be seen and recognized.

UPDATE: Please read more thoughts (and possible solutions) in my follow up post


Louisa Schnaithmann said...

I have also been concerned for some time about the increasingly commercial nature of Off-Broadway. I understand that Broadway is, by this point, commercial, and I've pretty much accepted that (and I can still enjoy a good Broadway musical, don't get me wrong!). But when I first fell in love with theater, I was convinced most companies operated on a small budget to create beautiful art. Sure, maybe I was a little young to understand the true economics of New York theater, but I still think there's something magical about creating affordable theater that's accessible to people and still has a powerful, moving message.

It also concerns me how people literally don't know about Off-Off Broadway/fringe events. The only reason I've seen Untitled Theater Company #61's work, for example, is because I got lucky and happened to check a website that advertised a play that was going to be performed by your company. I didn't see any ads elsewhere online, or in newspapers, or anywhere else. People really are missing out on some amazing works of theatrical art.

Unforunately, I also know people who do know about Off-Off Broadway, but refuse to see plays performed there, claiming that they're just too "weird". I guess there's no hope there.

Theater of Ideas said...

Thanks for your comment. Yes, with limited budgets, it's almost impossible to have effective advertising campaigns. We depend on reviews, articles, word of mouth, mailing lists, etc. One thing that's sad to me about what's happened with the OBIES is that this would be an opportunity to let people know about the world of independent theater. Sadly, it seems to be mostly squandered. Out of curiosity, which show did you first see, by the way?

Tom Berger said...

unsurprisingly, i agree with much of what's been said. we've often discussed in the Indie community that we have become much of what off-Broadway represented in the era of its inception. off-Broadway is now consistently out of the financial range of the kinds of artists who were the founders of the feast, so to speak.

i think that there are still many OB companies that produce excellent work and deserve to be recognized, as you astutely pointed out, Edward. i think we feel the sting of the OBIE situation more because we haven't really been given something to replace it for the Indie community. i largely find the IT Awards a disappointment. and i hearken to my own sour grapes, i suppose, but i would be much more supportive of the idea if a) i was familiar with most of the companies who are nominated and win and i felt that they reflected the excellent peers in that community that i've worked with and b) if the IT Awards had a degree of standing that would help open doors for Indie companies in the way that OBIEs do.

i unfortunately don't completely share your enthusiasm for the OBIEs being able to reinvent themselves in a way to include lower budget companies, but i do have optimism that the Indie community may be able to find a productive substitute and encourage a three-tiered view of NY theatre. rather than reinvent the wheel that's long rolled by us, it may be time to find a new mode of transportation.


Anonymous said...

I agree with everything that has been said about the OBIES. I will also add that the awards do differ slightly from year to year depending upon who the judges are. This year the committee was only formed in January - the already slim chances of small shows being acknowledged will probably be even smaller if they opened in the first half of the season. We shall see in few hours...

Theater of Ideas said...

The committee wasn't formed until January? I didn't even realize that. Sigh...

Theater of Ideas said...

When I look at the judges, I know some of them at least know a little about indie theater. Others, honestly, don't. And I was of them attended one of my shows this year, though apparently previous to being a voter. Having said all that, I don't expect the mix to be significantly changed. But. Just enough to have a small hope for change, sometime in the future.

Louisa Schnaithmann said...

Mr. Einhorn, I saw the 2013 production of Iphigenia in Aulis! I found out about it through Eric Shanower's website. I was already a) a huge Greek mythology nerd and b) a fan of Mr. Shanower's comic Age of Bronze, so I was very excited to see it. I would have had no clue about the play otherwise!