I Lost It At The Obies

A Chronicle of 40 Years of Off-Broadway


I Lost It At The Obies


In 1956, the year the Obies began, Eisenhow­er hadn’t even started his second term and Bill Clinton was in grade school. The Dodgers were still in Brook­lyn, Steve Allen hosted the Tonight Show, and the Mar­cia Clark of the day was Joseph Welch. Jack Kerouac was just hitting the road, Elvis wasn’t anywhere near the building, and an obscure professor at Cornell, Vladmir Nabokov, was becoming resigned to the fact that no one would risk publishing Lolita.

Down in the Village, Edna St. Vincent Millay had died only a few years earlier, Delmore Schwartz was pub­licly going mad, and Djuna Barnes, austere and cranky in her one-room apartment on Patchin Place, just across the courtyard from e e cummings, still had a quarter of a century to live.

Brooks Atkinson was the theater critic for The New York Times, Waiting for Godot was baffling Broadway audiences — a metaphor for impotence, explained Nor­man Mailer in the pages of this paper — few producers would take a chance on Chekhov or Ibsen, and almost no one had even heard of Jean Genet. Joe Papp was working as the stage manager for “I’ve Got a Secret” at CBS, Ellen Stewart was designing bathing suits, and Sam Shepard was still several years from becoming a bus­boy at the Village Gate.

Over on Greenwich Avenue, in a one-and-a-half­ room office, a writer for the Columbia Encyclopedia, a psychotherapist, and the author of The Naked and the Dead were wondering if their new five-cent weekly could make it through the end of the month. But Jerry Tallmer, the paper’s managing editor and theater critic, had an inspiration. The Circle-in-the-Square had pro­duced popular Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams revivals, Judith Malina and Julian Beck of the Living Theater were mounting plays in living rooms and lofts, and The Threepenny Opera was starting its long run at the Theatre De Lys — there might not be anything up­town but blockbuster musicals and meretricious melo­dramas, but the downtown scene was beginning to be called “Off-Broadway.” Why not have an award cere­mony to celebrate the work being done in this new, al­ternative theater? A kind of Tony award honoring art not commerce. A gathering of the community to en­courage its artists. But what to call the new award? Off­-Broadway — OB — voilá — Obie!

Forty years. There’s a danger, of course, in calling at­tention to our age — how can an award so middle-aged, so venerable, claim to honor the new, the untried, the experimental, the innovative, the adventurous? (How, in fact, can we share a 40th anniversary with the Fortune 500?) Well, it’s not as if we haven’t stumbled along in the first place — changed, evolved, mutated, even, on occasion, blundered. But as long as we can keep our process casual, informal, and unstructured — and as long as we can keep the ceremonies from becoming institu­tionalized — we should be able to stumble along for an­other 40 years at least.

This isn’t the place to explain the selection process — except to say that while some things have remained the same (the judge who can be counted on to annually resign in a rage), many more have altered (adding more judges and a cadre of auxiliary scouts to handle the extraordinary prolifer­ation of Off- and Off-Off-Broadway, for instance, or eliminating “bests” except for the best play award, or gradually “shaping” the list of win­ners rather than taking a strictly nu­merical vote, or implementing the in­formal “seven-year rule,” under which you can’t vote for anyone with whom you’ve had an affair in the last seven years, a rule less invoked these days than in the 70s, and a rule that we once had to consider amending to include “or whom you contemplate having an affair with on the night of the ceremonies either”).

As for nominations? Well, we decided early on that the spectacle of five nominees on TV — four of them giv­ing the performance of their lives pretending they’re hap­py for the fifth — was hardly in the spirit of artistic achievement. Why should art be competitive? Three­-time winner Morgan Freeman put it best at the Obie ceremonies a couple of years ago. “If you want to give me an award, give me an award,” he said. “Don’t nominate me for it and then tell me I wasn’t good enough to win.”

As for the ceremonies themselves, we equally dis­like the spectacle of tuxedoed and gowned guests sitting in rows in some gigantic auditorium with an accountant holding the envelopes and a TV crewman flashing 30-second warnings at the winners — though we have caved in on the “no TV” principle and this year will be on the tube for the fourth time. But there’s no limit on acceptance speeches (length or language), no “in ceremonies held earlier this evening” condescension to “lesser” awards, and no smirk­ing emcee with stupid host tricks. As I wrote in these pages on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the Obies — and I see no reason to change a word — “Here at the Voice, we like to think of the Obies as a kind of funky family reunion, an informal yearly get-together where we can reminisce with old friends, or get to know newcomers, or welcome back former coworkers who’ve gone on to big­ger and (so we tend to believe) worse things.”

But enough. The 40-year his­tory of the Obies should speak for itself — a chronicle of artistic achievement, boisterous celebration and even an occasional boo.

1956 Shelley Winters, starring uptown in Hatful of Rain, drove her own car down to the Limelight to host the first Obie ceremonies, and was immediately besieged by photographers from the AP, the Daily News, and Movietone News. Under the klieg lights of Dumont television, and before a crowd of over 200 mem­bers of the new Off-Broadway community, the three top acting awards were presented to Julie Bovasso for The Maids, Jason Robards for The Iceman Cometh, and George Voskovec for Uncle Vanya. The best new play award was given to Lionel Abel for Absalom, the best production award went to Uncle Vanya, the best musical award was presented to The Threepenny Opera, and José Quintero won the best director award for The Iceman Cometh (thanking the actors, in his acceptance speech, “for teaching me my craft”). Among the other winners — a young actress named Frances Sternhagen, and an unknown young producer named Joseph Papp for the Shakespearean Workshop Theatre.

1957 It was a Gaelic afternoon at the Limelight, Colleen Dewhurst winning the Obie for best actress, James Joyce’s Exiles winning four awards, playwrights named Shaw, Wilde, and O’Casey figuring in other prominent Obies, and Irish coffee served to the 300 guests, who included the legendary Vil­lager and honorary Gael, Romany Marie. WOR’s Jean Shepard handled the preliminaries and postscripts, with Geraldine Page, gowned in linen and capped in straw, handing out the parchments. Other awards included Gene Frankel for best direction (Volpone), a special citation to Paul Shyre, and Louis A. Lippa for best play (A House Remembered, a play forgotten). Unable to attend the ceremonies due to rehearsals for a summer-stock production, Dewhurst sent a telegram — “Believe me when I say, happy the girl the sun shines on today.”

1958 An ex-Marine recently turned actor, George C. Scott won the Obie for best actor for his performances in Richard III, As You Like It, and Children of Darkness. Maureen Stapleton served as emcee, handing out Obies to Scott, Anne Meacham as best actress (Garden District), Stuart Vaughan as best director (New York Shakespeare Festi­val), Samuel Beckett for best play (Endgame), and 11 other awards, including an Obie to a neophyte named Tammy Grimes for her performance in Clerambard, and an Obie to a recent newcomer to Off-Broad­way named Lucille Lortel. Clarence Derwent, Tony Randall, and Huntington Hartford were among the 300 guests, and Raymond S. Rubinow, chairman of the committee to close Washington Square Park to traffic, made the first polit­ical speech at the Obies — pointing out that the continued success of Off­-Broadway was linked with the preservation of community life in the Village.

1959 The Obies moved to the Village Gate, with over 500 in atten­dance, including Anne Bancroft, Arthur Lau­rents, Diana Sands, Lorraine Hansberry, guest judge Kenneth Tynan, and a contingent from Radio Free Europe. A special touch of emotion was added to the proceedings when emcee Kim Stanley, nearing the climax of her announcements, discovered that her husband, Alfred Ry­der, had won the Obie for best actor. She had no advance knowledge of his place in the vot­ing, and tears were near the surface as she hand­ed his Obie to his stand-in, actress Nan Mar­tin, since he was uptown rehearsing for a television production of Billy Budd. Other awards went to Ivanov for best production, a­nd Mostel for Ulysses in Nighttown, Hal Hol­brook for Mark Twain Tonight!, and Betty Comden and Adolph Green for their show at the Cherry Lane.

1960 The year of the Living Theater’s The Connection — Judith Malina and Julian Beck won the Obie for best production, Jack Gelber for best new play, and Warren Finnerty for best actor. What a year for playwrights — among the winners were Jean Genet for best foreign play for The Balcony, Samuel Beckett for Krapp’s Last Tape, and Ed­ward Albee for The Zoo Story. And what a year for actors — among the 10 winners were Eileen Brennan (best actress for Little Mary Sunshine), Vincent Gardenia (Machinal) and Nancy Marchand (The Balcony). Six hundred guests attended the ceremonies at the Village Gate, hosted by Anne Bancroft. Taking out ads in the Voice congratulating the Obies on their fifth year were Judy Holliday, Harry Belafonte, and an actor not yet known for his stage work — a fellow named Jerry Lewis.

1961 Few people may have heard of Jean Genet, but that didn’t include the Obie judges, who in the sixth year of the awards gave him his third Obie, this one for best play for The Blacks. Congressman John Lindsay led off the afternoon with, as the paper noted, “a discussion of the intellectual and cultural climate of the city,” then turned the pro­ceedings over to host Julie Harris. Among the winners — Gerald Freedman for his direction of The Taming of the Shrew, Khigh Dhiegh for best actor for In the Jungle of Cities, Anne Meacham for best actress for Hedda Gabler, and performance awards to Godfrey Cambridge and James Coco. And for the first time, Off-Off-Broadway was honored — a parchment going to the improvisational revue The Premise starring Joan Darling and Tom Aldredge.

1962 Lotte Lenya presented an Obie to Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days as best foreign play “with judge Walter Kerr wish­ing to be announced as abstaining.” After a mo­ment’s hush, there came a scattering of hisses, boos, and some small applause. On the podi­um, co-judge Edward Albee indulged in a brief, dry smile. Among the winners Kerr agreed up­on were best performance awards to a 31-year-old actor named James Earl Jones (several pro­ductions) and actress Barbara Harris (who delighted the audience by performing a Second City sketch with Alan Arkin) for Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feelin’ So Sad; acting Obies to Vinnette Carroll, Rosemary Harris, and Ruth White; and best American play to Frank Gilroy for Who’ll Save the Plowboy? In explaining that he’d flown in from Califomia to receive his award, Gilroy added that when his agent had said, “What do you think it is, a Pulitzer Prize?” he’d responded that the Obies mean more to him than any recognition he could have received.

1963 Uta Hagen came forward to present the awards. Peering out in­to the dim, smoke-filled room, packed to the walls with standing latecomers, she echoes the opening of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, in which she was currently starring on Broadway — “What a dump!” Best actress and best ac­tor awards went to a recently married couple, Colleen Dewhurst and George C. Scott, both for Desire Under the Elms, and another couple, Anne Jackson and Eli Wallach, received Obies for their performances in The Typists and The Tiger. Other winners included Olympia Dukakis and Joseph Chaikin (not a couple) for different productions of Man Is Man, and Alan Schneider, best director for his work on The Pinter Plays. Two highlights — entertainment by the belly dancer Sabah, and the announce­ment that from this year on the Voice would give a $500 prize to the best new American play of the year — the first award going not to an Off-Broadway play but to Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which had just been turned down for the Pulitzer.

1964 When an award to Julian Beck was announced for his set design for The Brig — which also won an Obie for best production — Beck and Judith Malina were just coming in the door of the Village Gate. Under strain from the two weeks of the federal trial that resulted from the closing of the Living Theater — a trial that ended two days later in conviction — the Becks received a prolonged standing ovation. Colleen Dewhurst was the host, entertainment was provided by Tiny Tim, Samuel Beckett was cited for best play (Play), LeRoi Jones for best American play (Dutchman — for which he also received a $500 check donated by Edward Albee), and what a roster of young performers were honored — Gloria Foster, Lee Grant, Taylor Mead, Estelle Par­sons, Diana Sands, Marian Seldes, and Jack Warden. And speaking for the judges, Richard Gilman announced an anti-Obie to the Repertory Theatre of Lincoln Center “for outstand­ing disservice to the American theater.”

1965 This year the citation “for outstanding disservice to the Amer­ican theater” went to Walter Kerr. Among the performers receiving their Obies from host Gloria Foster were Roscoe Lee Browne, Frank Langella, and Lester Rawlins (tied for best ac­tor for their performances in The Old Glory), plus Brian Bedford, Joseph Chaikin, Robert Duvall, Rosemary Harris, James Earl Jones, Frances Sternhagen, and Sada Thompson. Other awards included best play to neophyte playwright Robert Lowell for The Old Glory, Irene Fornes’s first of many Obies for Promenade, and special citations to two newcomers to the scene, the Caffe Cino and Cafe La Mama. H.M. Koutoukas showed up at the ceremonies carrying his pet parrot, and Charles Stanley arrived in djellaba and burnoose.

1966 Another discovery at the Obies — a young actor named Dustin Hoffman won the award for best actor for his performance in The Journey of the Fifth Horse. Host Anne Jackson handed the parchment for best play to Ronald Ribman for The Journey of the Fifth Horse, and gave another Obie for three one-act plays to Off-Off-Broadway newcomer Sam Shepard — who went on to win eight more Obies over the following years. Other awards included second Obies to Gloria Foster and Frank Langella, plus a special citation to the Bread and Puppet Theater. Among those gathered at the Gate were David Gordon and Val­da Setterfield, who would receive their Obies nearly two decades later.

1967 Barbara Harris presided over the ceremonies, and a new group called the Mothers of Invention, led by a singer named Frank Zappa, entertained the gathering between awards. Futz, produced at the Cafe La Mama, took the top three honors — Seth Allen for best actor, Tom O’Horgan for best direc­tor, and Rochelle Owens for best play (tying with Eh? by Henry Livings and La Turista by Sam Shepard). Other Obie winners included performers Tom Aldredge, Alvin Epstein, Stacy Keach, and Rip Torn, and special citations were given to the La Mama Troupe, the Open Theatre, and Jeff Weiss. Three of the winners, in accepting their Obies, described themselves as “paranoid.”

1968 Another young actor won an Obie for best performance in his stage debut — Al Pacino for The Indian Wants the Bronx. An old hand at the Obies by now, Sam Shepard won a playwriting Obie, joined by newcomer’s John Guare and a previously unknown Czech playwright named Václav Hav­el. Estelle Parsons, who’d just won an Oscar for Bonnie and Clyde, handed out the parchments to the 23 winners, who included Billie Dixon (best performance by an actress for The Beard), John Cazale, James Coco, Moses Gunn, Roy R. Scheider, the Negro Ensemble Company, and the San Francisco Mime Troupe.

1969 Julie Bovasso, in cowboy hat and bush jacket, introduced the judges — who included Elizabeth Hardwick­ — and handed out the best play award to the Liv­ing Theater for Frankenstein. “The theater is life and the theater is in the street,” proclaimed Judith Malina and Julian Beck by transatlantic cable. “We suggest that all revolutionary artists write on their banners ‘love and gentleness.’ All the rest is treason.” Richard Schechner, in accepting an Obie for the Performance Group’s Dionysus in ’69, responded less lo­quaciously — “We deserve it.” Among the other winners were Jeff Weiss, Julie Bovasso, The­atre Genesis, Ronald Tavel, and Jules Feiffer (Little Murders). As part of the entertainment, Ching Yeh recited Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” soliloquy in Chinese, rearing his passion to a hilarious tatters.

1970 “Everything’s coming up marigolds.” Paul Zindel’s The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds shared the best play award with Megan Terry’s Approaching Simone, and Sada Thompson was cited for best performance for Marigolds. Dustin Hoffman presided over the ceremonies, handing out other awards to playwrights Václav Havel, Murray Mednick, and Joe Orton, and performers Vincent Gardenia, Ron Leibman, Rue McClanahan, and Austin Pendleton. Alan Arkin won a directing award for The White House Murder Case, and special citations went to Andre Gregory, Charles Ludlam, Richard Foreman, and Stanley Silverman. Boos interrupted several of the awards, until finally someone in the audience yelled at a par­ticularly boozy heckler, “Earn your right to be on stage, you loudmouth” — apparently un­aware that the heckler had, in fact, received an Obie earlier in the evening and was drowning his glee in beer. “I haven’t been in a room filled with so much love and hate since high school English,” said Zindel in receiving his Obie, going on to thank the rabbit in his play for reminding him that “we share this earth with all living creatures.”

1971 Backstage before at the ceremonies, host Elaine May was nearly catatonic with panic, but the minute she strode on stage she was transformed into the portrait of vivacity. “Does anyone have any questions?” she said in her opening remarks. “Anything at all.” “Can you find me an apartment?” came a shout from the audience. Otto Preminger, with whom May was making a movie, came along to keep tabs on her and to present one of the awards. Among the Obies — John Guare for best play for House of Blue Leaves, and play­wrights Ed Bullins, David Rabe, Athol Fu­gard, and Derek Walcott. The best actress Obie went to Ruby Dee for Boesman and Lena, the best actor Obie to Jack MacGowran for Beckett, and among the other winners were Stacy Keach, James Woods, and Hector Elizondo (one of this year’s presenters), who was shoot­ing the rapids in Utah and asked his son to accept his plaque, the award having been up­graded from parchment.

1972 “You remember A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races,” I said in my introduction to this year’s host. “We hope that An Evening at the Obies will be just as memorable — with Groucho Marx!” What Groucho had to do with off-Broadway was unclear, but the audience rose and gave a long standing ovation as the 81-year-old leg­end walked slowly to the microphone, perched on a stool, and upon being introduced to co-host Madeleine Le Roux asked if she was a vir­gin. It hardly needs saying that Groucho upstaged the awards, which included a best theater piece Obie to the Open Theatre for The Mu­tation Show. Despite his frequent leers ar the winning actresses, and a bit of byplay with Kathleen Widdoes about bananas when she came onstage to accept her award, the Fuck the Army award gave Groucho a moment’s pause (and the Voice as well, which called it the Free the Army show in its account of the event). When told that winner Charles Stanley had in­cluded Greta Garbo among the characters he played, Groucho commented, “You don’t look like Garbo,” to which Stanley replied — the on­ly time in his career Groucho was topped­ — “No, but I often wear her clothes.”

1973 “I wasn’t really the first choice to present the awards,” said host Sylvia Miles. “The first choice was Shirley MacLaine, but Shirley is still off in China doing research for her new book, Don’t Fall Off the Eggroll.” The best play award was shared by Lanford Wilson’s The Hot L Baltimore and Joseph Walker’s The River Niger, with Sam Shepard’s The Tooth of Crime (perhaps his greatest play) settling for a citation. Among the performance winners were Hume Cronyn, Jessica Tandy, Stacy Keach, Christopher Lloyd, Charles Ludlam, Sam Waterston, and Alice Playten, who thanked her psychiatrist “for con­vincing me not to quit when the going gets rough.” (Three members of the audience approached her after the ceremonies to get his name.) Accepting a special ci­tation for the WPA, Harry Orzello thanked the Voice “even though we haven’t had a good review in six months” — leading Miles to remark that “the Voice is like the Pentagon. First they bomb you, then they give you an award.”

1974 “It’s a pleasure to present awards to people who did not run $5000 campaigns in order to win,” said host God­frey Cambridge in opening the ceremonies. “You’re awarded for paying your dues, for dressing next to the furnace, where some of the dressing rooms still are, and for going to school and learning your craft. It’s a pleasure to pre­sent awards like that.” Recalling his own reaction to winning an Obie in 1961, he went on, “I sat there grinding my teeth and acted like a typical Off-Broadway actor at an award show, muttering, ‘This goddamn thing is fixed! What the hell am I doing here, for Crisakes? I don’t need it. I know I’m good.’  But when they called my name, I cried like a baby.” Among the win­ners was Hal Prince for his direction of Candide, but the highlight of the evening was the best play award to Miguel Pinero for Short Eyes — he was out on bail, having been arrested that very morning for possession of a controlled substance.

1975 For the 20th annual Obie cere­monies, presenters were called upon — Angela Lansbury, Sam Waterston, Melba Moore, Marilyn Sokol, and Shelley Winters, who told the 500-member audi­ence, “If I win an Emmy tonight, can I trade it for an Obie?” Leslie Lee won the best play award for The First Breeze of Summer, and other playwriting Obies went to Ed Bullins, Lanford Wilson, Wallace Shawn, and Sam Shepard. Christo­pher Walken, Kevin Mc­Carthy, and Tovah Feldshuh were among the performance winners, and five special 20-year Obies were presented — Judith Malina and Julian Beck of the Living Theater, Ted Mann and Circle-in-the-Square, Joe Papp, Ellen Stewart, and The Fantasticks. “When I get an award,” said Beck, “I ask myself. ‘What have we done wrong?’ ” Unable to attend the ceremonies, Dustin Hoffman sent a telegram — “Sorry I can’t be with you for the 20th anniversary of the Obies, but send my best wishes to all the losers.”

1976 Clay Felker, the new publisher of the Voice, decided to hold the Obies in Lincoln Center (though he couldn’t get his way when he tried to persuade Elizabeth Taylor to host the ceremonies), leading to the first, hereafter almost annual reading of a disgruntled statement by the Obie committee. “We must protest that this choice of place,” the statement concluded, “was made without consulting the Obie judges.” When it came time for Edward Albee to make his presentations, he read from his napkin —  “I wonder if we should be quite so snooty about Lincoln Center … Off-Broadway is a state of mind and has noth­ing to do with where it’s done.” Among the winners were Ralph Lee for starring the annu­al Village Halloween Parade and the creators of A Chorus Line. The best play award was shared by David Mamet for American Buffa­lo and Sexual Perversity in Chicago and Richard Foreman for Rhoda in Potatoland. Said Mike Kellin, who won a performance Obie for American Buffalo, “Of the 11 people who saw the show, I’m very grateful that six of them were Voice critics.”

1977 Another judges’ revolt, this time over the best play award to Sam Shepard for Curse of the Starving Class, a play, as it happens, that wasn’t produced Off-Broad­way, or anywhere else for that matter, existing, at that point, only as a script. Three judges, Robert Duvall announced in ceremonies at the Bottom Line, had voted for Shepard, two had voted against, and two had abstained, and as Duvall concluded his reading of separate statements by each group, an informal dissent was added from the audience — “Bullshit!” Hosts Marilyn Sokol, Paul Sorvino, and Gilda Radner (“No, Emily Litella, that’s not OD, that’s OB” — “Never mind”) handed out the plaques to the winners, who included Tommy Tune for his direction of The Club, Philip Glass for his music for Einstein on the Beach, playwrights Irene Fornes and Ntozake Shange, and per­formers Danny Aiello, Martin Balsam, Lucinda Childs, James Coco, John Heard, and William Hurt. A new award was added, for lifetime achievement, the first going to Joe Chaikin.

1978 Live from the Bottom Line! The 23rd annual Obies on Channel 13! Said host Dustin Hoffman to the viewers, the Obies are “the only awards where the audience can see actors not trying to pretend like they’re healthy people.” Among those thanked by the winners were Rimbaud, Gertrude Stein, and Eric Bentley’s mother. Other winners included Nell Carter and Swoosic Kurtz for performance, a special citation to Squat, the life­time achievement award to Peter Schumann’s Bread & Puppet Theatre, and the best play Obie to Lee Breuer for Shaggy Dog Animation, Breuer putting half the $1000 award aside as a revolving fund for “for theater people having emergencies.” For as Marilyn Sokol said before presenting several awards, “I’m here to tell you that winning an Obie is a future guarantee of absolutely nothing.”

1979 “Off-Broadway means to me,” said Judd Hirsch in accepting his Obie, “a place where they can’t fire you.” “Off­-Broadway means to me,” said Swoosie Kurtz in presenting another Obie, “toilets that don’t flush.” Ron Leibman hosted the ceremonies, which honored, among others, Michael Mc­Clure’s Josephine as best play (beating out Sam Shepard’s Buried Child), Al Carmines for sustained achievement, Jennifer Tipton for lighting, Tadeusz Kantor for The Dead Class, and performers Mary Alice, Fred Gwynne, and Meryl Streep. One of the winners, in his ac­ceptance speech televised on Channel 13, had a religious epiphany on the spot and exhorted the audience for 11 minutes to join him on the true path. And Weeden, Finkle, and Fay, in their entertainment segment, proclaimed their perception of the Obie committee’s function — “Sometimes we just say, ‘Godddamit,/Let’s give another to David Mamet.’ ”

1980 The 25th anniversary of the Obies — and as the Voice noted in its account of the ceremonies, “What is un­doubtedly clear, and kind of nice in its own bumbling way, is that 24 years of practice didn’t help this year’s awards be anything less than the mess we have come to know and tolerate.” Chris Durang and Alice Playten entertained the gathering at the Ritz with a 10-minute history of Off-Broad­way, and the Flying Karamazov Brothers jubilantly juggled, having just won a spe­cial citation. Playwrights honored included Sam Shepard for sustained achieve­ment, Durang, Lee Breuer, Romulus Lin­ney, and Jeff Weiss, and acting Obies were handed out to, among others, Lindsay Crouse, Morgan Freeman, John Heard, Jon Polito, Bill Raymond, and Dianne Wiest. The cohosts were James Coco and Ruby Dee — who recalled that winning her Obie felt just like having “12 people in the theater when there’s two feet of snow.”

1981 The ceremonies at the Roxy were hosted by Sigourney Weaver and Kevin Kline, who announced, “Some actors like to work from the inside out. I like to work from the outside … out.” Kline (for Pirates of Penzance), Mary Beth Hurt, Meryl Streep, and Christopher Walken were among the winners of performance Obies, the sustained achievement award went to the Negro Ensemble Company, and the top play honor was shared by Emily Mann’s Still Life and David Henry Hwang’s FOB. And in a new tradition, one that seems to continue to this day, the ceremonies were panned in the Voice itself, proving either an abiding commitment to the F­irst Amendment or an ineradicable masochism.

1982 Harvey Fierstein stole the show. He’d just broken up with the man on whom the relationship in Torch Song Trilogy was based, as he told the audience at Savoy. “The man has his wife, but I have this,” he exulted, holding aloft his Obie plaque. He started to leave, but turned to the microphone to announce that he’d just become engaged to Tommy Tune, who was cohosting the ceremonies with Swoosie Kurtz. Tadeusz Kantor won the Obie for best theater piece for Wielopole, Wielopole, the sustained achievement award went to Irene Fornes, Caryl Churchill won an Obie for Cloud 9, and among the performance winners were Denzel Washington, Kevin Bacon, Carole Shelley, Josef Sommer, and Irene Worth.

1983 Harvey Fierstein’s year once more, this time cohosting with Julie Bovasso. “I wanna say that I sat there in that audience for 11 years before I won an Obie,” he announced at the beginning of the ceremonies at the First City cabaret, “and I just want to ask the critics, ‘Was it so terrible? Was it really that bad?’ ” Gary Sinise won a directing Obie, and performance awards were handed out to Christine Baranski, Glenn Close, Jeff Daniels, Ruth Maleczech, John Malkovich, Donald Moffat, and Ray Wise (who ended up, years lat­er, as Laura Palmer’s murderer in Twin Peaks). Playwriting honors were shared by Caryl Churchill, Tina Howe, Harry Kondoleon, and David Mamet, and the  sustained achievement award was presented to Lanford Wilson, Marshall Mason, and the Circle Repertory Company. Another new tradition began — the Voice‘s annual grant of $10,000 to struggling theaters.

1984 Three of the transcendent pro­ductions of the decade were hon­ored — Lee Breuer and Bob Telson’s Gospel at Colonus (with an acting Obie to Morgan Free­man), Sam Shepard’s Fool for Love, (with acting Obies to Kathy Whitton Baker, Ed Harris, and Will Patton — the only time an award has gone to a cast replacement), and Franz Xaver Kroetz’s Through the Leaves (with performancc awards for Ruth Maleczech and Fred Neumann and a directing award to JoAnne Akalaitis). John Lone and Marybeth Hurt hosted the cere­monies at the Cat Club, helping hand out the sustained achievement award to the Music The­atre Group, performance Obies to F. Murray Abraham, Pamela Reed, and Dianne Wiest, and playwriting honors to Samuel Beckett, Irene Fornes, Václav Havel, and Len Jenkin. But to many in the audience the highlight of the evening was the special citation voted to Anne and Jules Weiss for their tireless devotion the Cafe La Mama. Said a delighted but discom­bobulated Anne Weiss, “Before we left home, Jules said, ‘Shouldn’t we get dressed up?’ but I said, ‘Oh no, they’ll never ask us up on stage.’ ”

1985 “This is a very tough fucking house,” said Dustin Hoffman at the 30th annual Obie ceremonies at the Puck Building. “Please listen to this shit,” he went on, holding a glass that had apparently been refilled more than once. “We’re all in consort about a couple of things. The critics vote these awards and we hate their fucking guts, because they don’t know as much as we know.” What’s im­portant, he continued, “isn’t the power the crit­ics have in deciding these awards, but the emo­tional vote of your colleagues in the audience who cheer when you win. When I won my Obie, 20 years ago, it was the greatest moment of my life. Everybody who is winning is winning for those out there who are not winning, and the reason you’re cheering is that you’re part of them.” Among those cheered by an audience that included Joe Papp’s special guest Robert DeNiro were Irene Fornes, who won the best play award for The Conduct of Life, sustained achievement winner Meredith Monk, directors John Malkovich and Jerry Zaks, and perform­ers Dennis Boutsikaris, Anthony Heald, Laurie Metcalf, and John Turturro, with special citations going to Spalding Gray and Penn and Teller. Said winner Max Roach — “Writing for Off-Broadway was one of the best learning experiences I’ve ever had in my life.” Said winner Barbara Vann — “It’s very strange being here, be­cause l can’t remember that anyone has ever said anything nice about me in the Voice,”

1986 Sustained achievement — Mabou Mines. Best play — a five-way tie between Eric Bogosian (Drinking in America), Martha Clarke (Vienna: Lusthaus), John Jesurun (Deep Sleep), Lee Nagrin (Bird/Bear), and Wallace Shawn (Aunt Dan and Lemon). Other awards, in ceremonies presided over by Christopher Durang and Swoosie Kurtz, and featuring entertainment by Dario Fo and Franca Rame, included Robert Wilson for direction, and Jill Eikenberry, Edward Hermann, and Kevin Kline for performance. Kline thanked his girlfriend “for putting up with all the crap any­one goes through playing Shakespeare,” Spald­ing Gray remarked that “I feel like I have so much to say, but I don’t wane to be self-indul­gent — there’s such a fine line,” Wallace Shawn commented that “When I was 10 years old, I had a canary that lived off Hartz Mountain birdseed — that seems important,” and Ellen Stewart, in accepting an award on behalf of Tadeusz Kantor, said that the Obie “is some­thing that is holy in Eastern European coun­tries.” But the biggest cheer went to Farley Granger for his Obie for Talley and Son. “You’ve made an old man very happy,” he said through tears. “In my long and varied career, I’ve never received an award and this is the first.”

1987 “Everybody knows that the Obies are the only awards that count,” said cohost Morgan Freeman. “The rest are just doo-doo.” Both Freeman and cohost Christine Lahti won performance Obies — no it’s not rigged, the hosts, presenters, and entertainment are selected long before the vot­ing — and other winners included the sustained achievement Obie to Charles Ludlam, the best play Obie to Richard Foreman (The Cure and Film Is Evil … Radio Is Good — “Next year I hope to write a play people will really hate,” he said), and performance Obies to Philip Bosco, Black-Eyed Susan, Dana Ivey, and Robin Bartlett. Presenter Jules Feiffer prefaced his remarks by attacking the Voice critic who’d reviewed his revival of Little Murders — “I’m just not comfortable having my work defined by schmucks.”

1988 Winner Peggy Shaw thanked the Voice “for encouraging lesbian­ism by voting for me,” and sustained achieve­ment winner Richard Foreman remarked, “We’ve all bitched and complained about the Voice, but let’s admit it’s played a major part in keeping the community alive.” Among the other winners, in ceremonies presided over by Er­ic Bogosian and Kathleen Turner at the Ritz, were performers Kathy Bates, Victor Garber, and Amy Irving, directors Anne Bogart and Peter Brook, and Christopher Reeve for his work on behalf of Chilean artists.

1989 The crowd at the New Ritz cheered loudly at a quote from St. Augustine condemning plays as instru­ments of the devil, roared with laughter when Kathy Najimy and Mo Gaffney did their “if men had periods” number, applauded know­ingly when an obviously surprised William Converse-Roberts acknowledged his perfor­mance award by admitting, “I have nothing to say, I don’t even know who to thank, and I was getting drunk,” and savored the irony when Fyvush Finkel accepted his award by cit­ing a 10-year-old Voice pan. Hosted by Christopher Reeve, the evening saw the sus­tained achievement award go to Irene Worth, performance awards for Gloria Foster, Nancy Marchand, and Everett Quinton, and direct­ing awards to Ingmar Bergman and Peter Stein. But entertainer Leo Bassi — who also won an Obie — stole the show by lying on his hack and juggling a piano with his feet. “There are strange things that happen to me when I do this,” he explained. “I see this piano turning on my feet and I feel deep down, ‘What a waste of time.’ ”

1990 Penn and Teller were the first presenters. Before they’d give Dan Hurlin his framed certificate, they insisted on doing a card trick. Hurlin picked a card, Teller put it back in the deck, then spread the cards over the Obie. Penn took a hat pin out of his hair, Teller stuck the pin in his arm and let blood flow all over the cards and the award. Penn then picked the card with the most blood. It was the right card. Cohosted by Julie Bovas­so and Olympia Dukakis, the ceremonies hon­ored Craig Lucas (Prelude to a Kiss), Suzan-Lori Parks (Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom), and Mac Wellman (Bad Penny, Crowbar, and Terminal Hip) for best play­wrights, and saw performance Obies go to Alec Baldwin, Jean Stapleton, Danitra Vance, and four awards to the Mabou Mines gender-reversed Lear. George Wolfe won a directing Obie for Spunk, Eric Bogosian and Joe Papp were among the special citations (Papp for his refusal to accept a grant from the NEA), and the sustained achievement award went to ACT UP. “I have been awarded the Obie prize three times for my plays,” Václav Havel cabled from Prague. “In all three cases it meant encouragement for my further work. Despite the fact that toward the end of last year I became president of our republic, I still remain a member of your artistic community.”

1991 Stockard Channing and Alan Arkin hosted the ceremonies at the Palladium, which featured a best play Obie for Wallace Shawn for The Fever and playwriting Obies to John Guare for Six Degrees of Separation and Mac Wellman for Sincerity Forever. “I didn’t think this was actually a play and I was trying to get out of the theater,” said Shawn in accepting his award. Other winners included John Leguizamo, Ron Rifkin, and Stockard Channing for performance. The Blue Man Group accepted its Obie via signboard, Angela Goethals became the youngest Obie winner at the age of 14, and Lori Seid won the first ever Obie for stage managing. Outing herself by baring her Clit Club T-shirt, Seid thanked Madonna because “someone might buy a record by someone who might suck pussy.”

1992 In ceremonies dedicated to the memory of Joe Papp, cohosts Jerry Zaks and Kate Nelligan helped hand out Obies to, among others, performers Cherry Jones, James McDaniel, Roger Rees, Lynne Thigpen, Randy Danson, and Nathan Lane. Special citations included Anna Deavere Smith, and the sustained achievement award went to Athol Fugard. The best play award was shared by Donald Margulies for Sight Unseen, Robbie McCauley for Sally’s Rape, and Paula Vo­gel for The Baltimore Waltz. “I guess I’m put in the position of having to publicly thank Roy Cohn,” said Ron Vawter as he received his Obie for Roy Cohn/Jack Smith. Obie winner Laura Esterman thanked her director for stripping her of her mannerisms, leading Vawter’s partner and copresenter Greg Mehrten to proclaim, “I want to thank Ron Vawter for not stripping me of my mannerisms.”

1993 Said David Drake in accepting his Obie for The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me, “I want to thank The Village Voice because when I was growing up in Baltimore, I didn’t have queer magazines. The Voice was the queerest thing I could find.” Larry Kramer, as it happens, was also one of the winners, his The Destiny of Me sharing the best play award with Harry Kondoleon’s The Houseguests, Jose Rivera’s Marisol and Paul Rudnick’s Jeffrey. Other winners, in ceremonies cohosted by Nathan Lane and Ann Magnu­son, included Jane Alexander, Bill Ir­win, and Robert Klein for perfor­mance, and JoAnne Akalaitis for sustained achievement. Said Edward Hibbert in accepting his Obie, “The last award I got was for playing Lady Macbeth when I was 16. It’s wonderful to get an award for playing a dif­ferent sort of queen.”

1994 “I am sustained,” said Edward Albee upon receiving the sustained achievement award. After noting that there was no check with his performance Obie, Michael Potts thanked the Public The­ater for giving him a job so he could qualify for health benefits. And Myra Carter, in accepting an Obie for her performance in Three Tall Women, remarked, “Thank God you got me here before I died.” Mayor Giuliani sent a proclamation declaring this Obie Awards Week — he apparently hadn’t read what the Voice had been saying about him — and Mary McDonnell and James McDaniel cohosted the ceremonies, which honored Anna Deavere Smith for best play (Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992). Winner Bob McGrath recalled “as a kid in Burbank reading about weird theater and thinking, that’s what I want to do.’ ” Winner Danny Hoch announced that it was “an hon­or to be here in front of all you adults,” and at the other end of the spectrum, winner Judith Ivey quoted Ruth Gordon’s comment on re­ceiving an award at the age of 82 — “I can’t tell you how encouraging this is.”

Forty years. Forty years of encouragement, weird theater, and occasional shouts of “Bull­shit!” — with another 40 still to come. As Dario Fo commented upon winning his Obie, “There are critics involved in this, but nothing is perfect in this world.” ♦

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on July 13, 2020