Five o'clock on a Monday on an overcast May day; Broken-field running down 42nd St. to get to Playwrights Horizons at the appointed time. Spring is the time when all your invites and dates get so compacted that you'd have to bend the time-space continuum to get everything in: the reading of a new play at Coyote Rep; the benefit for WOW on E. 4th St. On this overcast day I picked the Lilly.
A month ago, The Lilly wasn't even an idea; but May's also the time when nominations and awards are announced. Of the plays racking up honors and mentions, and trophies and afterlifes in the regionals, that clamoring silence you heard was when they announced the names of plays written by women.
Variety reported: "On May 4, the day the Tony noms were announced, playwright Theresa Rebeck sent an email to some fellow scribes to complain, 'Where are the women? In this year, the fact that there were so many important plays by women, and next to none received even a nomination, do we really think this should just go by without comment?' "
(Personally, I've always been a proponent of the theory that when you can't break into a scene, you make your own.)
Playwrights Rebeck, Marsha Norman, and Julia Jordan, who has been a leader of the movement to bring parity to women in theater were joined by fellow playwright and Dramatists Guild Council Member Tina Howe, Playwrights Horizons Artistic Director Tim Sanford, producer Susan Rose, The Women's Project Producing Artistic Director Julie Crosby, the Dramatist's Guild's Gary Garrison, the Lark's Producing Director John Eisner, and the Dramatists Guild and created the Lillian Hellman Awards for Outstanding Achievement by Women in the Theater.
Can you put together an event like that in less than a month? Well, yes. I've done it and (blogged about it here and elsewhere). The sheer nerve and goodwill it takes are intoxicating and exhausting. When you pull it off, you walk away thinking: now I know one more thing I can do. We can do.
Sanford gave the group the Playwrights Horizon stage...at least until crew call for The Burnt Part Boys. The list of presenters and honorees grew. Since they were inventing it, the committee could choose to honor who they wished: emerging playwrights; prize-winners; artistic directors; costumers; actors and the sorts of people who should get prizes. Christopher Durang stepped in to host, Gloria Steinem signed on for the invocation, and everyone was reminded that they only had the stage for an hour.
People poured into the theater, where a huge vase of lilies sat stage left of the podium. We filled up the seats in the friendly space. And at pretty darn close to 5pm, Durang welcomed us to the first Lillys. He said that the two playwrights he was closest to in his life were Wendy Wasserstein and Marsha Norman, which showed that he had both good taste in writers and in people. He read a short excerpt from Wasserstein's Pulitzer Prize-winning The Heidi Chronicles, which ends with the line "What do mothers teach their sons that they never bother to tell their daughters?" and continued with a quote from Lillian Hellman from The Little Foxes, where Addie observes that some people eat the earth, and others watch them do it.
He introduced Steinem, who spoke about growing up in Toledo, a town that didn't see much in the way of theatre; she identified the women playwrights as "giving us voice" in the women's movement, and also people edged out when more money and cooperation were required from the established institutions, pointing out that the lack of opportunity within the theatrical structure created solo performers (which is something many of my friends who do solo work have often told me...once again, creating their own scene).
Rebeck, Norman, and Jordan then spoke movingly (and briefly...Rebeck reminded people to "pick up your cues!") about why they'd started the awards. Norman told of meeting Hellman (pictured at left) late in life, and the older playwright told her: write like the devil, and act like one if you have to...and spend the money on whatever makes you happy.
Jordan pointed out the impact that awards season has on the economics of playwrights: that the nominees and winners form a sort of "crib sheet" for the regional theaters on choices for their upcoming seasons.
And with the clock ticking, it was time for the first award. Rob Ashford presented the Marian Seldes Award for Advocacy to Kristin Chenowith. The star of Promises, Promises, suffering from an infected throat, sent along a note to be read, thanking the group, and promising to be at the next awards.
Mark Brokaw then presented the first playwriting award of the event, named for the first woman to win the Pulitzer for drama, Zona Gale (pictured at right), to Melissa James Gibson, whose play, This, was called by the Times, "the best new play to open Off Broadway this fall." The award was an actual medal: gold, on a red ribbon, and each recipient had it placed around her neck by the presenter.
Adam Bock presented the next award, named in honor of Margo Jones to someone he described as a fierce champion of new work and new writers; Maria Striar, producing artistic director of Clubbed Thumb, who has also directed premieres for 13P.
The recipients hadn't actually been told they were expected to say a few words, so the speeches tended to be heartfelt, improvised, and often wickedly funny.
Michael Mayer talked about the "heterosexual panic" he feels around set designer Christine Jones, whose body of work includes both Everyday Rapture and American Idiot on Broadway this season, as well as in recent seasons, the critically acclaimed production of Coraline, and the prize-winning Spring Awakening. Jones responded by saying that Mayer, "makes me feel totally fucked in the best possible way," which brought the house down.
Neil Pepe presented the next award in honor of Frances Goodrich, who with her partner Albert Hackett (pictured at left) created some of the most memorable plays and screenplays of the mid-20th century, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning adaptation of The Diary of Anne Frank. He gave the award to Lucy Thurber, whose plays Monstrosity and Killers and Other Family received productions at 13P and Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre this past season. Monstrosity, with a cast of dozens, was a heroic epic with a woman warrior as the protagonist, and an examination of war, oppression, and how even a just cause is changed by violence.
Tim Sanford presented the next award, for directing, to Pam McKinnon, who was not there because she's one of the busiest directors in New York (having just won the Obie for her direction of Clybourne Park). "It's about the writer to her," he told the crowd, And the crowd, being mostly writers, applauded with gusto.
Tina Howe ascended the stage next, her "Lilly" sticker prominently displayed on her cowboy boot, and gave the next playwriting award in honor of Wendy Wasserstein (pictured at right) to an emerging playwright, Chisa Hutchinson, already making a name for herself, just out of NYU, with productions of She Like Girls at Working Man's Clothes and The Good Mother, which she spent last season developing at The Lark.
The biggest roar of applause of the event came when Julia Jordan presented another advocacy award to Emily Morse of New Dramatists. The cheers, whistles, and shrieks went on for some time, as Morse displayed a present her son had given her: a balloon and container filled with candy that read: "IT'S A GIRL."
Doug Wright seemed thrilled to present the next playwriting award to Deborah Zoe Laufer, whose End Days was presented by Ensemble Studio Theatre last season, and whose Sirens premiered at the Humana Festival at the Actors Theatre of Louisville in March. Laufer spoke about the challenges of raising a family while writing plays; she and Sarah Ruhl, who was recognized a little later on, both spoke of, and literally presented the dual roles of woman playwright as both giving birth to plays and children.
Actor Lisa Banes and lyricist Susan Birkenhead both presented the lifetime achievement award for costume design to the legendary Jane Greeenwood, describing her as a "great lady of the theater" and in addition to her medal, draping around her a cape that once belonged to Dorothy Fields (pictured at left), one of the great Broadway lyricists, who wrote popular songs for revues, films and shows for nearly 50 years. The plan is for the cape to be passed along to other recipients, a literal "passing of the mantle," from the women of the theater from the last century to the next.
Julie Crosby presented the next playwriting award, named for the first woman playwright (to get paid) Aphra Behn, to Liz Duffy Adams. Adams's Or, produced last season by The Women's Project, featured Aphra Behn (pictured at right) as a character.
Rebeck took the stage again to present an award for a "sustained body of work" in lighting design to Frances Aronson, whose illustrious (get it?) career includes shows on and off-Broadway from the 1980s through today.
David Greenspan presented an award in honor of Dorothy Parker(pictured at left) to director Leigh Silverman, whose credits include the downtown and Broadway runs of Lisa Kron's Well, as well as the world premiere of Coraline, and the Five Lesbian Brothers' Oedipus at Palm Springs. (And I am Marie of Roumania).
A Pulitzer Prize winning playwright herself, Lynn Nottage presented the next playwriting award in honor of Mary Chase (the author of Harvey, pictured at right), to Annie Baker, one of the women playwrights whose work is receiving notable recognition this season: both with Circle Mirror Transformation at Playwrights Horizons, and the still-running hit The Aliens, at Rattlestick.
Actor Alison Pill presented the next award in honor of actor/director Zoe Caldwell to director Anne Kauffman, whose work with new plays including the work of Adam Bock and Anne Washburn has brought attention to these "neo-realists." Kaufman announced that she hoped her real prize would be that all of the playwrights in the audience had to let her direct their plays. Many playwrights wrote her name down.
Gina Gionfriddo presented the next playwriting award in honor of Susan Glaspell, Pulitzer Prize winner for Alison's House and one of the founders of the Provincetown Playhouse, to Young Jean Lee, whose amazing adaptation/re-telling of Lear was one of the most discussed productions of the last season. In its review, The New Yorker described Lee as wanting "nothing less, it seems, than to remake the American theatre in her image."
"Everyone on this stage is such a fighter," Lee said, and she spoke of the power of all their work.
John Weidman presented the next playwriting award to Sarah Ruhl, who made her Broadway debut this season with In the Next Room (or the Vibrator Play), and who is nominated for a Tony Award for Best Play. Calling her a "high priestess of transformation," Weidman carefully placed the ribbon around Ruhl's neck, as she brought her infant daughter, Hope, to the podium with her. Hope sat on her mother's lap throughout the ceremony, watching, napping and feeding throughout, and as she showed her daughter what a roomful of women playwrights looks like, Ruhl remarked that "I'm like Bristol Palin," and that she left Hope's twin William at home, "because I thought I'd bring the girl."
Weidman made a surprise announcement of an award not in the program next, and in citing Teresa Rebeck, whose play The Understudy, received its New York premiere at The Roundabout, he called her a warrior, a fierce advocate, a survivor and "a great troublemaker."
Marsha Norman presented the last award, a lifetime achievement award to Mary Rodgers (pictured at right), noting that as the daughter of Richard Rodgers, and the mother of Adam Guettel, she is the "filling in the sandwich of American musical theater." Rodgers, whose musical Once Upon A Mattress, introduced Carol Burnett to the Broadway stage, remains an advocate throughout the theater community, as a director of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization, as a board member of ASCAP, and served for years as the chairman of the Juilliard School. Rodgers commented that the Lillys were "so much better than the Tony Awards."
Christopher Durang returned to the stage for closing remarks at just about 6 o'clock, taunting Tim Sanford that he was only going to speak "for another 10 minutes." But he did take the time to announce just a few of the major productions by American women playwrights in New York and at major regional theaters next season. He promised a comprehensive list on the upcoming Lilly website.
And before the crowd dispersed, it looked at itself and recognized: women playwrights of many voices, all shapes, sizes, styles and genres; young and old, emerging and master, angry and funny and sad and political and fantastic and satirical and poetic. It almost seemed as though the room had achieved a form of critical mass, an energy that could transform.
They will not be ignored again.