With the Tony Awards coming up, all eyes tend to focus on that prize as the pinnacle of recognition for work done in the theater. However, there are a host of other awards presented for New York productions worth mentioning. Some focus exclusively on Broadway as well, but most can provide a great glimpse into the world beyond the Great White Way and give you some ideas of performances away from Times Square that might be worth a chance.
The Obie Awards are probably the most unusual of the bunch. Presented by The Village Voice, a wonderful and storied New York City newspaper, the awards focus exclusively on Off-Broadway and Off-Off-Broadway productions and performances. The plays, musicals, and actors aren’t nominated nor are the categories constant year after year. The irreverent and unconventional nature of the productions that are recognized is reflected in the manner in which they are awarded. The Obie’s, short for Off Broadway Awards, provide a broader public insight both into up and coming artists who might be headed towards Broadway and also the long-time stalwarts of the New York stage who make a career working in less conventional fare.
The Drama Desk Awards honor productions on Broadway, Off-Broadway, and Off-Off-Broadway. They cast as wide a net as possible, so to speak. Awarded for excellence in New York theater, the award is voted on by its members; critics, reporters, and editors who cover the New York Theater scene. With standard categorization, The Drama Desk Awards more closely mirror the Tony’s, but also blur what some would consider the arbitrary boundaries between Broadway and Off-Broadway, providing an opportunity for productions and performances that might not receive as much exposure as their Broadway cousins to take the spotlight.
Critics who review Broadway and Off-Broadway productions for out of town newspapers present the Outer Critics Circle Awards. Presented at the famous restaurant Sardi’s, the winners and nominees can come from both Broadway and Off-Broadway theater, but generally run closely parallel to the Tony Award nominees and the award ceremony precedes the Tony’s by a fairly short period of time. Of course, the Outer Circle wouldn’t be “outer” without the “inner” New York Drama Critics’ Circle, made up of the 19 drama critics from the newspapers and magazines that are based in New York City. It is the second oldest theater award in the United States, after the Pulitzer, and focuses only on plays and musical productions, not on the specific performances.
Focusing on performance over production, the opposite of the Drama Critics’ Circle, is the Theatre World Award, which honors a New York City stage debut performance either on Broadway or Off-Broadway. Recent recipients have included well-known actors and performers like Josh Groban, Lupita Nyong’o, and John Krasinski, but relative unknowns have found themselves winners of this prestigious award. It is a great way to find out who the next theater stars will be.
Lastly, for those interested in going deep into New York Theater, there are the New York Innovative Theater Awards, presented to honor excellence in Off-Off-Broadway. This award has honored the theaters that produce the work where actors, directors, and designers often cut their teeth when they first arrive in New York City. Some love it so much, they find their artistic home there.
Awards are not meant to proclaim “the best.” They honor extraordinary achievement. In the case of the myriad awards presented to New York productions and performances, these awards help shed light on less well-known corners of the city where great work is being done. The next time you head to New York, try looking at one of these lists and finding a show or performer you might not otherwise have seen. That’s how you can support continued excellence in theater.