Theater

Before They Were Stars: Distinguished Artists Recall Their Very First Date With Obie

Laurie Metcalf, Eve Ensler, and Julie Taymor are among those who garnered recognition in the Off-Broadway sphere before going on to larger fame

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“It was exciting, but it was nerve-racking,” says Laurie Metcalf, recalling the night in 1985 when she attended the Obies ceremony to accept an award for her performance in Balm in Gilead. “I had never done a play outside of Chicago,” explains the actress, who made her Off-Broadway debut in that celebrated revival of the Lanford Wilson drama. “So it was kind of nerve-racking for me because there I was around all of these downtown actors and writers — and I did not know anybody.”

Appropriately enough, the character Metcalf played in Balm in Gilead — which studies the low-life denizens of a 24-hour diner — was a naive newcomer to New York City from Chicago. A newcomer no longer today, Metcalf currently is a star of Three Tall Women on Broadway and received the 2017 Tony Award for her leading performance in A Doll’s House, Part 2. She has also delivered award-winning appearances in films such as Lady Bird and on television series such as Roseanne.

In the years before and since Metcalf first encountered the Obies — and she subsequently has collected two more of them — many other relative newbies have garnered the award early in their careers for the artistry they displayed upon Off-Broadway and Off-Off-Broadway stages. Edward Albee’s first play, The Zoo Story, landed him an Obie. Colleen Dewhurst, Jason Robards, and George C. Scott are other legends whose Obies arrived during the nascent years of their careers, in the Fifties. Denzel Washington, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Al Pacino, Viola Davis, Eric Bogosian, Christopher Durang, and Paula Vogel are just a few of the folks who, in later decades, took home Obies back in the day before they became boldface names.

In addition to Metcalf, half a dozen other artists recently recalled to the Voice their first dates with Obie.

“It was my very first award, actually,” says the playwright and performer Eve Ensler. She had previously crafted several Off-Off-Broadway plays “on subjects people didn’t want to hear about” before she was recognized with an Obie for writing The Vagina Monologues in 1997. Ensler received the award when she still was performing the piece simply as a modest solo show at HERE Arts Center. Ensler believes that getting the Obie helped give The Vagina Monologues a significant push toward becoming the global phenomenon it would evolve into over the following years. “People were really scared of the show when I started doing it,” Ensler declares. “Getting the Obie legitimized it in some way.”

Designer John Lee Beatty was practically fresh out of the Yale School of Drama when he found himself immersed in creating the settings for an eclectic 1974–1975 season by Circle Repertory Company: A rare revival of Tennessee Williams’s Battle of Angels, along with the world premiere of Lanford Wilson’s The Mound Builders and the New York premiere of Julie Bovasso’s Down by the River Where Waterlilies Are Disfigured Every Day. The first play was set in a shabby dry goods store in Mississippi; the second one unfolded at the site of an archeological dig in Southern Illinois; and Bovasso’s ultra-experimental work has been described as “a romp among hypothetical possibilities of the improbable.”

Beatty remembers “working my ass off all day and all night” building the sets as well as designing them. “Somewhere in the middle of it all, Jennifer von Mayrhauser, the costume designer, said to me, ‘I think you might get an Obie for this’ — and I did not even know what she was talking about,” Beatty confesses. The designer suspects that the contrasting environs demanded by those dissimilar plays impressed the judges. “It was a wonderful showcase,” says Beatty. “I was just a very lucky boy.” While he continues to create Off-Broadway settings, Beatty also has designed more than one hundred Broadway productions and won, among other honors, two Tony Awards, which he keeps on a shelf next to the certificate for his 1975 Obie.

A dozen years before her celebrated staging and designs for The Lion King reached Broadway, Julie Taymor had already nabbed a “special citation” Obie lauding the scenery, costumes, masks, puppetry, and other visuals she had created for a number of scrappier productions. “I have no memory precisely for what,” admits Taymor today of earning the citation. (The digital archive for the 1985 Obie winners is similarly blank regarding those specifics.) By then, Taymor’s work had appeared in half a dozen New York shows, including The Courtroom, for which she provided the puppets who comprised a smug jury, and Black Elk Speaks, a short-lived but visually notable drama about Native Americans. The Haggadah: A Passover Cantata, a musical drama by Elizabeth Swados, gave Taymor the opportunity to craft life-size puppets of Talmudic scholars plus representations for a sphinx, the pyramids, and, in an especially striking sequence, a vast seder tablecloth that suddenly billowed up to become the Red Sea. “I was doing a conceptual and visual sort of approach to drama,” says Taymor. “My way of working was not so common back then.”

A master of conceptual and multidisciplinary theater, the visionary director-choreographer Ping Chong is yet another artist who received an Obie during the ascendant chapters of his career for creating and staging Humboldt’s Current. A satire of colonialism that melded music, movement, and film (by Meredith Monk), the 1977 work centered upon a nineteenth-century explorer — hunting for a mythical beast — who proved to be blind to what he actually saw. “It was inspired to some extent by Heart of Darkness,” Chong notes. Although he had received several fellowships by that point, the Obie was the first public recognition of Chong’s work. (In 2000, Chong received a second Obie for “sustained achievement.”) “It was a scary and wonderful time for me,” recollects Chong, who was then occupying a basement apartment on Bleecker Street for which he paid $50 per month. “I was lucky that you still were able to be an artist and afford to live in the city then.” Chong adds that he was not able to attend the ceremony to collect his Obie because he spent the time standing on the unemployment line.

The Obie that Michael John LaChiusa received in 1994 for writing the scores and texts for the musicals First Lady Suite and Hello Again happens to be a source of both considerable pride and some slight embarrassment for him today. “Those shows put me on the map as a composer-lyricist,” he says. “And because I was then and am now pretty much of a downtown theater person, it felt good being recognized by the same people I grew up with.” LaChiusa recalls his appearance at the ceremony with chagrin, however: “It was my very first time getting an award and it taught me not to be off-the-cuff when accepting anything like that. After I got back to my seat, shoot: I suddenly remembered a whole bunch of people I forgot to thank!”

Terrence McNally was scarcely a newcomer when his Bad Habits nabbed an Obie as a distinguished play in 1974. But McNally’s Broadway works up to that time had been quick flops and, with the exception of Adaptation/Next, his previous Off-Broadway shows did not run for long. Bad Habits, a bill of two short comedies that satirized fashionable psychotherapy and its victims, was the first among McNally’s works to win any kind of an award and one that he now considers fondly. “It was pretty special,” says the playwright regarding his comedy’s premiere at the Astor Place Theatre in a “really basic” staging. “We did the scenery with just a couple of chairs and I ran the lights myself. They were overhead fluorescent lights and I flipped them on and off.” McNally recalls being surprised when leading critics reviewed the show at all, let alone favorably. “In those days, the New York Times did not go below 34th Street to cover the theater,” he notes. Some three months later, Bad Habits and its actors — including F. Murray Abraham and Doris Roberts — moved uptown to a Broadway house. “Making theater is fun, but it is always so much hard work. It’s wonderful to be recognized by your peers with something like the Obies,” remarks McNally. “I’m glad the Obies are still going so strong.” In 1995, McNally scored himself a second Obie for writing Love! Valour! Compassion!

The Foundry Theatre, which commissions and develops unusual forms of stage works, received an Obie for its first production, W. David Hancock’s The Convention of Cartography. Staged within a small house in Chelsea, the event ostensibly presented a traveling art exhibit and, with it, a curatorial lecture regarding the works by a now-deceased itinerant artist. But this interactive installation, packed with folk-type curios and treasures, really harbored a clandestine narrative concerning art, fiction, and the nature of truth. Melanie Joseph, who directed the 1994 piece and established the Foundry, of which she remains the artistic producer, laughs as she looks back on the recognition: “It’s good that the Obies were around because our show obviously was too unusual for the Drama Desk and other organizations like that.”

In the years since, the Foundry and its productions have amassed fourteen Obies, including two Ross Wetzsteon Awards, named after the late longtime theater editor of the Voice; it today carries a $3,000 prize for companies that nurture innovative works. “It’s such a friggin’ honor to get those,” says Joseph. “Ross was such an elegant man.” Recalling that there was no award certificate accompanying the first Wetzsteon grant that the company received, Joseph notes, “We wanted to frame the check, but we needed the money too badly.”

What Joseph especially appreciates about the Obies is their freewheeling format, in which there are no competitive nominations or established categories for awards. “For many years, the Obies have been the most meaningful awards for artists because they were not a marketing gimmick,” she says. “It’s a community celebration of whatever was good that year — not just what was best.” Other recipients chime in with similar observations. “The Obies give you really good street cred,” believes LaChiusa. “It confirms that the work artists are doing in downtown theaters still matters,” says Ensler. And Metcalf fondly thinks back to some 33 years before, when the Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s staging of Balm in Gilead with Circle Repertory won Obies not only for herself but also for John Malkovich, its director. “It was thrilling for our little company from Chicago to be singled out and attention paid to us like that,” she says. “The Obies really helped to get our names out there.”

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