“It’s Complicated—like on Facebook,” uttered Michael Feingold, chairman of the Obies. He was attempting to describe how the Obies work to the uninitiated in his opening remarks—awards that confuse many and remain coveted by all. His comment garnered a hearty laugh, that is, for those who were listening.
You see, the Obies—and the ceremony that’s tied to them—are the enfant terrible of the New York accolades, which is perhaps why the winners always seem to say that the Obie award means the more to them than any other distinction.
Unlike many institutionalized awards, the Obies boast no set categories—the rotating cast of judges may award whomever they see fit for having made an excellent contribution to the theatre within the last year. That might mean 7 awards to lighting designers. (This year there were only three, but you get the idea.)
Fittingly, the attendees of the Obies boast no set look. Rather they sport a smattering of sartorial styles ranging from vintage chic to downtown rumpled. Whooping and hollering from the back of the hall accompanies many of the award announcements. There’s no piano music that begins tinkling when a winner has wittered on for the maximum amount of time, rather a person in a headset waving their arms. A general sense of friendly frenzy and laid back chaos marks the event unlike some of the more staid—one might argue stodgy—uptown accolades. Perhaps this has something to do with Webster Hall, the nightclub venue with sticky floors where the Obies typically take place. A bar in the back remains open so that acquaintances, fans, friends and frenemies can simultaneously gossip, hug, avoid and congratulate each other in no particular order.
It’s quite a scene.
In any case, Michael Feingold has a point. It is complicated. Just like on Facebook. The fact that the Obies continue at all in the face of ever shrinking editorial word counts is a small miracle. How can something so old—this was the 59th edition—still be so cool? Well, I guess just look at Estelle Parsons, who received the lifetime achievement award this year, as the embodiment of an answer that rhetorical question. But I digress.
It’s true that the Obies often feel like an annual theatre prom—particularly for theatre artists with a downtown spirit, even if their work happens to bow uptown. A time for the scrappy to celebrate, and why should it not? It takes just as much work to put on a flop as it does to rehearse a hit. Isn’t it nice to gather together, take stock, and marvel at the very best of a year in theatre? One hopes the Obies will carry on for the years to come.
Readers: What are the awards ceremonies like in your communities?
Can you count how many of this year’s Obie-award winning artists and organizations we’ve covered in American Theatre magazine? It’s quite a few, we couldn’t be prouder!
Eliza Bent is senior editor for American Theatre magazine. She is also a playwright (MFA Brooklyn College) and a frequent performer with and founding member of the Obie-award winning company Half Straddle.