The question was posed to a 15-year-old girl waiting on the Times Square TKTS line to purchase tickets for a Broadway musical. Surprised, she responded, "I didn't even know there was such a thing as Off-Off Broadway."
Her older sister asked, "Do plays in Nebraska count as Off-Off Broadway?" An older man standing behind her sneered, "What would they call an Off-Off Broadway theater award? A Smallie? Or how about the Shrimp?"
Such are the common misconceptions about the hundreds of Off-Off Broadway theaters and productions that exist in both Manhattan and other boroughs like Brooklyn and Staten Island--but never in Nebraska or any other state.
Unfortunately, neither type of production has Broadway's deep pockets for advertisements and publicity. Most Off-Off Broadway artists accept this hurdle and work around it. But after seeing superb shows play to only a handful of people while others closed without so much as a listing, three members of the theater community, Jason Bowcutt, Nick Micozzi, and Shay Gines, decided it was time for a change. They brainstormed for a solution to the problem and came up with this: create an Off-Off Broadway awards show to generate publicity and honor its deserving theaters, artists, writers, and designers.
"Thank God!" Off-Off Broadway actor and director Christopher Borg exclaimed upon hearing their idea for the awards. "Finally, someone is looking at this incredibly diverse, talented, and large community of New York artists and taking them seriously."
To get the wheels in motion, Bowcutt, Micozzi, and Gines set out to enlist the help of the large but scattered members of the Off-Off Broadway community. They decided the best way to unite their colleagues was to throw a party.
In June last year, they invited every Off-Off Broadway theater they could find for drinks at the Tank Theatre. To their surprise and delight, more than 250 people attended.
The threesome explained that judges chosen for their impressive accomplishments and contributions to the theater community would be assigned to view and nominate Off-Off Broadway shows for various awards.
On Sept. 1, 2004, the judging process for these awards officially began. After attending their respective productions, many judges reported back that it was a thrill to visit theater companies they never knew existed.
Inspired by the positive feedback, Gines, Bowcutt, and Micozzi along with members of United Stages launched an Off-Off Broadway Symposium at the Drama Book Shop in October. They displayed posters and memorabilia from historic Off-Off Broadway shows and featured prominent Off-Off Broadway actors, writers, directors, and theater founders as guest speakers. It wasn't long before the event became standing-room-only.
These impressive turnouts proved that the community was ready and willing to come together to participate in the creation of the awards show called the New York Innovative Theatre Awards. The show is set to debut in the fall of 2005.
Two types of awards will be given: Production Awards and Honorary Awards. The former are judged by volunteers and audience members who vote in such categories as best actor, best actress, best musical, best ensemble, best lighting, and best original soundtrack.
Honorary Awards are more prestigious and can be voted on only by selected members of the theater community. There are three types: the Artistic Achievement Award, the Stewardship Award, and the Caffe Chino Fellowship. The Artistic Achievement Award will be given to the individual who has made a significant contribution to the Off-Off Broadway community. The Stewardship Award will be given to the individual or organization that has contributed to the Off-Off Broadway scene through service, support, and leadership.
The biggest award, the Caffe Cino Fellowship, will give a $1,000-$5,000 grant to the Off-Off Broadway theater company that has consistently produced outstanding works. The grant is to be used to help this company's future productions.
Borg, who is currently directing the Off-Off Broadway show TONYLUST: The Broadway Bloodbath of 2006, playing at the West Village's Duplex Theatre, was thrilled when asked to be an Honorary Award judge.
"I have enjoyed the IT Awards judging process immensely," he says. "The IT awards staff is extremely organized and efficient. The scoring system is well designed; it gives each judge a lot of room for detailed personal assessment and encourages a thoughtful evaluation. I have seen some fantastic shows and a couple of terrible shows, but each experience has been interesting if not downright enjoyable."
"Off-Off Broadway runs on passion," says awards show co-founder Gines. "Most of the artists aren't getting paid, and they are working rehearsals and performances around other jobs. Yet despite all of these challenges, these dedicated people still manage to create some amazing theater."
Gines is a native of Utah with a dual degree in theater and marketing from the Actor's Training Program at the University of Utah. She moved to New York to pursue a career in theater and, of course, to check out the Broadway scene. The first show she saw was the long-running Cats, which left her shrugging her shoulders at the hype. "I wasn't wowed," she says.
One day she passed a tiny hole-in-the wall theater a few doors down from her apartment. Since it was both cheap and convenient, she decided to return later that night to see its main attraction, a low-budget show called Green Light.
Gines left the show stunned by its storytelling and inspired by its production. Looking back, she says, "I don't remember who the playwright was, and I never saw any reviews for the show, but it was very influential for me."
It was then that she both discovered and fell in love with Off-Off Broadway's hidden world of spectacular little plays that defiantly break the conventions their Broadway neighbors are building their success on.
"In Off-Off Broadway, anything goes," Gines says enthusiastically. "You never know what to expect-there is always something new and something to challenge you. It is inspiring and passionate and funny. It is courageous and crazy and raw. It is limitless and hard and worth every single second."
Given the multitude of shows playing at any given time, there is a wide variety of productions to see, especially for someone as passionate about theater as Gines. Off-Off Broadway can appeal to people of all ages and tastes with its array of inventive children's theater, brilliant adaptations, clever improv shows, uniquely original plays, campy dinner theater, and toe-tapping musicals. In fact, as many as 100 productions are often running at one time, with many theaters featuring a different play on each floor of their building.
Still, many of these productions never receive the coverage they deserve from influential media. While some magazines and newspapers spotlight the higher-profile shows, a greater number shy away from the entire scene. When a publication needs to cut back its arts section, Off-Off Broadway coverage is often the first casualty.
It is disheartening for Gines, who complains, "Everywhere I turn, it seems the opportunities to help promote our productions are drying up."
This is where the Innovative Theatre Awards hope to have the most impact-generating publicity. Brilliant shows should not play to less than 10 people, outstanding performances should not go unrewarded, Off-Off Broadway's rich heritage should not go unrecognized, and talented performers should not go unpaid because theaters can barely make ends meet.
Gines hopes the new awards will bring Off-Off Broadway enough recognition to change this, but concedes that if she and her co-founders can accomplish even a fraction of that objective, they will be happy.
"In our dream world," she says, "Off-Off Broadway artists would make a living playing to full houses while they still had the freedom to explore, create, and challenge-and their efforts would be valued."
But even if this never happens, Gines knows Off-Off Broadway will still survive and thrive on its creativity alone. She quotes writer David Crespy, author of The Off-Off Broadway Explosion, who says, "Off-Off Broadway is a theater where even on the barest of stages and usually on a shoestring budget, a poverty of means fuels an explosion of imagination."
To its credit, Off-Off Broadway has always held true to its creative, nonconformist roots. When the Innovative Theatre Awards are presented next fall, the ceremony will mark the first time this offbeat and dedicated community has been in the spotlight. Through this show, hardworking artists, writers, designers, and theaters will finally be honored for the gifts of laughter, tears, and inspiration they have given to thousands of unsuspecting theatergoers throughout the years.
For more information about the NYITA Awards, visit: http://www.nyitawards.com.