Add Off Broadway to the awards-season reach of the American Theatre Wing, the long-standing nonprofit that founded and co-produces Broadway’s Tony Awards: As of this season, the Wing will partner with the Village Voice to co-present the Obie Awards, the annual kudofest honoring Off Broadway work.
The move stands poised to increase the visibility of the nearly 60-year-old Obies, which many in the industry consider Off Broadway’s highest honor. It also represents the latest step taken by the Wing to bolster its activities and scope under the leadership of Heather Hitchens, who took the reins at the Wing three years ago and recently reupped her contract for another five years, accompanied by the symbolic shift of her title from executive director to president.
“There’s a recognition that the Off Broadway and Off Off Broadway communities are interdependent with Broadway,” said Hitchens, a former percussionist who came to the Wing after stints at music organization Meet the Composer and at the New York State Council on the Arts. “When Off Broadway is strong, Broadway is strong. We’re looking to strengthen the entire theater ecology.”
The Wing partnership will assuage concerns in the theater industry regarding the continued existence of the Obies, which began to seem uncertain as the Village Voice, the storied New York newspaper that founded the Obies, came to suffer the hardships that have plagued long-standing news outlets.
Voice publisher Josh Fromson said the paper’s commitment to the Obies was always unwavering. “It was less of a financial decision to partner with the Wing than it was … the possibility of increased visibility and brand expansion,” he said.
But don’t look for an Obies segment on next year’s Broadway-centric Tony telecast, which the Wing co-presents annually with the Broadway League. Instead, for now, the Obies can expand their reach through the Wing’s growing suite of widely disseminated video content.
With fundraising on the rise and its operating budget of just under $2 million having increased by around $400,000 this year, the Wing adds the Obies to a slate of year-round programs like the Jonathan Larson Grant for musical theater composers. The org, founded in 1917, also has made an effort to enlist more industry luminaries, such as board chair and prolific costume designer William Ivey Long.
For now, the format of the Obies — a loose-limbed party of an awards show with no announced nominees, only surprised winners — looks unlikely to change. But if the Wing and the Voice have their way, more audiences from around the country will soon be able to join the party.