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The 2009 Obies: Not Quite Your Mother's Award Ceremony

Originally Posted: May 19, 2009

Douglas MacKaye Harrington

Actress Anne Hathaway, who will appear in The Public Theater's Shakespeare In The Park production of "Twelfth Night" this summer, was delighted to meet the noted Stephen Sondheim. "I never knew an awards show could be so much fun…shhhhhh, don't tell the Oscars." Photos by Douglas Harrington

New York City - On Monday, May 18, the rarefied community that represents Off-Broadway and Off-Off-Broadway theater gathered in Manhattan to celebrate that voodoo that they do so well. Trust me, the Obies are not your mother's awards ceremony - unless, of course, your mother is Divine.

Co-Hosts Martha Plimpton and Daniel Breaker.

Unlike the more proper uptown Tony Awards, the Obies do not let the ceremony get in the way of the celebration. It is hard to actually call it a ceremony, as it is more of a bacchanal with three fully stocked bars going full throttle simultaneously on two floors as the Obie Awards are bestowed upon both the emerging and established talent that forms the front line creativity of American theater.

Battling through what can only be described as one of the most difficult hosting jobs in show business, the event's co-hosts, actors Daniel Breaker and Martha Plimpton did a remarkable job. Tony and Emmy nominated and past Drama Desk, Outer Critics and Obie winning actress Plimpton, jokingly described her feeling for the awards, "I had a blast. I love the Obies, I love all the people that win Obies, I love the people associated with the Obies. If only the people at the Obies would actually listen to the speeches instead of getting hammered during the entire ceremony, I guess the rest of the world would take the Obies more seriously."

In all frankness, the community that makes up this arena of the world theater is probably not interested in being taken seriously by anybody other than those with a true passion for the art. The sound bite generation of Disney stage production suburbanites, "Annie Get Your Gun" revival matinée ladies, and stylista, name dropping, six-figure "Broadway Theater" patrons are not the expected target audience. Although, it would certainly serve their souls and intellects well to venture off the "Geat White Way" once in a while. These Off and Off-Off Broadway actors, writers, designers and producers are a tribe unto themselves, creating new and re-creating established theater works in small challenging venues on low budgets and often for little or no compensation.

Actor John Shea presenting Music and Lyric Award to Stephen Sondheim.

Unlike traditional awards, there is no competition within categories like "Best Actor In..." or "Best Supporting Actress In..." as the Obies simply award for the over all acting performance, which this year included a dozen recipients. Over the years, if a particular work or individual brings something to the table that falls outside the usual parameters, the judges will simply create a specific category. That was the case for Harry Koutoukas, who won an Obie in 1965 for "Assaulting Established Tradition." Koutoukas gave his tongue-in-cheek explanation of the awards, "They are really a step on the way up for those who are planning to leave [Off-Off-Broadway]. I plan to stay, I like it underground. They give people recognition just before they go over...before they become real whores."

Koutoukas' jaded assessment of what he thinks is necessary for an actor to transition from Off-Broadway to Broadway aside, the Obies represent one of the craft's most prestigious awards and have helped launch a list of professionals that reads like a Who's Who of American theater. Stage, screen, voice, television and former Obie winning actor, known to many for his work as the pompous restaurant critic on "Frasier," Edward Hibbert explained to me what makes the Obies different. "It is a celebration of non-competitive theater, and I love that. There are no losers, there are only winners whose work has been acknowledged over the course of the season. Unlike the Tonys or the Drama Desk, where one person is vying against another person, it is just honoring excellence in theater, and I think that is wonderful."

Earle Hyman received the Lifetime Achievement Award.

This year the Obies featured a multi-media performance After-Party called "Creative Block" that was open to the public and hosted by Michael Musto. The event featured everything from modern Burlesque to Fine Art, nude body-painted models to complimentary cocktails made with Absinthe. (Toulouse-Lautrec is smiling down, or up, from somewhere). There could be no better venue to celebrate the Village Voice's 54th Annual Obie Awards than historic Webster Hall in the alternative universe known as the East Village. Built in 1886, Webster Hall has been dubbed "America's first nightclub." With its chameleon personality it has been the site for events that range from ushering in the end of Prohibition with its "Welcome Home John Barleycorn" party to an Emma Goldman Anarchist rally, from proper New York Social Register balls to rock concerts featuring the likes of Tina Turner, Eric Clapton and Guns N' Roses when it was transformed into The Ritz for a decade in 1980.

In an effort to acknowledge and encourage the emerging Off-Broadway movement of the time, the awards themselves were established in 1955 by the publication's theater critic Jerry Tallmer, shortly after the Village Voice first hit the streets. Emmy award winning veteran character actor, 82-year-old Fyvush Finkel, who started his acting career at nine-years old in the Second Avenue Yiddish Theater, recalled his 1989 Obie, "The Obie was a big thrill because that was the first award I'd ever gotten in the American theater. It was my first recognition in this profession."

1965 "Assaulting Established Tradition" Obie winner Harry Koutoukas (right).

That same sentiment of professional recognition was shared by one of the evening's youngest recipients, Jonathan Groff, who received a double-scoop on his Obie cone for his performances in "Prayer For My Enemy" (Playwright's Horizon) and "The Singing Forrest" (The Public Theater). "It means so much to me, because the New York theater community means so much to me and I have learned so much. These Off-Broadway experiences have transformed me into a performer I only dreamed of being and working on projects I could have only dreamed of working on."

Other moments of note during this year's awards included three Obies for the important and disturbing play about the rape of women in the Congo. "Ruined" won two performance awards for actors Quincy Tyler Bernstine and Russell Gilbert Jones, as well as the Best New American Play Award for its author, Lynn Nottage. The venerable composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim won for "Road Show" (The Public Theater) and David Cromer ("Our Town"), Katie Mitchell ("The Waves") and Ken Rus Schmoll ("Telephone') all won awards for directing.

1993 Obie winner and "Fraiser" regular Edward Hibbert.

However, the moment for which the 54th Obies will be most remembered, was the moment that the distinguished and groundbreaking actor Earle Hyman was helped from his wheelchair and escorted up the stairs to the stage to accept his Lifetime Achievement Award. It was presented to him by actress Anne Hathaway, who was brought to tears during Hyman's eloquent acceptance speech. At one point he described the impact of his 13th birthday present from his parents, bringing him to his first theatrical performance: the renowned Nazimova in "Ghosts" by Henrick Ibsen. "I was overwhelmed, left breathless. I went to the public library and asked where the books about theater were and I went into that room and nobody ever went into that room and I said to myself, 'This is mine.'"

I had earlier asked the Tony and Emmy nominated and winner of The World Theater and Ace Cable awards what the Lifetime Achievement Obie meant to him, "It means a great, great deal to me. Off-Broadway, you see, I was fortunate to be a part of that movement when there wasn't very much in place in terms of venues at the time, there was the Hudson, Guild Library, and maybe a couple of other theaters. Other than that there was no Off-Broadway. But it began and it never stopped, it blossomed, like mushrooms." Hyman went on to explain, "Those were places we could play these plays, were we wouldn't be asked to play them on Broadway. Working with people who had the desire to grow, to spread out and above all, to explore."

John Shea put the whole evening into perspective when I asked the Drama Desk nominated and Theater World and Emmy Award winning actor just how important the Obies were to nurturing new theater in America and recognizing new actors. "It is the quintessential Off-Broadway theater award and it has been for all these years. If you win an Obie award, it lifts your life in ways that are unimaginable. It gives you the courage to persevere in the face of such difficulty. The difficulty of surviving in a world where theater more and more is a marginal art form and where you are tempted often times to say, 'My God, maybe I should be doing something else.' But when an Obie comes your way you think, 'Maybe if people who know better than I do have judged the work that I have been involved with to be worthy of this, maybe there is hope and promise. Maybe I am doing what I am suppose to be doing in life and I'll stick with it.' It gives you courage, it puts wind in your sails."

The "Bloomberg" smokers street lounge at the 2009 Obies.


Hopefully, this year's Obie Award recipients, with wind in their sails, will go on to achieve further success in their very difficult and challenging profession. It is, however, the hope of this rare, eclectic, and innovative Off-Broadway community that they cherish the place from whence they came and the award that sent them on their way - the Obie.


Frequently mistaken for the "Most Interesting Man in the World" from the Dos Equis commercials and the iconic gray-bearded Sean Connery, DMH is the Senior Contributing Editor and Sales Associate at Hamptons.com. www.hamptons.com Hamptons HamptonsOnline HamptonsOnline


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