2008 Honorary Awards Recipients 

Doug Strassler 

It’s that time again! As nominees gear up for the approaching annual ceremony, several individuals find themselves in a less suspenseful position: this year’s recipients of the IT Honorary Awards.

The first award, the Artistic Achievement Award, is bestowed to Judith Malina, who represents the Living Theatre. Malina founded The Living Theatre with husband Julian Beck in 1947 as an alternative to commercial theatre. Based in a variety of small New York locations which were frequently closed due to financial problems or conflicts with city authorities, they helped to establish Off-Off-Broadway and Off-Broadway as significant forces in U.S. theatre.

In the 1950s, the group was among the first in the nation to promote such international dramatists as Bertolt Brecht, Jean Cocteau, Federico Garcia Lorca, and Luigi Pirandello. Additionally, the Living Theatre took the unconventional step of performing the work of modernist poets, including T. S. Eliot, Paul Goodman, Gertrude Stein, and William Carlos Williams. Their work during this period shared some aspects of style and content with Beat generation writers.

The Brig (1963), an anti-authoritarian look at conditions in a Marine prison, was their last major Living Theatre production in New York before a disagreement with the IRS led to the closure of the theatre space and even the brief imprisonment of Beck and Malina. During the 1960s, the group toured chiefly in Europe, and turned to even more politically and formally radical work carrying an anarchist and pacifist message, with the company members creating plays collectively and often living together. Major works from this period included adaptations of Antigone, Frankenstein and Paradise Now, which became their best-known play. Paradise, a semi-improvisational piece involving audience participation, was notorious for a scene in which actors recited a list of social taboos that included nudity, while themselves disrobing. leading to multiple arrests for indecent exposure.

Having returned to the U.S. in 1968 to tour Paradise, the group broke apart the next year. Malina and Beck toured with the remaining members in Brazil, where they were imprisoned in 1971, then returned to New York to form a new version of the group. Though Beck passed away in 1985 after a two-year battle with stomach cancer, The Living Theatre has staged nearly 100 productions performed in 8 languages in 28 countries on 5 continents - a unique body of work that has influenced theater the world over.

The Caffe Cino Fellowship Award this year goes to prominent Off-Off-Broadway house the Boomerang Theatre Company, represented by senior leaders Tim Errickson (Artistic Director), Francis Kuzler (Managing Director), Rachel Wood (Associate Artistic Director), Cailin Heffernan, Cheryl McCarron and Philip Emeott. Boomerang annually produces a season composed of three programs: free outdoor Shakespeare productions in parks throughout the city, an indoor repertory series of new, classic and neglected plays, and FIRST FLIGHT, a new play development series of workshops and readings.

The past nine years have seen the Boomerang Theatre Company produce 37 full productions, including five world premieres and seven New York City premieres. Boomerang has also received two New York Innovative Theatre Awards, for Kelly McAllister’s Burning the Old Man, an OOBR Award for a production of Moliere’s The Misanthrope, and was selected as a September 2005 recipient of The STAR Initiative from WNYC radio. Two plays produced by Boomerang have been published in annual Plays and Playwrights anthologies.

“At the time Boomerang was founded, there were no true rep companies other than the Jean Cocteau,” Errickson said. “I wanted to create a theater similar to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the Stratford Festival or the National Theatre of Great Britain, where different shows could play every night. The trick was to make the economic model of Indie theatre work with the repertory model. And that has been the journey of these last 10 years, making the unique artistic/theatrical environment mesh well with the limited revenue of indie theatre.”

Errickson admits his idea had a rather ambitious genesis: “Our programming idea has always been ‘New, classic and neglected’ plays, which I think I totally borrowed from Craig Lucas and Norman Rene and The Production Company of the 1970s-80's. And that's what we've done for 10 years.” He acknowledged that the idea of a rep company was met with skepticism at first, “people don't expect to be working on three shows at one time, they think it's nuts. But once you get into it, people are like ‘yeah, ok, that's pretty cool.’”

As for some of his favorite memories, Errickson cites Vinnie Penna's delivery of  "churl!" as Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream, and “the electricity of Adam Gertler speaking ‘to be or not to be’ outside in a park production of Hamlet. “But some of my favorite moments have happened when a writer makes a breakthrough on a piece, or a director solves a staging or storytelling problem, or a designer makes something that solves a problem in a way no one has ever done before,” Errickson added.

“It's being in those moments of creation and honesty that are the most rewarding. It's a special reward that [Kuzler] and I get to give people opportunities to explore their creativity in a safe environment where they can be artists and not worry about anything else. It doesn't get better than that.”

The third of this year’s honorary award recipients is the Stewardship Award given to New York Theatre Experience/nytheatre.com. Martin Denton, NYTE's founder and Executive Director, founded the website (from 1996 to 1997 known as “Martin’s Guide to New York Theatre”), which was officially incorporated in July 1999.

“I created nytheatre.com to provide information about navigating the New York theatre scene primarily for out-of-towners – people who weren’t familiar with how to get around the city and didn’t have access to details about non-Broadway shows” Denton explained. “Back in those early days of the Internet, there actually weren’t a lot of readily available resources where this kind of information could be found outside New York City. So the initial design of the website was to include facts about the theatres and how to get to them and comprehensive listings and some reviews.”

Once the decision was made to go full-time with nytheatre.com, “it was natural to make things ‘official’ and create a company around the website,” Denton explained. And so The New York Theatre Experience, Inc. was born on July 22, 1999, with a mission to provide advocacy and support to the New York theatre, especially nonprofit theatres and emerging theatre artists. “When we formed the corporation, we wanted its name to encompass what was most important to us about the NYC theatre scene. That has always been its breadth, its diversity, its variety, and its vitality. We thought that the word ‘Experience,' which is so subjective from one person to the next, captures some of that energy.”

NYTE's vision for the future is to make theatre going as much a part of their cultural activities as museum exhibits, concerts, and film, and operates three major programs in support of this mission. Its use of new media serves the artistic and audience communities with free and innovative online resources, including nytheatre.com (now 12 years old and one of the pioneer theatre websites on the Internet), indietheater.org, nytheatrecast (the first regularly scheduled NY-theatre related podcast), and mobile.nytheatre.com (the only NY-theatre-exclusive content for PDAs, smartphones, etc.).

Since 2000, the NYTE Small Press has published an annual anthology of new plays by never-before-published playwrights to help encourage future productions of these plays, enhance the reputations and foster the professional development of the playwrights, and contribute to the published base of American dramatic literature to advance the crafts of playwriting and theatre. “NYTE Small Press has published nine volumes of the Plays and Playwrights anthology series plus two other anthologies,” Denton said. “About half of the plays we’ve published have received new productions (as a result of publication), many of which provided their authors with their very first royalties. These include productions in many foreign countries, from New Zealand and Australia to China and Israel to Romania and Norway.”

Additionally, NYTE’s community outreach includes a diverse array of programs providing educational and enrichment opportunities to theatre artists and audience members, ranging from the creation in 2002 of an all-volunteer community of contributors (theatre artists who provide content for our websites, including hundreds of theater reviews every year) to the two Indie Theatre Convocations (one in 2006, another in 2008) that have united members of the community to share their common goals and needs to continue as a viable force in the larger theatre community.

“Collaborations that arise when we bring artists together at one of our public events,” Denton said, “probably the most dramatic recent example of this was the formation of the League of Independent Theater, which was a direct outgrowth of our First Ever Indie Theater Convocation in 2006.”

“Recognition like the Stewardship Award is both enormously satisfying and really important because it indicates that people outside of our organization ‘get us’ and value what we are able to accomplish,” Denton continued. “NYTE is truly a grassroots effort, made possible by the hard work and dedication of these amazing folks. Thanks to these volunteers and [his mother] Rochelle’s outstanding business skills, we have managed to keep our operations lean and inexpensive. Our TOTAL operating budget for all nine years we’ve been incorporated – this is the total of our budgets from 1999 through 2007 – is less than $400,000. I think we’ve accomplished a great deal with that money.

“Our websites and podcasts reach around four million people every year, who use them to learn about theatre offerings and artists in NYC. On nytheatre.com, we list around 2,000 productions every year and we review more than any other outlet that I know of—last year we reviewed 950 shows. We review every show in the New York International Fringe Festival (have done so every year since 2002), as well as every show in all the other major theatre festivals in NYC. Our reviews are all written either by me or by one of our contributors, who as I said are all theatre artists themselves.”

“I am very fortunate because I now get to do something that matters greatly to me – provide tangible support to the New York theatre community,” Denton said, pointing toward past IT honorees. “Watching remarkable new talents (like all four of the Caffe Cino recipients to date – Kirk Bromley and Inverse, Qui Nguyen and Vampire Cowboys, Daniel Talbott and Rising Phoenix, and Tim Errickson and Boomerang – blossom and mature over the years has been a privilege and a thrill. And of course these four companies are the tip of an enormous, strong, vibrant iceberg.”

“I have been rewarded by getting to know so many amazing, talented people,” Denton said, “who give freely of their time not just to volunteer to help NYTE achieve its mission but, more importantly, give so much of their time to create extraordinary theatre. The people who comprise NYTE’s constituency and NYITA’s constituency are my heroes, every one of them.”

Of course, come September 22, 2008, Denton, along with Errickson, Malina and their colleagues, will be recognized as one of the leading heroes of the Off-Off-Broadway community. A hero is defined as the principal character in a story, but if there is any through line connecting the three honorees, it is their unbending spirit and choice to rely on and support those around them. Without them, our community would be a far weaker one.


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