Obie Awards Analysis

The Early Obies

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

The Obie Awards are the highest honor paid to Off-Broadway productions. They have been compared to the Tony Awards given by the American Theatre Wing in recognition of major contributions to theater, although their scope is narrower, limited to productions on Off-Broadway stages in New York City.

The Obie Awards were from the outset not tightly bound by structured and immutable categories. They were designed to celebrate every aspect of dramatic production. The first Obie Awards in 1956 recognized achievement in the following categories: best new play, best production, best actress, best actor, best director, best musical, distinguished performances by actresses, distinguished performances by actors, sets (including lighting and costumes), and special citations given to theaters or acting companies.

From year to year, some categories were added while others were dropped, although what was included varied with every new group of awards the judges bestowed. In 1958, for example, when there was no prize for best director, four new categories appeared: best adaptation, best revival, best comedy, and best one-act play. These categories did not appear the following year, although in that year a new category, best revue, was added.

In 1969, all the categories that had been in place since 1956 were dropped. In that year individuals were simply recognized with a play title following their name: No accolade such as “distinguished play”...

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Off-Off-Broadway Productions

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

In 1964, the Obie Awards were expanded to include a recent phenomenon that was making an impact on theater, Off-Off-Broadway . Whereas Off-Broadway theater preserved traditional theater and encouraged innovation among new playwrights, Off-Off-Broadway was what Ross Wetzsteon called a “third stage . . .[a] revolution against the revolutionaries.”

By the mid-1960’s, Off-Broadway was becoming somewhat mainstream. Compared with Off-Off-Broadway, which was a revolutionary type of theater, Off-Broadway seemed almost conventional. Off-Off-Broadway plays dealt directly and often harshly with the social problems of the 1960’s: racial tensions, the Vietnam War, and social and political conditions that resulted in the string of high-profile assassinations before the decade was over. The sheer energy and sincerity of such productions made them worthy of a recognition that they could not gain from conventional sources. It was at this point that the Obies could serve to encourage a wholly new approach, albeit a quite disturbing one, to American theater. The output of those writing for Off-Off-Broadway was astounding.

Some companies staged as many as fifty new plays a year, working with minimal props, performing in whatever space they could find either free of charge or for small sums of money. They priced tickets so that most theatergoers could easily afford them. Perhaps the most influential of these Off-Off-Broadway venues was Ellen Stewart’s Café La Mama , a few blocks south of St. Mark’s Place, where at any given time between Thursday and Sunday, two plays might be going on simultaneously, one upstairs and another in one of the “piggyback theaters” in the basement.

Selecting the Winners

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

The process for choosing Obie recipients is as informal as the kinds of theater the awards honor. The judges, members of The Village Voice drama staff, along with two guest critics whom The Village Voice selects—usually critics from New York City daily newspapers or national weekly news magazines—meet once a month throughout the year. They discuss Off-Broadway and Off-Off-Broadway productions and, over time, produce a master list of possible honorees. In the early days this list consisted of seventy to one hundred entries from which some twenty winners would finally be selected at the last meeting of the judges in May.

As time went on, however, the lists grew in size. By 1993, more than thirty Obies were awarded. This number grew to nearly forty in 1999 and was back at thirty-four the following year. In the first decade and a half of the Obie Awards, the typical number of prizes given was about twenty, considering that the awards for distinguished performances and for distinguished direction typically had more than one recipient—often as many as nine or ten, collectively.

Perhaps the strongest factor in ensuring the breadth and value of the Obies is that there are no formal nominations for them. The judges consider the entire field for the season in question, including plays that may have run for only two or three weekends in a church basement, in the back room of a bar, or in an isolated loft somewhere in lower Manhattan.

When he accepted an Obie Award for his 1975-1976 performance in David Mamet’s American Buffalo (pr. 1975), Mike Kellin remarked, surely hyperbolically, that only ten people saw the show but fortunately seven of them were Obie judges. Edward Albee revealed his respect for the Obie Awards in his statement that seven out of ten times, the award for the best play goes to what actually turns out to be the best play.

The Obie as a First Award

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Many—indeed, probably most—of the recipients of Obie Awards receive their first national recognition as actors, playwrights, or directors when they receive this award. Edward Albee, for example, was virtually unknown when The Zoo Story (pr. 1959) brought him an Obie as one of three distinguished plays receiving the 1960 award. In this year, also, Samuel Beckett, whose name was not familiar to most playgoers, received an Obie for Krapp’s Last Tape (pr. 1958).

Beckett, recipient of the 1969 Nobel Prize in Literature, went on to receive a second Obie for Happy Days (pr. 1961) in 1962 and a third for Play (pr. 1963; English translation, 1964) in 1964. Whereas Albee’s recognition for winning the Obie paved the way for him to stage his subsequent productions on Broadway (later in his career he returned to Off-Broadway with Three Tall Women, pr. 1991), Beckett continued to write Off-Broadway productions long after his first award. LeRoi Jones (later known as Amiri Baraka ) was little known in 1964 when he received an Obie for Dutchman (pr. 1964). In the same year, three more of his plays were produced Off-Broadway, The Baptism, The Slave, and The Toilet, perhaps spurred on by the recognition Dutchman had received.

Lanford Wilson and Mamet both won their first major dramatic awards when they were given Obies, Wilson for The Hot l Baltimore (pr. 1973) in 1973 and Mamet for American Buffalo in 1975. American Buffalo went on to win the New York Drama Critics Circle Award. Wilson and Mamet have since been acknowledged as being among the United States’ leading playwrights.

Among actors who received Obies when they were still largely unknown to theater audiences were such luminaries as Dustin Hoffman, George C. Scott, Jason Robards, Jr., Colleen Dewhurst, Zero Mostel, Eileen Brennan, Nancy Marchand, Anne Meacham, Barbara Harris, Olympia Dukakis, James Earl Jones, Al Pacino, Rue McClanahan, Hector Elizondo, and Stacy Keach. Although most of these performers went on to make names for themselves in Hollywood or on Broadway, many of them relished opportunities to return to Lower Manhattan to perform Off-Broadway for a fraction of what they were paid elsewhere. Dewhurst once said that returning to Off-Broadway was like returning home, echoing the sentiments of many Obie winners who had graduated to distinguished careers in acting.

The Ross Wetzsteon Grant

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

When the Obie Awards chairperson, Ross Wetzsteon, died in 1998, The Village Voice established special annual awards of two thousand dollars in his memory. These awards are designed to help struggling Off-Broadway or Off-Off-Broadway theatrical companies meet their expenses. The grant recognizes that in some cases, such companies, accustomed to economizing in every possible way, can be kept afloat simply by receiving relatively small sums to help them meet their expenses.

The Ross Wetzsteon Grant for the 1999-2000 season went to The Foundry, with three other Obie Grants going to the Big Dance Theater, Circus Amok, and Five Myles. These grants have become a significant factor in helping to sustain companies that stage innovative dramas but that struggle from year to year on stringent budgets.


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Berkowitz, Gerald M. New Broadways: Theatre Across America, Approaching a New Millennium. New York: Applause Theatre Book Publishers, 1996. Surveys American professional theater since 1950, with a thirty-page chapter devoted to Off-Broadway and a substantial part of another chapter to Off-Off-Broadway.

Brantley, Ben. The New York Times Book of Broadway: On the Aisle for the Best Plays of the Last Century. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2001. Offers a comprehensive look at the twenty-five most influential Broadway and Off-Broadway plays of the twentieth century, as well as one hundred additional “memorable” plays. Each play entry has the original New York Times review, theater and length of run, and vintage production photographs.

Horn, Barbara Lee. Ellen Stewart and La Mama: A Bio-Bibliography. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1993. Chronicles the life and career of Ellen Stewart and her Café La Mama, an influential experimental theater that greatly impacted the rise of Off-Off-Broadway. Includes annotated bibliography and a listing of La Mama’s plays and Stewart’s awards.

Little, Stuart W. Off-Broadway: The Prophetic Theater. New York: Coward, McCann and Geoghegan, 1972. A worthwhile assessment of Off-Broadway and Off-Off-Broadway theater, defining clearly the differences between the two. The appendix, “Off-Broadway Award Winners—1955-1971,” lists all of the Obie Awards for those years, along with the Vernon Rice Awards, and the Drama Desk-Vernon Rice Awards.

Wetzsteon, Ross, ed. The Obie Winners: The Best of Off-Broadway. Garden City, N.J.: Doubleday, 1980. This anthology is valuable for its excellent introduction by the late Ross Wetzsteon, former chairperson of the Obie Awards, who discusses the history of these awards briefly but cogently.