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Two Theater Awards Nominators Attempt to Answer, "What Were They Thinking?"

TM pulls back the curtain on the nomination of Broadway and off-Broadway awards.

This is a Drama Desk Award, a Tony Award, and an Outer Critics Circle Award.

The Tony nominations will be announced this week. The Outer Critics Circle nominations and the Drama Desk nominations have already been released. While the announcement of potential award winners generally provokes celebration, some of the names on the list (and especially the names left off) provoke the question, What were they thinking?

Two TM writers attempt to answer: David Gordon is the president of the Outer Critics Circle, and Zachary Stewart is a member of the Drama Desk. Each sits on the committee responsible for compiling nominations. In the following chat, they shed light on the process of choosing nominees, and offer advice for theater artists on how to get noticed come awards season.

The room where it happens: Critics David Gordon and Zachary Stewart sit in the TM conference room where the Drama Desk nominators meet to discuss eligible shows.
(© Seth Walters)

David Gordon: When it comes to nominating, where does the Drama Desk start? Do you have several meetings to determine short lists before the official nominating day? We don't do that, though I'm trying to initiate something similar in future seasons.

Zachary Stewart: Last year, the Drama Desk considered 280 shows from Broadway, off-Broadway, and off-off-Broadway. That's a lot to see and to remember, so we meet throughout the year to discuss what we've seen and determine if it merits nomination. While some categories end up with sprawling short lists by April, we ultimately whittle them down to five or six nominees per category. It helps to leave a strong impression if you want to make the cut.

David: The OCC only consider Broadway and off-Broadway, bringing down our count 150-200 shows. We also have certain qualifications that we try hard to adhere to. There's a mandatory performance count (a run of 21 shows or more), and we prefer to consider shows that our entire voting body is invited to. If you can distill it, what does a show need to do to get on your personal short list?

Jessica Hecht and Ben Edelman starred in the world premiere of Joshua Harmon's Admissions at the Lincoln Center. The play went on to win both Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Awards.
(© Jeremy Daniel)

Zach: Be memorable. Here's an example: The play that ended up winning last year in the Outstanding Play category, Joshua Harmon's Admissions, is the kind of show that provokes very different responses from the audience — all of them big. I thought there was going to be a fistfight at the performance I attended! You don't forget an experience like that.

David: Memorability is the biggest factor in my decision-making, too. For me, it's the performances that I can't stop thinking about — Glenda Jackson and Laurie Metcalf in Three Tall Women, for instance; the sets that boggle my mind logistically (how does Michael Yeargan's My Fair Lady set work?); and the plays and musicals that feel like they're going to have an impact in the future. Admissions is a great example of that.

Zach: What you say about the My Fair Lady set is true, and it's not just something that applies to Broadway. Louisa Adamson and Christian Barry's set for Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story folded out of what looked like a shipping container. Jason Sherwood transformed the Culture Project into a New Orleans gay bar circa 1973 in The View UpStairs, with his design extending into the bathroom area. Both of them ended up in the Outstanding Set Design category. Well-executed ambition and attention to detail will get you far.

Jason Sherwood designed the Drama Desk-nominated set for The View Upstairs.
(© Kurt Sneddon)

David: I'd much rather reward ambition that doesn't always fully deliver than something that feels wrapped in a bow. Many times, to get on my personal list, it doesn't even have to be the "Best" play in a traditional sense of the word. I'll give something a lot of extra points if it's messy and has some holes but challenges me to change my thinking. I'd much rather something like that than something that's tidily constructed and leaves minimal impact.

That especially applies to our John Gassner Award category, which specifically honors new American plays by new American writers. Early plays often feel incomplete at the time of their first production, but if you impress the hell out of me with your voice or scope — hello, Slave Play and Usual Girls — I'm gonna fight for you before I fight for something that seems like no-brainer in a "Best ___" category.

Zach: That makes sense for plays and design elements, which are tangible things, but how do you go about assessing performances?

David: Some years, there are performances that you know will get on everyone's list. Think Andrew Garfield for Angels in America. I try to fill my personal short list with actors whose presence on the final list is less assured. Last season, I was particularly proud of seeing Gregg Mozgala and Katy Sullivan earn Outstanding Actor and Actress nominations for Cost of Living. Those were two wonderful performances in a show that opened and closed a full 10 months before we sat down at the table.

Zach: I think of Denise Gough. She was nominated last year for a Tony and OCC Award for her performance in the Broadway revival of Angels in America, but the Drama Desk recognized her for the off-Broadway performance she gave in People, Places & Things. She played a drug addict entering rehab, and her messiness was completely convincing; but more importantly, she was a champion for Duncan Macmillan's text. There is a significant reveal at the end of the play, and no one saw it coming. Audience members gasped when the line was spoken, because Denise Gough had hoodwinked us all. When an actor can actualize a playwright's script with that kind of potency, it's an award-worthy performance.

Denise Gough (center) earned a Drama desk nomination for her performance in Duncan Macmillan's People, Places & Things at St. Ann's Warehouse.
(© Teddy Wolff)

David: Does outside opinion affect the way you make a list of nominees?

Zach: Outside opinion matters. If it didn't, the Drama Desk would have completely ignored the outcry over the elimination of the "Outstanding Book of a Musical" category in 2016. That protest (led by Doug Wright of the Dramatists Guild) ended up being successful, and the nominators reconvened to select three nominees. I wasn't on the committee that year, so I wasn't privy to their deliberations; but if I was one of those three writers, I would be skeptical of the sincerity of these nominations delivered after the fact.

David: I agree that it matters. Ultimately, we're nine women and men of vastly different ages, so obviously we're not all going to come in with the same favorites. But I try to make sure we're collectively conscious of the social trends within the industry and that the list reflects the whole breadth of the theater scene. No one wants to look like they're behind the times when you're expected to be the arbiters of taste.