To help celebrate the 39th annual Village Voice Obie awards, we asked several present and former Obie judges to respond to the following six questions.
What do you think is the most important difference between the Obie and other awards?
What Obie were you most pleased to see?
What Obie do you most regret not giving?
What was your favorite moment at the Obie ceremonies?
How would you change the selection process?
What question haven’t you been asked that you’d most like to answer?
The Obies have stiffer competition. Also wiser and younger judges, especially the year I was on the committee.
Dustin Hoffman, Best Actor (for Journey of the Fifth Horse), because I was at his table and he kept trying to leave because he was sure he wasn’t going to win. Ulu Grosbard, who I think had guaranteed his presence, practically had to sit on him. (I wasn’t a judge that year.)
I don’t remember what won and what didn’t the year I was a judge. (Except that we gave about 10 Obies to Through the Leaves.)
When Angela Lansbury, the presenter that year, kissed me when I won Best Play for Hot L.
I don’t really know what it is, but I should be a judge every year.
Other awards aren’t given by the Village Voice. We open doors; others go through them later — or, in this dim-witted culture, sometimes not at all.
If you mean the citation as a physical object, Beckett’s Obie for Endgame (though I’ve never actually seen it), with the blank slot where one of the three judges, Walter Kerr, refused to sign. But my favorite award, made over the furious protests of two guest judges, was to a play that had been published but not yet produced — Sam Shepard’s Curse of the Starving Class.
Too many to list. Between other people’s hidden agendas, quirks of taste, and sins of omission (i.e., productions they haven’t seen), there are at least six every year. If only they’d let me make all the decisions. After all, I’m always right.
(a) On egomaniacal grounds, Elisabeth Welch’s acceptance speech, videotaped in London. There’s nothing like getting a personal message of affection, on a giant screen, in front of a roomful of major artists, to make you feel good. (b) Purely as an anecdote: Charles Stanley accepting his Obie from Groucho Marx. Groucho had just been told that, among his many other achievements that year, Charles was playing Greta Garbo in John Vaccaro’s Persia. He arrived on the podium in a lumberjack shirt and jeans, making Groucho crack, “You don’t look much like Greta Garbo.” “No,” Charles shot back without hesitation, “but I often wear her clothes.” Groucho Marx topped! I wish I had it on videotape.
See answer to number three.
Do the Obies actually mean anything to anybody? So much that it sometimes frightens me — and, at the same time, nothing at all. As Gertrude Stein said, “Explain winning prizes.” Anybody remember what Obie-winning work that line is from?
After all these years, the Obies are still largely free from hype, healthily eccentric and independent-minded, and structurally flexible enough to meet the changing conditions of the theater — which doesn’t mean they can’t also be bloated with self-righteousness, as tiresomely predictable as the Village Voice, and redolent with nostalgia for a cultural scene that went out with Richard Nixon. (N.B. The Obie parties at their worst-self — righteous, predictable, nostalgic — are better than the other awards parties at their best.)
The ones I agreed with, of course. The rest is amnesia.
(a) Reza Abdoh is one of a scant handful of artists working in the theater anywhere today who can create pieces big enough, passionate enough, complex, profound, and original enough to qualify as significant responses to what we feebly call contemporary reality. He has been recognized internationally, but not nationally, for his achievement. Along with Anna Deavere Smith’s documentary works, his Tight Right White is the only theater production in recent memory to come anywhere near confronting American racism with adequate scale and creative imagination. That it received no Obie last year (but instead a pan in the Voice, not for its content but because the reviewer couldn’t stand its relentless intensity) shows just how sclerotic New York theater — and theater critics — have become. If he’s not honored this year for Quotations From a Ruined City, which encompasses the agonies of Bosnia and AIDS, the sclerosis has become total mummification. (b) The Obie committee should award a Pulitzer Prize to Anna Deavere Smith for her distinguished original play, Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992.
The appearance of Bloolips back in 1981. It was too late for Aristophanes and Oscar Wilde, but we still had Bette Bourne and company. Unfortunately, they only received an award for costumes when they should have been honored for giving us a glimpse of what a New World Order should be like.
Less self-righteousness, less predictability, less nostalgia, more life.
Why does the publication that sponsors the only awards even slightly counterbalancing the prepackaged hype of the Tonys, the only newspaper that purports to serve a community of alternative theater artists and audiences, steadily reduce theater coverage in general and alternative theater coverage in particular? Why is pride of place and space almost invariably given to yet another review of the latest Andrew Lloyd Webber exercise in elephantiasis? Or Disney? Or Cameron MacIntosh? Etc.? Etc.? The answer must be that uptown advertising dollars really are the source of Village Voice “aesthetics.” So why not stop the hypocrisy of the Obies and start awarding the Schlockies like everybody else? Otherwise, please reserve the miserable, cramped little Cameos in the Theater section for Broadway and give adequate prominent attention to the artists who actually win the Obies.
In the tradition of the Obies, I’m throwing out your categories and inventing my own.
Best backstage moment: Olympia Dukakis. The ceremony was at the Puck Building that year — where the bathrooms are a level below and about a quarter mile from the ballroom. And there was Olympia Dukakis, standing by the sinks, chatting with a couple of friends, as endearing (though not as screwy) as she’d been in The Marriage of Bette and Boo that season — and, obviously, without a clue she was about to be called to get an Obie for that performance. What to do? It’s one thing to pass up a moment of glory because you’ve decided to play saxophone at Michael’s Pub instead. But to miss an award because you’re gabbing in the loo? Following the Village Voice tradition, I decided to go for rude. I elbowed my way toward the pink liquid soap, trying to make Dukakis feel as much in the way as possible — like, hey, bathrooms are for people who need to use them. No dice. She stepped aside with the tiniest quizzical glance and kept talking. So moving on to the Obie tradition of trashing rules, I broke the Obie’s only rule. I told. “Excuse me,” I muttered “I’m one of the judges and, well, you probably ought to go upstairs.” For a nanosecond, Dukakis looked at me like, “What is this, the bathroom monitor?” — and then it flashed. “Oh!” she shrieked, and bounded upstairs. In time.
Best acceptance speech: Anne and Jules Weiss. La Mama’s angels, Anne and Jules, wearing grocery-shopping clothes, stood at the microphone looking stunned and a little embarrassed until the applause began to wane. Then Anne announced, “I told Jules, ‘It doesn’t matter what we wear. We’re not going to get anything.’ ”
Most predictable battle line: the Y-chromosome Maginot. Of course the play and playwright (always male) varied from season to season — Mamet, Shawn, Rabe, Albee, whoever — but the warring judges always divided cleanly down gender lines. The men (straights and, usually, gays) saw Great Art, specifically the definitive, archetypal portrayal of the male-female relationship. We women saw, once again, that we have our work cut out for us.
Most bittersweet aftertaste: Robert Massa at Obie lunch meetings. As a mild counterbalance to the sanity he brought to Obie meetings, Robert would collude with me in butterfat. Usually we ordered, and shared, every dessert on the menu.
Most unacceptable, unbearable part of the ceremony (worse and worse every year): The list of deaths each year — documenting the plague.
As one who covered the margin of the margin — performers who invited you to look at their cervices, performers who sat motionless for seven hours trying not to blink — I always regarded the Obies as terribly mainstream. I mean, were “my” performers ever going to win the same award once presented to Meryl Streep? As it turned out, they were. Sort of. Occasionally. The Obies don’t apply to the further reaches of performance art, but they’re flexible enough to accommodate much of what can happen on a stage – or behind it.
For example: The year I was on the committee, I was particularly happy about the award to Robbie McCauley for Sally’s Rape, a piece about black-white relationships that kept breaking open to reveal its historical and emotional subtext, and then broke open again to expose the racial self-consciousness that keeps us from even discussing these things, much less healing them.
During that same year, I paid to see Brace Up! three times. (For a poorly paid critic and busy Obie judge, that’s saying a lot.) As much as I loved the play — and Kate Valk’s performance in particular — I couldn’t nominate it for anything because it never officially opened. Of course, from a performance art point of view, I can appreciate the concept of creating a piece that never “opens.”
As for the Obie show itself, I’ll never forget Ethyl Eichelberger leaping for joy way back in 1983, when he won for Lucrezia Borgia — perhaps because it was such a contrast to the cynical, above-it-all acceptance speech we’d just heard from Gary Sinise.
During my year, I thought we needed at least one more judge, so more could be seen.
The one question I’d like to be able to answer is — how can we stop the AIDS epidemic?
If democracy, as Churchill suggested, is at best not as bad as the worst, then so be it with the, Obies. Awards must be given, I suppose, in which case, it’s safe to say that the Obies are dispensed with more good argument, fair exchange, and plain common sense than most. Even so, perhaps it’s time to finish them off or bring them back where they started — namely, those early days under Jerry Tallmer, then Michael Smith, Richard Gilman, and Gordon Rogoff, when a deliriously optimistic, innovative theater embarked on a cleanup campaign of the entire Book of the Month Club approach to drama that has always made us the poorest of relations to the other serious arts.
Best of all were the two years in which we crowned everything with an anti-Obie “for outstanding disservice to the American theater” — one year to the Lincoln Center Repertory Theatre, the other to Walter Kerr. In short, the Obies themselves were conceived and dedicated to the proposition that technical proficiency and consensus politics were not our domain. Put it to the times or to youthful pugnacity, we were simply part of a scene not unlike the New York art scene before us, and we were having fun.
No doubt about it: the Obies were eventually adjudicated more democratically, meaning more judges, more checks-and-balances guests looking at Voice critics and our savagely expressed disagreements as if we’d just stepped off a Spielberg spaceship, and certainly a wider awareness of the expanding scene. By now, there’s too much to cover for even a large committee, though you’d scarcely know it from the current Voice Theater section, essentially a one-man band, a subspecies gossip column, and a relentless series of short takes that, with the best will in the world, can only confirm the prophecy that nothing matters very much.
Which, given the rise of protofascism everywhere, can’t be true. As a surprised recipient of an Obie once, I’m not likely to sustain my own argument that Obies themselves may not matter very much. Like Oscars for best supporting actors, they’re probably the kiss of death, even as they continue to be a momentary joy to receive. For what little it’s worth, I’d caution winners to design their futures as if the Obies don’t matter, and I’d enjoin once-and-future Obie judges to do all in their limited power to chase the Voice Theater section back to those fiscally irresponsible corners where quirky, unimitative inventions can be given time equal to the institutional sludge now driving many of us back to the movies.
The other Sunday, Vincent Canby wrote in the Times, “If you’re in a mood to consider alternative theater, you couldn’t do better than to check out…” What he was recommending doesn’t matter here; the point is that he was assuming that “alternative theater” was somehow marginal, esoteric, to be sampled only in special moods. This assumption is widespread almost to the point of universality; it is built into the term “alternative theater” (and into the term “Off-Broadway,” for that matter). The Obies are based on the contrary assumption; what most people regard as marginal they take to be the entire theatrical universe. This does not give them a monopoly on aesthetic virtue in the awards business (always remember that awards are basically hype, not criticism, anyhow), but it makes them a useful counterbalancing force,
What swims most readily to the surface of my memory is, of all things, the award we gave Farley Granger for his performance in Talley and Son by Lanford Wilson. Here’s a former Hollywood pretty boy, whom you’d expect to be luncheon meat for a bunch of arty, caustic, high-minded types like the Obie judges. But his performance, in a role that was the opposite of showy, had extraordinary strength, weight, there-ness, and so we gave him the recognition as an actor, as an artist, that he deserved — a kind of recognition that had eluded him throughout most of his career. As he picked up his award, he said, if I remember right, “You’ve made an old actor very happy.”
As befits a paper whose motto could be “Divided we stand,” Obie committee meetings were (and I hope still are) zestfully contentious. We took turns being amazed that such esteemed colleagues, such paragons of theatrical wisdom, could on this or that particular matter be so inexplicably ill-advised. As the committee’s resident right-wing deviationist, I fought in vain against dozens of egregious injustices-by-omission — of which, oddly enough, I cannot now recall any. I gave out a lot of private Obies inside my head. I suspect that other Obie judges did likewise.
See above, number two. In a less sentimental vein, there was the time, many years ago, when Groucho Marx served as host. Of course Groucho was a great hero to most of those present, myself included, but he didn’t seem to know much about Off-Broadway, or think much of it, and in general he treated us pretty much the way he used to treat Margaret Dumont. So in spite of Groucho’s venerable age, there was a quiet sense of man-bites-dog when someone — I’ve long since forgotten who — collected his award and said, “Thanks, Groucho. Loved you in The Gold Rush.”
Any judge who threatens to resign from the committee more than twice during any given meeting should be forced to make good his threat.
“Of all the naked emperors whose new clothes have been saluted by the Obie committee over the years, which do you think was the nakedest?” Of course I would not dream of answering that one on such a festive occasion as this.
WOODIE KING JR.
I think the most important difference between the Obies and other awards is the recognition of artists at the beginning of their careers, i.e., Sam Shepard, Morgan Freeman, Gilbert Moses, Ed Bullins, Lanford Wilson, Mary Alice, Judy Dearing, etc. Other awards, specifically in New York — the Tony Awards, the Drama Desk Award, the Audelco Awards, and the Drama Critic Circle Awards — are more specific when the American theater participants are so diverse, so multidimensional. The Obies are cognizant of the diversities.
I am always pleased when the Obie committee recognizes New Federal Theatre — in the 1974–75 season with The Taking of Miss Janie, and again in the 1987–88 season when New Federal Theatre received a much needed check from the Obie committee of $3500. I am pleased that the Obie awards include a cash award to a theater or theater legend.
I regret not giving an Obie award to the director Shauneille Perry for continued excellence for more than 25 years in the Off-Off- and Off-Broadway theater. From her early directorial work at AMAS Repertory Theatre, New Federal, American Place Theatre, and the Negro Ensemble Company, Perry exemplifies the best of the Off-Off-Broadway theater movement. A few of the plays she directed are Sty of the Blind Pig, Black Girl, famimma, Showdown, Prodigal Sister, Love, Strivers Row, Williams and Walker, Keyboard, Celebration, and The Balmyard.
My favorite moment at an Obie award show was the year Andre DeShields performed a scene from Ain’t Misbehavin’. Magic!
If I could change the selection process, it would be in the area of minority representation. The Village and the Off-Off-Broadway scene have changed so much since the inception of the Obies, yet it seems that the structure is basically the same. There ought to be nominations by a diverse group of artists. From the nominations, the Obie committee could view the work and select winners. At present, the members of the Obie committee are so restricted because they see so few plays, especially by black and Hispanic artists. Get together a diverse group of artists/administrators who will go to the theaters and make nominations.
The question I would ask is, why haven’t I been asked to serve on the Obie committee again?
Most of these questions reflect a certain smugness. They are about process rather than what that process means within the theater that gave rise to it, the theater it wanted to celebrate and help. The Obies always were and always will be fun, and good for theater artists, but times have changed and that sweet little piece of calligraphy’s function has changed with them. The question I’ll answer instead is: What’s in a name?
It was the “off” of Off-Broadway that made the difference. The Obies were created to reward experiment, marginality, dissent, deviance — lurching around a loft naked while reciting obscurely radical texts with amazing skill and sexiness. They proclaimed the power of life outside the institutional, the mainstream, the commercial. Such life only existed in fragments and was already beleaguered from inside and out by the time I joined the Obie jury in the late ’70s, but it was real. Many Obies that made me cringe were passionately defended by other judges as the true “off.” Even Obies that went to resolutely conventional work were voted in because someone thought the work wasn’t so conventional, or that naked-loft art-politics had become their own convention.
The old line between commercial and noncommercial theater broke down long ago — perhaps theater foreshadowed the current privatization of absolutely everything? — though until very recently we could still see a lot of uppity work. Yet nothing, certainly not the Obies, could keep us from ending with today’s theater, which — like the left, the other arts, young people, middle-aged people, the very air — reflects post–Cold War numbness and confusion. In this confusion, “off” and “on” are practically meaningless.
In New York, to judge by the Voice, “off” is silent. Though I hear rumors of a wiggly, biting, molelike subversive activity by new (and surviving) theater poets and politicals, a disproportionate amount of the review space and heavy-hitting is devoted to Broadway and the Broadway-bound.
Which gets back to the Obies’ function. Once upon a time there was a New York artistic/intellectual/activist community of opposition. It had a newspaper, this one, and a theater movement, indeed several theater movements, wildly different in every format and ideological way except that they were all “off.” The paper expressed the community (which argued all the time, making for hot journalism), the theater enacted its debates and desires, the paper’s theater awards pulled it all together. The Obies fostered what they praised, helped it flourish.
Fiddling around with a nicely democratic, though crazed, selection process won’t bring this back. Listening to old judges gripe or preen about one award or another won’t help. The ceremonies will remain a gesture, merrily pointing to a vanishing vision of what should, could, and might be — until you find the new work, give it attention, and create a center for theater people who are trying to change things, including theater. Fight the dominant culture, for god’s sake, don’t mirror it.
Obie, what elitism, and, good for you, you shun prime time. Not like those other awards that share billing with miniseries and odious televised fodder ladled out to the masses. Better yet, the masses can’t name a child after you, no gun-toting, drug-induced, illiterate, and abusive little Obies to keep company with all the millions of Oscars, Emmys, and Tonys. With such elan and hauteur, you’ve parted from the embrace of humanity, preferring to consign your name to the astral regions of the universe. Where else but in Star Wars do we find the name Obi coupled with “the force.” And that, too, minus a vowel. I dread to imagine what Alec could have done had he been further empowered with that additional e. Lastly, which of the other awards are phonetically so resonant and complete that they can be pronounced in fractal forms: exclamatory as “OB,” cinematically as “Obi” and voiced village — like as in “Obie.”
The ones I would have given an Obie to were I a judge and jury of one.
Jack Smith, Gertrude Stein, Judson Dance Theatre, and the true (not ersatz) avant-garde.
To find, once again, Maria Irene Fornes’s mother, Carmen, at age 100-plus, in attendance and asking her for a dance. It does my body good; hers needs no oiling.
Why bother? By now, hasn’t just about everybody (the well-deserving, the less well-deserving, the not well-deserving, and the not-deserving-by-any-count) gotten an Obie? Why reinvent democracy, pluralism, egalitarianism, plain befuddlement, and the occasional throw of the dice? Unless, of course, and may the heavens forbid, the selectors elect those new millimeter sticks that some use nowadays to calibrate talent — multiculturalism, political correctness, cultural constructionism, gendered criteria, and other academic perversities.
Should anyone else be the favored recipient of the Obies? Yes. How about supporters of Off- and Off-Off-Broadway, such as incorrigible alternate and avantgarde theater junkies, reckless and passionate funders and their organizations, gallery owners sympathetic to performance, and, why not, Irene’s mom? And while you’re at it, how about some morsels thrown the way of critics and writers on performance?
As far as I can make out, the Obie is the only award that recognizes theater as a malleable art that cohabitates promiscuously with other disciplines, and, as such, cannot be locked down into fixed, repressive groupings of best-this and best-that from one year to the next. It’s the one award where you look to the ever evolving award categories — as much as the winners themselves — for a barometer reading on where theater is heading.
When Joe Papp told the NEA where it could go with its family values loyalty oath, it was arguably his finest hour, one of the great heroic gestures in the contemporary theater. His Obie citation (and the thundering standing ovation that accompanied it) for valiant conduct in the face of potential economic hardship was gratifying to behold.
Charlayne Woodard is one of those chameleons who has been boldly reinventing herself every other year since her jivey musical splash in Ain’t Misbehavin’. I would have been thrilled to see an Obie for her delicious Maria in Twelfth Night, or her rangy Grusha in The Caucasian Chalk Circle. Ken Elliott’s burlesque staging of The Lady in Question was disciplined and genuinely zany — worthy of Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca. Elliott and a memorable ensemble (Charles Busch, Julie Halston, Meghan Robinson, Andy Halliday, Arnie Kalodner) deserved recognition. I’m also thankful for the memory of Craig Lucas’s heartbreaking Reckless, Robbie Baitz subtly usurping Arthur Miller’s throne with both 3 Hotels and The Substance of Fire, and director Fran Soeder’s exquisite cameo rendering of Pacific Overtures. It would also have been nice to acknowledge Jeffrey Essman for something, before he fled the theater altogether for seminary school.
Fyvush Finkel’s acceptance speech, which may or may not have been longer than his Obie-winning role in Cafe Crown. He was so Fyvish: adorable, shticky, and rambling on in the way that people do when they are receiving a very belated accolade and won’t let go of the moment because it probably won’t happen again. I felt like I was seeing how my grandfather would have behaved upon winning an award for his most notable life achievement, which I believe was gambling away the family’s entire assets.
Give the guest critics supreme authority and the final say.
When did the Obies get the most number of eggs on its face? When the judges handed out more performance awards (four, count ’em, four) to Mabou Mines’s Lear than Oscar gave to The Piano and All About Eve put together. It was a fascinating production, but jeepers, folks, the general level of acting was very come-as-you-are, to say the most. The overenthusiasm of the Obie committee struck many of us on the periphery as clubby partisanship of the lowest order. So there.
Anarchy (apart from the obvious ways — noncompetitiveness, fluid categories). Other awards are determined by tyranny of the majority — whoever gets the most votes wins. The Obie selection process makes a meeting among a consensus-seeking, feminist collective look authoritarian. Sure, we vote. But then we argue, cajole, lobby, and bargain to get other judges to endorse our passions — or at least to stop objecting to them. Ardent orations are common. So are threats. (If Michael Feingold doesn’t promise to resign over at least three of my most zealous favorites — and vice versa — I know I’m doing something wrong.) As a result, some artists win without a majority of votes in their favor; some with majorities don’t win. Unfair sometimes? Perhaps. But an Obie award is never tepid.
Every single one of them. In voting meetings, I threaten to resign as much as the next judge; I declare that certain awards will be given over my dead body; I join in the sniping about other judges’ lack of discernment, knowledge, principle, and taste. But when the Obies are actually awarded, I turn to total mush.
I’d like to see more awards for the unsung, often unseen, folks who make theater happen — techies, dramaturgs, translators, play publishers. And more for events that extend our definitions of theater — parades, protests, circuses, histrionic occasions of all sorts. Finally, bring back the legendary anti-Obie. There’s a long list of deserving candidates.
Dancing with Irene Fornes, Ruth Maleczech, Judith Malina, and Peggy Shaw all at the same time.
More judges. Getting eight or 10 people to agree on a meeting time may be a logistical nightmare, but a bigger panel of judges means more work gets seen and that no one can dominate. More important, it means there can be a wider range of views represented. We need artists and critics from the new generation; we need people in touch with work coming out of all kinds of communities.
Is the Voice living up to the spirit of the Obies? A few weeks ago I ran into a friend who had won an Obie half a dozen years back. Before we could exchange pleasantries, he thrust a card under my nose announcing his new show. He told me he didn’t expect it to get any serious attention from the Voice. “None of us do,” he said, referring to Downtown experimental types. “As far as we’re concerned, the Voice has turned its back on us.”I wanted to leap to the paper’s defense, but I had to agree. The work the Obies were invented to recognize gets short shrift in our pages. For proof, I pull a paper at random from the stack that awaits bundling. Here’s what’s I find in the Theater section: a nearly page-long review of the Broadway Medea, half a page on Yoko Ono, half a page on the Louisville festival. Then, after a two-page spread advertising the Obies, come the Cameos. Here, a paragraph each is allotted to a new work by Mabou Mines, a new play at the Ridiculous, and the CSC production of James Magruder’s new Marivaux translation. Something is wrong with this picture.Yes, yes, there are space constraints. And all the rest of the diurnal drudgery of putting out a newspaper. But the current system, under which one critic dominates (and what piques his interest is what gets the most attention) and other writers are relegated to snappy little reviews (which can almost never be upgraded to full-length pieces, no matter how enthusiastic a writer may be about a production), threatens to make the Obies hypocritical. The issue isn’t who dominates the section, but that anyone does. The theater would be better served by lively discussion among a bevy of critics with differing points of view. Even the Times doesn’t send the same reviewer to every production at every major Off-Broadway theater. Even the Times grants more than 250 words to Mabou Mines or the Ridiculous. The current arrangement at the Voice leaves no room for new critics to develop. And it makes little serious space for established young critics.The Obies were born at a moment when the theater spearheaded a vibrant countercultural movement. Perhaps some of my nostalgic older colleagues are right that such a movement doesn’t exist nowadays. But there’s plenty of work out there that’s scrappy, inventive, serious, and still experimenting. It’s not enough to pay attention to it on one self-congratulatory night in May.
The Obies are meant to honor artistic achievement as an end in itself, not as an adjunct to commercial success — as Marilyn Sokol once said, “I expected the phone to ring off the hook with job offers the day after I won my Obie, but I’m here to tell you that the Obie is a guarantee of absolutely nothing.” And I also very much like our refusal to categorize art. We’ve honored parades as well as performances, circuses as well as scripts. If the judges like something, they give it an Obie, without worrying about how to label the award. But the biggest difference, I think, is that the Obies aren’t competitive. I’m always appalled by those five faces on the TV screen at the Tonys and Oscars, four of them forced to burst into devastated smiles while the fifth feigns astonishment. No one wins an Obie at someone else’s expense — our attitude is that if all five of them were good, give all five of them awards. After all, artistic achievement isn’t a matter of competition.
Dozens — including Gospel at Colonus (the great American musical), anything by Irene Fornes (the most underappreciated theater artist of our time), JoAnne Akalaitis (only a few months after her disgraceful firing at the Public Theatre), Julian Beck and Judith Malina for Antigone, and Ruth Maleczech for Lear (transcendent performances unjustly maligned by the mainstream critics). But my personal favorite was the citation to Anne and Jules Weiss for their years of inspired, selfless work at La Mama — they were two of the kindest, most generous people in our community, the embodiment of the spirit of Off-Off-Broadway.
A tie. Martha Clarke and Wally Shawn have each won Obies, but they each deserved another, and in Clarke’s case two. Her Garden of Earthly Delights enthralled everyone but a few recalcitrant Obie judges — a kind of meditation on the Hieronymus Bosch painting, it had humor, horror, and dozens of stunningly idiosyncratic images. Miracolo d’Amore seemed to displease everyone but a recalcitrant me, but I’ll never forget Rob Besserer, Felix Blaska, Polly Styron, and John Kelly, and especially Richard Peaslee’s lovely score. Shawn’s Marie and Bruce portrayed the breakdown of a relationship in the poetry of scatology, and by the end of the evening even curses had become lyrical — which is more than I can say about the judges’ meeting that unaccountably voted it down.
Again, dozens — host Groucho Marx mumbling out of the side of his mouth, “When is this goddamned thing going to end?”, Farley Granger nearly sobbing as he said he’d never won anything before, Dustin Hoffman grabbing an unruly audience by the throat and forcing 500 people to pay attention, Kevin Kline saying solemnly that while most actors worked from the inside out he preferred to work from the outside out, Leo Bassi going berserk and taking everyone with him, the award winner who seemed to be undergoing a religious conversion while receiving his Obie and urging us all to follow the path in an interminable (well, actually only 11-minute) acceptance speech, and of course (ahem) my own Obie. But two moments stand out. Backstage before one Obie ceremony, hostess Elaine May seemed virtually catatonic with anxiety — disaster loomed — she could hardly remember her name — but the second she stepped onstage she became the portrait of self-confident vivacity. An even more provocative lesson in the psychodynamics of theater came when I first stepped onstage — a bit catatonic myself — nervously told a joke, and felt engulfed in a wave of laughter. I’ve never since wondered why anyone would want to become an actor — the communication between stage and audience, the exchange of energy, is not only palpable, it’s exhilarating. Everyone says it, of course, but you have to experience it to know it.
To hell with all those other Obie judges. Let me pick all the winners every year.
(a) Why did you ask these questions? The essence of the Obies is diversity, eccentricity, lack of formal structure — a refusal to categorize, or follow convention, or speak in a single voice (I take back my answer to question number five). I wanted the judges, as at our meetings, to reveal their infinite variety. (b) What should you do now? Read over that list of winners again — and cherish the artists of our community.
Martin Luther King told of his growing nightmares and his enduring dreams in the rolling, hypnotic cadences of the rural preacher. But it was the humane, incorruptible mystique of the man that won the crowd, his crescendo phrases winning affirmations of “amen” and “Say it, brother” again and again.