Change in Policy Makes New York Companies Eligible for Regional Tony Award

By Robert Simonson
June 28, 2013

The Tony Awards Administration Committee has announced that Off-Broadway theatres in New York are now eligible to receive the Regional Theatre Award. Playbill.com reports on the decision and speaks with leaders of the theatre community on the decision.

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New York City is a region.

That was the sudden and surprising conclusion to be drawn on June 13, when the Tony Awards Administration Committee announced that, starting with the 2013-14 theatrical season, New York-based Off-Broadway theatre companies will be eligible to receive the Regional Theatre Award.

The change in policy upended, in one stroke, the nature and scope of the annual honor, which has been handed out every year since 1976 to a noted U.S. theatre lying outside of New York's five boroughs. Recipients of the award include the Shakespeare Theatre Company of Washington, D.C.; Lookingglass Theatre Company, Chicago, IL; Eugene O'Neill Theatre Company, Waterford, CT; Signature Theatre, Arlington, VA; Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, Chicago, IL; Alliance Theatre, Atlanta, GA; and Intiman Playhouse, Seattle, WA, among others.

"The Tony Awards support excellence in the theatre — from home town community theatre to Broadway. The Regional Theatre Award honors artistic achievement contributing to the growth of theatre nationally," said Charlotte St. Martin, executive director of The Broadway League, and Heather Hitchens, executive director of the American Theatre Wing, in a joint statement on June 13. "New York has some of the most prestigious and creative theatre groups in the country and we are thrilled to include the New York theatre community in this category."

The award was first suggested to the Tonys — which is run jointly by The Broadway League and the American Theatre Wing — by the American Theatre Critics Association, a national confederation of professional theatre critics who work for newspapers, magazines, radio, television and on-line services across the United States. The association was formed in 1974. The annual winner of the award is based on a recommendation made by the ATCA to the Tonys. The ATCA comes upon its recommendation through a weighted ballot, in which members consider several nominated companies which have been recommended by individual members.

"So far, they have not rejected any of them," said Jay Handelman, theatre critic for the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, who is chair at the ATCA. "There may have been a couple raised eyebrows, but I don't think they've rejected any."

The announcement took many by surprise, including some members at the ATCA.

"We were told sometime in the last year that they were interested in expanding this thing," said Jay Handelman. "I can't say we had formal talks about it." He added, "I knew she had conversations with Chris Jones, who is chairman of regional theatre committee."

Jones, theatre critic for the Chicago Tribune, confirmed that he did indeed have discussions with St. Martin. "I talked to Charlotte about it and she shared with me that there was a desire to include New York theatre," he said. "My response to it was that the ATCA does not give out Tony Awards. That is the province of the League and the Wing. The question for me is more how we could administrate that award with New York included, and I thought we could."

Opinion on the move was divided. Those opposed to the change pointed out that the Regional Tony was one of the few avenues by which theatre companies outside of New York could garner attention.

Michael Kahn
"There are so many theatres out there that getting the Regional Tony Award could be their only national recognition," said Frank Rizzo, longtime theatre critic for the Hartford Courant, and a member of ATCA. "This is nothing against the wonderful Off-Broadway theatres, but there are other ways to recognize them, and several of them have received special Tony Awards over the years. It's doing it on the backs of theatres that have no access to the national media spotlight."

Michael Kahn, artistic director of the The Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington D.C., which won the Regional Tony in 2012, said the award had a big impact. "First of all, it raised the morale of the staff, and the subscribers and donors," he stated. "It's very helpful, when you live in a community, to get recognition from the community. It was a truly lovely honor, and very exciting in terms of getting recognized."

Rizzo pointed out that, for regional houses, a Tony can make a significant financial difference as well. "If you're in Oregon or Alabama or Salt Lake City, getting a Tony Award not only validates what you do, but is a tremendous importance as far as fund-raising for their survival," he said. "I just got off the phone with the O'Neill Center. They're expanded to a new musical theatre component they're creating, and they said when they got the Tony Award, it gave them a tremendous edge in their fundraising."

Rizzo lamented the fact that competition for the prize has now become decidedly stiffer. "I can tell you this," added Rizzo. "Huntington Theatre in Boston, who got the last Regional Tony Award a few weeks ago — I'm sure Michael Maso, who's the managing director, went, 'Whew! We just made it!' Because the next year, everyone now knows they're competing with all the New York theatres." (Maso, and the Huntington Theatre, declined to be interviewed for this article.)

Jennifer Garvey Blackwell
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN
Others, however, felt that the change made sense and was long overdue.

"I always think for anyone working in the arts, any kind of recognition is good, though that's not why we do it, obviously," said Jennifer Garvey Blackwell, executive producer of Off-Broadway's Vineyard Theatre. "It always seemed a little that New York nonprofits were not included, because in a way, in New York, if you're not Broadway, you're, quote, 'in the regions of New York.' It's a whole different world. There's so much great work being done in the regions. I don't want to take anything away from them."

Some theatre observers, including Rizzo, wondered aloud why the League and Wing hadn't simply decided to create a new Tony Award that honored a different New York Off-Broadway nonprofit every year, rather than recognized them through the Regional Theatre Tony. Heather Hitchens, executive director of The American Theatre Wing, had an answer to that.

"That would, I think, send an interesting and not-too-good message to the theatres across the country that New York is better artistically than they are," said Hitchens, "and we don't believe that to be true."

Some critics concur with this view that considering New York theatres separately reflects negatively on theatres companies in other cities and states. "I was always persuaded by the argument that New York is a region," said Jones. "This is my Chicago point of view coming out, but my feeling was that 'regional' was in some senses a perforative term when coming from New York. Add New York to that mix and the term's meaning changes."

According to Hitchens and Charlotte St. Martin, the executive director of the Broadway League, the change had been long in coming.

"It's no secret that we've been wanting to include New York theatres in our recognition," said Hitchens. "We've been talking about it for a number of years on how to do it. I think the message here is this is one big ecology: Broadway, Off-Broadway, throughout the country, and it's all interdependent on each other."

The alteration in eligibility comes with some stipulations. New York nonprofits who own a theatre on Broadway will not be eligible for the Regional Tony. The means the Roundabout Theatre Company, Manhattan Theatre Club and Lincoln Center Theater — which regularly collect Tonys for their Broadway productions — will not be adding another Tony to their trophy cases. Additionally, Off-Broadway companies will not be eligible for the Regional Tony during any season in which they transfer a production to Broadway.

Further guidelines are currently be worked out, but it seems likely that there will be a proviso that will prevent any city — including New York—from winning the award two years in a row.

Though the ruling is a fait accompli, the discussion surrounding it is not likely to end soon. The ATCA will be holding its annual conference at the Contemporary American Theatre Festival in Shepherdstown, WV, in July.

"When I saw the announcement, I send a message to all the board members, telling them of this change," said Handelman. "We're going to be discussing it at our annual conference. There is going to be some healthy debate about it."

Handelman said he wished to keep his personal opinion of the policy change off the record until the conference. He did add, however, "My feeling is we're probably going to continue doing this, and find a way of doing it that suits everyone's needs."