Pats on the Back and Trophies Too: IT Awards Celebrate Off-Off Broadway

Working Man's Clothes's To Nineveh: A Modern Miracle, a contemporary retelling of several Old Testament stories, was the big winner at the second annual Innovative Theater (IT) Awards Sept. 18, taking home six awards, including Outstanding Production of a Play, Outstanding Director, and Outstanding Ensemble. Prospect Theater Company's Iron Curtain was named Outstanding Production of a Musical and also earned the award for costume design. Other multiple winners were T. Schreiber Studio (three) and La MaMa E.T.C. (two).


Cast of To Nineveh: A Modern Miracle
Photo Credit: Sans Peur Photography

The IT Awards ceremony, dedicated to honoring Off-Off-Broadway theater, took place in the Great Hall of historic Cooper Union. The venue, a cavernous basement theater where Abraham Lincoln reputedly once gave a speech, seemed appropriate for the Off-Off-Broadway crowd, a menagerie of artists accustomed to working in basements, storefronts, or wherever else they might conceivably create a performance space.

The return of the IT Awards marks an exciting moment for Off-Off-Broadway theater and for companies whose eccentric names (including Milk Can, Waterwell, Handcart, Vortex, Impetuous, Emerging Artists, and Andhow!) conjure up more creativity and intrigue than those of Broadway producers Nederlander, Shubert, Dodger, and Disney. Many winners were quick to thank the IT Awards, including Isaac Byrne, who was recognized as outstanding director. "When we work at this level, for little or no money," he said, "it helps to be validated and makes it all worthwhile."

This year's 151 nominations represented 49 productions from 40 different theater companies. Reflecting the ever-shifting terrain of the Off-Off-Broadway scene, only one individual nominee, Boo Killebrew of CollaborationTown, was also nominated in 2005. (Twelve theater companies had nominations both years.) As charismatic host Charles Busch remarked, Off-Off-Broadway theater may be impossible to define, but having an awards show is certainly a way of getting "a little bit closer."

The most important change Executive Directors Jason Bowcutt, Shay Gines, and Nick Micozzi made in their sophomore season is one of jurisdiction. Like last year, to be award-eligible a production was required to play a set number of performances with a budget of $40,000 or less and ticket prices of $30 or less. But this year, in an effort to better represent the fluctuating borders of Off-Off-Broadway theater and its practitioners, productions from Queens and Brooklyn were also up for consideration. This was timely for the Astoria Performing Arts Center's critically acclaimed production of the musical Forever Plaid, which earned three nominations.


Jason Bowcutt, Shay Gines, Nick Micozzi

The audience was younger and rowdier than the crowd at the Tony Awards, and its dress tended more toward cowboy boots, spiked hair, and sequins than black tie and tails. As pointed out by the lively and witty opening number, this is theater made by hardworking, talented people–who also have day jobs. Gleefully directed by Christopher Borg and cheekily performed by an uproarious and sizzling ensemble, the song paid fond tribute to the unglamorous realities of Off-Off-Broadway: venues with no air-conditioning, props constructed by actors, Equity showcases (in which actors don't get paid but are reimbursed for travel), and a lack of agents and publicists.

The audience laughed in commiseration. Throughout the night, there was a sense of "almost too good to be true" bewilderment, as artists seemed to wonder, Is this really an awards ceremony for us? This incredulity extended to the sophisticated award presentations, where anonymous-sounding voice-overs introduced nominees, whose photos (both a headshot and a production still) were projected on three screens. Those assembled couldn't help but snicker at the slick professionalism, a fancy presentation indeed for productions typically mounted on shoestring budgets.

An eclectic roster of artists dropped in to present awards. "You're all so damned innovative," purred actress Martha Plimpton, who presented the featured actor awards, and controversial composer Michael John LaChiusa announced the Outstanding Music Award. Downtown drag sensation Lypsinka gave the Outstanding Solo Performance Award to Margaux Laskey (size ate), who thanked her family for giving her so much material.


Lypsinka, presenter Outstanding Solo Performance
Photo Credit: David Anthony

Choreographer Jeff Calhoun, currently at work on the Broadway transfer of Grey Gardens, struggled just to make it to the ceremony. Apologizing for his raspy voice, Calhoun confessed that a nasty bout of strep throat had kept him home from rehearsal that day, but declared that he couldn't miss the IT Awards, where, he said with a wink, "size doesn't matter." He presented the Choreography/Movement Award to the Vampire Cowboys Theater Company's Marius Hanford, who thanked the IT Awards for acknowledging the importance and artistic integrity of fight choreography and stage combat.


Marius Hanford recipient of Outstanding Choreography/Movement

Photo Credit: David Anthony

Ben Vereen got a standing ovation when he appeared to present the 2006 Artistic Achievement Award to Tom O'Horgan, an Off-Off-Broadway pioneer who also revolutionized Broadway with his productions of Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar. A much respected and proficient theater artist, O'Horgan is the only director to have had four hit shows running on Broadway simultaneously, and yet he has never won a Tony. Vereen remembered that the legendary Bob Fosse called O'Horgan "my inspiration," and applauded the IT Awards for recognizing a man of genius. Vereen also commended the crowd for being artists with "the tenacity to tell the big boys, 'We're going to do theater anyway!' "


Ben Vereen
Photo Credit: David Anthony


Tom O'Horgan, recipient of Artistic Achievement Award
Photo Credit: David Anthony

There was a strong sense of nostalgia and passing the torch among the presenters. Tony-winning designer William Ivey Long handed the Outstanding Costume Design Award to former assistant Sidney Shannon, and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lanford Wilson, who presented the award for Outstanding Production of a Play, prophesied, "I was there; you'll be here."

Actress and playwright Lisa Kron, whose critically beloved play Well moved to Broadway last season, handed the award for Outstanding Performance Art to the New York Neo-Futurists for their production of Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind. The large troupe promptly turned their acceptance speech into a piece of performance art, as they simultaneously burst out into expressive and exultant 30-second speeches, indistinguishable from one another but overwhelmingly grateful as a whole. Veteran downtown performers Mary Testa, Jason Kravitz, and Marylouise Burke also presented awards, as did director and playwright Adam Rapp.

The 2006 Stewardship Award went to the Field, a resource center for independent performing artists that offers such services as peer feedback workshops, performance opportunities, creative retreats, career workshops, and computer access.

Backstage editor Leonard Jacobs presented the third and final honorary award, the 2006 Caffe Cino Fellowship, to the Vampire Cowboys, a nonprofit company that creates theater with a commitment to stage combat, dark comedy, and the mating of genres. Co-founder and Artistic Director Qui Nguyen and Managing Director Abby Marcus accepted the award and introduced several company members, who performed highly charged excerpts from their 2006 hit show Living Dead in Denmark.

The IT Awards voting process gives audiences input (their online votes count for 25 percent) while encouraging companies to see each other's shows. When a production submits itself for competition, three cast, crew, or production team members are required to go out and judge other productions. In this way, the creators hope to facilitate a greater sense of community and relationships among the many diverse (and busy) Off-Off-Broadway artists.

The attendance at Cooper Union was impressive but not sold out, yet those empty seats could be filled next year with more theater companies and artists eager to come together and celebrate their work. Off-Off-Broadway now has a seat at the awards table, and with awards come legitimacy, publicity, and, as Charles Busch reminded the audience, the chance to keep defining and redefining who they are and what they do.


Charles Busch
Photo Credit: David Flestcher Washington

For a full list of winners and hundreds of photos from the ceremony visit the New York Innovative Theater Awards website at http://www.nyitawards.org/anr/.

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