The 59th Annual Drama Desk Awards was a sea of happy faces. I saw kisses, hugs, and secret asides all evening at the Liberty Theater, where the after-party was already beginning before the first award was even announced. The good feelings extended throughout the night, with not one, but two ties awarded in the acting categories: First, Anika Larsen (Beautiful) and Lauren Worsham (A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder) tied for Outstanding Featured Actress in a Musical. Then, as the evening reached its conclusion, Jefferson Mays (Gentleman's Guide) tied with Neil Patrick Harris (Hedwig and the Angry Inch) for Outstanding Actor in a Musical.
"I love that we tied," beamed Harris. "Jefferson's so prolific in his talent. I feel sort of a kinship to him. We're both doing performances where, once you push the start button, you don't stop." Generally, it was a love fest buoyed along by wine, hors d'oeuvres, and plenty of memories.
The Drama Desk is special in that it recognizes the full breadth of the New York theater season — not just Broadway or off-Broadway. One might not expect Broadway actors to naturally rub elbows with off-off-Broadway directors and choreographers, but at the Drama Desk Awards, they do. You begin to realize that, despite the huge volume of shows produced in New York City each year, the community creating them isn't so huge.
"Oh, it is fairly small," said director Ed Sylvanus Iskandar, who was there accepting the Sam Norkin Off-Broadway Award for his work this season on The Golden Dragon and The Mysteries. "Most of the artists I run into again and again in the theater tend to all be the same group." That means, more often than not, you're nominated against your friends, collaborators, and even mentors.
"Thank you for bringing me to America fourteen years ago to be your assistant on The Producers," After Midnight director Warren Carlyle said to Susan Stroman in his acceptance speech, after edging her out in the category of Outstanding Choreography. (Stroman was nominated for Bullets Over Broadway.) "Thank you for changing my life," he added. He also thanked her for offering five good notes to every project he works on, an indication that their artistic collaboration is ongoing.
The night was full of similarly moving tributes from the winners to the people who gave them their big breaks. "I met Marge Champion when I was still in grad school. She gave me a grant that started my whole career," said Darko Tresnjak as he accepted the award for Outstanding Director of a Musical for Gentleman's Guide (which also took home the award for Outstanding Musical). The 95-year-old Champion was on hand to present the award for Outstanding Choreography.
Tresnjak had a lot to say about Champion's continued support of him. As someone who has taught young directors, he also spoke of the responsibility of paying it forward: "When you see someone amazing, you have the responsibility to become their mentor. Great talent must find a way out."
Or rather, that talent needs a way in, a way to gain access to the organizations and producers that create theater in New York. This isn't just true of directors, but actors as well. Jessie Mueller (Beautiful) took home the award for Outstanding Actress in a Musical. She didn't hesitate when I asked her who helped her in her career. "It was the team of On A Clear Day You Can See Forever. Jim Carnahan, the casting director, took a huge chance on me," she said, adding, "Harry Connick Jr. took me under his wing. Being able to watch someone like him, how he handles himself and leads a company, is the best instruction manual you can find."
As a director who regularly works at The Flea Theater, where 90 percent of the performers have just moved to New York, Iskandar feels a special responsibility to steer his actors in the right direction professionally. "Oh my God, I feel completely parental," he admitted. "I worry about their résumés and what they're wearing when they go to auditions." And really, he's just echoing the tough love that his mentor, playwright Amy Freed, gave to him when he was still in college. "She was the first person to tell me to stop f*cking around."
Iskandar firmly believes that there has to be a place for actors to hear that message and make the professional connections that will carry them into a professional career. "There must be a bridge between conservatory training and working on an ABC show," he opined.
A former child star of an ABC show, Neil Patrick Harris has actually taken the road less traveled in this respect. He didn't need anyone to give him a big break in his mid-20s, but he's still very appreciative of the people who guided him to where his career is now. "I have had theater mentors in Mr. Sondheim, Daniel Sullivan, and other amazing directors [who] have shown that I have worth and ability to do theater."
In the same breath, he noted how important it has been for him to be exposed to life outside the theater, and he's not just talking about his hit television show How I Met Your Mother. "I used to come to New York and just be a theater guy," he shared. "There's more to this city. Culture is deeper than just one medium."
So, while it's important to break into this small community if you want to make a life in the theater, it's equally important to get away from time to time and see what's happening in the wider world. And if you can successfully find that balance, someone might just give you an award for it.