When The Village Voice Obie Awards were instituted during the 1955-1956 theatrical season, they recognized for the first time the important and significant dramatic activities that flourished Off-Broadway in the dozens of small theaters, church auditoriums, and public meeting halls that were used for the presentation of plays that could not, for various reasons, be performed on Broadway.
The venues in which these plays were presented were smaller than Broadway theaters, thereby limiting the size of audiences and the revenues of such productions. Likewise, the tickets were not expensive, further limiting the profitability of such presentations. No one associated with Off-Broadway theater was in it for profit. Indeed, it was a rare Off-Broadway production that did not lose money. The salaries of those associated with such plays were considerably lower than those of their counterparts on Broadway.
Jerry Tallmer, drama critic for The Village Voice , an avant-garde newspaper that appeared weekly in New York City’s Greenwich Village starting in 1955 and soon attracted a national audience, established The Village Voice Obie Awards in 1956. He and his colleagues at The Village Voice realized that Off-Broadway theater served two fundamental purposes. For one thing, it made possible the production of significant older plays that were not being brought to Broadway. While this conservation function of Off-Broadway theater was of the utmost importance, more important still was the opportunity that Off-Broadway theater provided for the promotion of innovative theater. Off-Broadway theater produced plays that were too far outside the mainstream to be considered suitable for production by the profit-driven Broadway theaters because of their high overhead and complex financial structure.
Over and above these functions, Off-Broadway theater served as a proving ground for young talent, not only for young actors, but also for fledgling playwrights, directors, set designers, and all manner of people involved in the production of plays. Tallmer envisioned an awards program that would honor people in every aspect of play production and would also encourage small acting companies. As a result, the Obies recognize a much broader field of play production than many comparable awards.