Most legit awards orgs are so old they began with a phone call or even a telegram. The Lilly Awards, which held its first celebration Sunday night in Gotham, is so new that it all began with an email.
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? Anybody got any ideas about how to make some noise about this?”
She and others were ticked off that not only the Tonys but several of the other season-end awards orgs honoring Broadway and Off Broadway had once again cited very few female theater artists — mainly writers, directors and designers — for their contributions.
Rebeck’s question about making “some noise” soon found its answer.
“Many men and women in the theater rushed forward to say, ‘Let’s have our own awards,’ ” said Rebeck, who went on to call the dearth in legit awards for women “a cultural habit.”
“This was born out of rage, but it has turned into a celebration,” said Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Marsha Norman, who quickly petitioned the Lillian Hellman estate to use the famous scribe’s name for the nascent awards.
And it’s not just the Tonys that tick off the Lilly people. The American Theater Hall of Fame in the Gershwin Theater lists only three female playwrights: “Lillian Hellman, Susan Glaspell and Wendy Wasserstein, who was awarded posthumously,” Norman pointed out.
The New York Times’ Patrick Healy recently wrote that it was a bad year for women on Broadway.
“The Times’ Mel Gussow essentially wrote the same article in 1989, even though there were all these women who had done amazing work,” said Norman, who contends that there were 50 women who have done equally “amazing work” this season in Gotham and the regionals. “But the whining does no good, so we decided to give a party.”
According to Norman, composer Mary Rodgers (“Once Upon a Mattress”) was so excited about receiving a lifetime achievement award from the Lillies that she cracked, “Now I don’t have to have a funeral!”
Speakers and presenters at the first Lillian Hellman Awards for Outstanding Achievement by Women in the Theater included Gloria Steinem, Christopher Durang and Michael Mayer, among others.
Awards for playwrighting went to Melissa James Gibson (“This”), Lucy Thurber (“Monstrosity,” “Killers and Other Family”), Chisa Hutchinson (“Dirt Rich”), Deborah Zoe Laufer (“End of Days” and “Sirens”), Liz Duffy Adams (“Or” and “Dog Act”), Annie Baker (“Circle Mirror Transformation” and “The Aliens”) and Sarah Ruhl (“In the Next Room” and “Passion Play”).
Also honored were actress Kristin Chenoweth; artistic director Maria Striar; directors Pam MacKinnon, Anne Kauffman and Leigh Silverman; theater advocate Emily Morse; set designer Christine Jones; costume designer Jane Greenwood; lighting designer Frances Aronson and writer-director Young Jean Lee.
The awards were held at Playwrights Horizons in New York City, with an afterparty at the Left Bank Cafe.