Special Reports

TheaterMania's Guide to Theater Awards: Tonys, Drama Desks, and Many More

Learn to distinguish your Obies from your Oliviers with this handy rundown of theater awards across the country (and in London and Toronto).

Laura Osnes and Billy Porter pose with their 2013 Drama Desk Awards.
Laura Osnes and Billy Porter pose with their 2013 Drama Desk Awards.
(© David Gordon)

It's springtime in New York City; the sun is shining and theater awards are popping up all over. But if you're feeling a little befuddled because of your seasonal allergies and the sheer number and variety of awards, we're here to help. This is your guide to notable theater awards from sea to shining sea, and even across the pond.

While the spring is generally looked upon as theater awards season, the truth is that awards are given throughout the year. In that spirit, TheaterMania provides this guide to notable theater awards across the world.


Pulitzer Prize for Drama

Named after journalist Joseph Pulitzer, this award was established in 1917, and annually honors a new work by an American playwright that premiered either in New York or regionally within a given calendar year. Theaters can nominate plays for the award, but there is not a full roster of nominations released. Instead, both the winner and finalists are announced in April of each year. There have been years in which no award was given.


Tony Awards

The Tonys, established by the American Theatre Wing in 1947, are named after actress/director/producer Antoinette Perry, and annually honor outstanding work on Broadway. Major categories include Best Play, Best Musical, Best Revival of a Play, and Best Revival of a Musical. Awards are also given to actors/actresses in lead and featured roles for both plays and musicals, designers, directors, choreographers, orchestrators, score writers, and book writers of musicals. In addition, noncompetitive Tonys are usually handed out to a winner for lifetime achievement. Also awarded are regional theaters and individuals or groups that fall outside of the regular bounds of the awards categories. Nominations are generally announced in early May, with the awards ceremony in June.

Drama Desk Awards

Begun in 1955, Drama Desks are the only awards that consider Broadway, off-Broadway, and off-off-Broadway shows in the same competitive categories. Awards are given to outstanding play, musical, revival of a play, revival of a musical, leading and supporting actors in both a play and musical, designers, directors, choreographers, composers, book writers, orchestrators, solo performers, and a category called Unique Theatrical Experience. Several noncompetitive awards are also presented each year, usually for ensemble, lifetime achievement, distinguished theater company, and/or notable elements that fall outside of usual categories. Nominations are announced in late April or early May, with the award ceremony in May.

New York Drama Critics Circle Awards

Established in 1935, the New York Drama Critics Circle awards were originally seen as an alternative to the Pulitzer and as a way for leading theater critics to honor outstanding work. Awards are given to best play, foreign play, and best musical, with occasional special citations also handed out. The Lucille Lortel Foundation provides cash prizes for the play awards. No nominations are released in advance of the award. Instead, the invitation-only membership committee meets following the final Broadway opening and decides upon the awards. Winners are announced in early May, and the awards are given out at a private reception later that month.

Outer Critics Circle Awards

The Outer Critics Circle, founded in the 1949-1950 season, is composed of writers who cover the New York theater scene for out-of-town newspapers or national publications, which in recent years has also come to include online media. It distinguishes between Broadway and off-Broadway in giving out awards for new plays and musicals, but mixes the categories together for competitive revival and individual performer awards as well as directors, designers, and choreographers. In addition, it gives out the John Gassner Playwriting Award, presented to an American play, preferably by a new playwright. Nominations are announced in April, and the awards ceremony generally takes place in May.

Lucille Lortel Awards

Created in 1985 by the Off-Broadway League, the Lortels are named after the highly influential actress and theater producer Lucille Lortel. They are devoted exclusively to honoring off-Broadway productions, and recognize outstanding plays, musicals, performers, directors, choreographers, and designers, in addition to handing out noncompetitive special awards. Nominations are announced in April, with the awards held in May.

Santino Fontana won a 2012 Obie Award.
Santino Fontana won a 2012 Obie Award.

Obie Awards

Presented by the alternative weekly newspaper The Village Voice, these awards were founded in 1956 and honor artists and productions producing work off- and off-off-Broadway. Nominations are not announced in advance, and the number and type of awards given out are at the discretion of the awards committee, who can even invent new categories to honor exceptional work. The awards are presented in a ceremony generally held in mid-May.

Theatre World Awards

First given out in the 1944-1945 theater season, these awards honor outstanding debut performances in a Broadway or off-Broadway production. Six actors and six actresses receive the award each year, with occasional special awards given out, including for ensemble. Winners are announced in May, with the awards presented in a private ceremony in early June.

Drama League Awards

While the majority of the major theater awards in New York City are determined by critics or other theater professionals, the Drama League Awards are voted upon by a membership comprising thousands of audience members who attend Broadway and off-Broadway shows. The first year they were awarded was 1922, although the awards were not formalized until 1935. They annually honor a distinguished production of a play, musical, revival of a play, revival of a musical, and single performance. The awards committee can also, at its discretion, recognize distinguished achievement in musical theater, unique contribution to the theater, and excellence in directing. Nominations are announced in April, with the ceremony following in May.

New York Innovative Theatre Awards

First presented in 2005, the IT Awards, as they are generally called, honor outstanding work produced off-off-Broadway. An honorary awards committee determines the recipients for artistic achievement, stewardship, and a fellowship to be awarded to a theater company. In addition, there are competitive awards for productions, performers, and creative teams that are voted on by audience members. Nominations are generally announced in August, with winners revealed in a ceremony held in September.


Officially known as the Vivian Robinson/AUDELCO Recognition Awards for Excellence in Black Theatre, and sometimes referred to as "The VIV," these awards promote and celebrate African-American involvement in American theater. They are named for the late Vivian Robinson, who founded AUDELCO (Audience Development Committee, Inc.) in 1973. The awards honor productions, playwrights, actors, directors, and designers. Nominations are usually announced in October, with the awards ceremony held in November.

Henry Hewes Awards

Presented by the American Theatre Wing, these awards honor theatrical design for productions on Broadway, off-Broadway, and off-off-Broadway. Established as the Maharam Awards in 1965, they were renamed in honor of theater critic and awards cofounder Henry Hewes in 1999. The nominees are generally announced in the summer or fall, with winners named subsequently and awards given out during a private reception in the fall or winter.

GLAAD Media Awards

The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) annually honors outstanding LGBT-themed works in a variety of media. New York theater awards are given in two categories: Outstanding Broadway/off-Broadway Production and Outstanding off-off-Broadway Production. Nominations are announced in January, with the awards typically presented in March.


The Suzi Bass Awards

The Suzi Bass Awards were founded in 2003 by Gene-Gabriel Moore and a small group of industry professionals. Named after well-loved Atlanta actress Suzi Bass, who died only one year before the awards were founded, they celebrate outstanding artists and work in Metro Atlanta's professional theater community. Each theater season, volunteer judges for the The Suzi Bass Awards choose nominees and recipients in 25 performance categories for awards that are presented in a November ceremony.


IRNE Awards

The Independent Reviewers of New England (IRNE) Awards were founded in 1997 by Beverly Creasey of the Journal Newspapers and Larry Stark to recognize and honor talent in the Boston theater community. Nominees are announced in February, and winners are named at the awards ceremony, which is held in Boston each spring.

Elliot Norton Awards

Named for the eminent Boston theater critic Elliot Norton, this award was established in 1983 as the Norton Medal. Presented by The Boston Theater Critics Association, the honors have expanded to include more than a dozen awards that are presented annually to outstanding Boston area productions, performers, directors, and designers. Nominees are announced in April, and winners are announced at a ceremony in May.


Jeff Awards

Named for 19th century actor Joseph Jefferson III, the Jeff Awards committee was established in 1968 to honor outstanding theater artists in Chicago. Considered eligible are locally produced Equity shows. At the submission of theaters, the committee nominates and eventually selects recipients in several categories for awards, presented at a spring ceremony. Since 1973, the Jeffs have extended recognition to non-Equity theaters through the creation of a non-Equity wing of the Jeff Awards committee. Currently these awards are given at a separate awards night each spring.

Black Theatre Alliance Award

Founded in 1995, the Black Theatre Alliance Award honors African-Americans who achieve excellence in Chicago-area performing and technical arts. In addition, an award of merit is presented to an honoree who has made a significant contribution to the world of the performing arts. BTAA presents an annual awards ceremony, generally in the fall.


Olivier Awards

London's most prestigious theater awards are presented by the Society of London Theatre (SOLT) and are named after stage legend Laurence Olivier. First given out in 1976, the awards honor plays, musicals, opera, dance, and a broadly defined "Best Entertainment" category, as well as individual performers, directors, choreographers, and designers. The Oliviers are generally presented in March or April, with the nominations coming out in the weeks prior to the ceremony.

Evening Standard Awards

The daily newspaper The London Evening Standard administers these awards, which have honored the best of British theater since 1955. Major categories include best play, musical, actor, actress, director, and design. A long list and then a short list of potential winners are released in the weeks prior to the ceremony, which is generally held in November.

Daniel Radcliffe and Rupert Grint show off their WhatsOnStage Awards.
Daniel Radcliffe and Rupert Grint show off their WhatsOnStage Awards.
(© Dan Wooller)

WhatsOnStage.com Awards

WhatsOnStage.com presents these London theater awards, which are the only major British theater prize-giving awards decided wholly by the public, who vote online at the popular U.K. theater website. The awards, formally established in 2002, honor plays, musicals, performers, directors, choreographers, and designers, as well as a few nontraditional categories such as "Event of the Year." Nominations come out in December, with the winners revealed at an awards concert in February.

Theatre Awards UK

Presented since 1991 by the Theatrical Management Association, these awards honor creative excellence on stages throughout England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Among the major categories are best new play, musical, touring production, and performance in a play. Among the more unique categories are achievement in marketing, most welcoming theatre, promotion of cultural diversity, and theatre employee/manager of the year. The awards are presented in late October or early November, with nominations released in the weeks prior to the ceremony.


Ovation Awards

Founded in 1989 by the LA Stage Alliance, the Ovation Awards are the only peer-judged theater awards in Los Angeles. Each year, hundreds of productions compete in 35 categories and are evaluated by a pool of vetted, currently working theater professionals. The list of nominees is announced in September, and winners are announced at a black-tie ceremony at year's end.

Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Awards

The Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle, which was founded in 1969, covers all types of theatrical activity in Los Angeles, Orange, and Ventura counties. Each January, the nominations for the year's standout achievements are released. The winners are then announced at an awards ceremony, generally held in March.

L.A. Weekly Theatre Awards

The L.A. Weekly Theatre Awards, established in 1979 by the publication after which they're named, are given for outstanding achievements in small theater productions in southern California. Awards are presented in March or April, with nominees generally announced in January.


Ivey Awards

Established in 2004, the Ivey Awards project's celebration event is staged each September and honors Twin City productions from the previous theater season. Categories noted in the recognition ceremony include both established and emerging works, theater highlights as determined by the public, and work in the areas of production, design, direction, and performance. The system of evaluation involves 100 volunteer evaluators representing a variety of interests and backgrounds, the theatergoing public, and representatives of all participating theater organizations. There are no nominees, predetermined award categories, or set number of awards.


Barrymore Awards

The Barrymore Awards for Excellence in Theatre, which were founded in 1995 by the Theatre Alliance of Greater Philadelphia, exist to celebrate this region's theater community by awarding productions, designers, actors, and directors. Nominations are announced in late summer, and the winners are announced at a ceremony in early fall.


Craig Noel Awards

The San Diego Theatre Critics Circle presents these awards, which are named after the Old Globe's founder and longtime artistic director, Craig Noel. The awards, which have been handed out annually since 2002, cover major outstanding new play, resident musical, and touring production, as well as honors for individual performers, directors, and designers, among others. Nominations are announced in December, with the awards held in January or February of the following year.


San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle Awards

The San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle has been active since 1976. It consists of reviewers who are voted into membership by existing members. Each spring, the Circle hosts an awards ceremony that announces winners of awards for excellence in three categories for theaters of varying sizes. Nominees are announced a month or two prior to the awards.


Carbonell Awards

Named for sculptor Manuel Carbonell who designed the original award statue, the Carbonell Awards began in 1975 to recognize the best performances in the South Florida area. Every year a panel of judges with knowledge of theater votes to make award nominations and, subsequently, to determine the winners. The award period ends at the conclusion of each calendar year, with nominations announced early in the new year. Winners are awarded at a ceremony in the spring.


Kevin Kline Awards

The Kevin Kline Awards, named for the Tony- and Academy Award-winning St. Louis native, were established in 2006. They award St. Louis area professional theater in 22 categories. Each nominee is reviewed by seven judges, drawn randomly from a pool of 49, who give the nominee a numeric score. At the end of the year, the five productions with the highest scores are announced as nominees, and the nominee with the highest score in each category is announced at a ceremony held in the spring.


Dora Awards

The Dora Awards are named for teacher and director Dora Mavor Moore, who devoted her life to creating theater in Toronto. The awards annually honor the creators of over 200 productions in five major categories: general theater, independent theater, dance, opera, and theater for young audiences. For each category, a panel of 10-11 jurors select five productions each, vote to select nominees, and vote to select a winner. Winners are announced at a ceremony in late June, with nominees announced approximately one month before.


Helen Hayes Awards

This award is named after actress and Washington, D.C. native Helen Hayes, who is one of the few people to have won an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony Award. It was established in 1985 and awards excellence in acting, directing, design, and production for Washington, D.C.-area productions, both resident and nonresident. Eight judges out of a pool of 60 evaluate each production. Nominations are announced early in the new year, and award winners are announced at a ceremony in the spring.