American Theatre Wing: The women behind the Tony Awards
The American Theatre Wing, launched by suffragettes, is the organisation behind the biggest night on Broadway. Mark Shenton meets its president, Heather Hitchens, ahead of the awards ceremony
It’s Tony time in New York. This year’s theatre season is finally capped by the handing out of Broadway’s top honours this weekend at Radio City Music Hall. The event is also when one of Broadway’s behind-the-scenes support organisations duly comes to the fore.
While the Broadway League officially represents the interests of Broadway theatre owners and producers, it was the American Theatre Wing that founded the Tony Awards in 1947. The awards are named after Antoinette Perry, one of the co-founders of the Wing. It continues, in its 72nd year, to co-produce the Tonys in partnership with the League, which joined in 1967 when live national telecasts of the awards began.
“We own the trademark,” says Heather Hitchens, who since 2011 has been president of the Wing. “I like to say it’s our award, but it’s for the Broadway League and its members.”
CV: Heather Hitchens
Place of birth: Cleveland, Ohio, US
Training: Bachelor of Music from DePauw University; Master’s of Science in Arts Administration from Drexel University
First professional role: Traffic manager for WBUX Radio in Bucks County, Pennsylvania
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
I wish someone told me how everything works – I had to learn it myself because I had my first executive director/CEO position when I was 24. I have my parents to thank for instilling good instincts in me.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
I have many influences, but right now on the heels of the Wing Centennial, I am influenced by the powerful suffragettes who founded the Wing.
Hitchens began her career as a professional musician before going into arts administration, including a stint heading up the New York State Council on the Arts during the administration of state governor Eliot Spitzer. She has overseen a period of ever more urgent advocacy for the arts and expanded the Wing’s range of grant-giving and promotion. Today, the Tonys are just one part of a growing network through which the organisation tries to connect the entire industry.
“We’ve added a lot of programmes, because we’re concerned about the whole pipeline. We’re very proud of our Broadway footprint, but it has always been important to us to pay attention to Off-Broadway too – we’re very interested in the developmental side of work.”
Four years ago, it duly added an interest in the annual Obie Awards – founded in 1956 by the Village Voice newspaper, which used to be a major force in the downtown arts scene, but has since become an online-only publication.
“We’d been struggling for a long time to find the best way of embracing Off-Broadway, and when the opportunity came to fold the Obies into what we do, it became a way to complete a broken link in the pipeline.
“It’s a seamless, perfect marriage. The awards have a lot of prestige, but we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. We can give them some organisational help and elevate it, improving its visibility and giving it a safe home.”
Awards are, of course, a lovely thing for artists to receive, but the Tonys and the American Theatre Wing also recognise those who aren’t typically celebrated, such as behind-the-scenes educators and support staff.
Last week, it was announced that Melody Herzfeld, the drama teacher at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School – where 17 people died in a mass shooting in February – will be the fourth recipient of the excellence in theatre education award at this year’s Tony Awards.
“The circumstances of this award are sad, but despite them she probably would have risen one year or another, because she is such an extraordinary teacher. Never has a drama department looked so cool. She instilled in her students how using their voices is effective – and that to me is what the Wing is all about. So getting that award to be part of the Tonys is important.”
Five things you need to know about the American Theatre Wing
1. It was founded in 1917 by seven suffragettes – all women of the theatre – as the Stage Women’s War Relief, three years before women had the right to vote.
2. The Tony Awards, founded in 1947, are named after Antoinette Perry, one of the co-founders of the Wing.
3. For the last four years, the Wing has been the home of the Obie Awards, Off-Broadway’s highest honours.
4. It produces the Emmy-nominated documentary series Working in the Theatre.
5. It invests more than $2 million in grants, scholarships, and other resources to students, emerging artists and companies across the US.
The Tonys have unashamedly led the way in recognising other work that has recalibrated and changed society, says Hitchens.
“In 1953 – at the height of the ‘red scare’ – The Crucible won the Tony. In 1962, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was deemed too controversial for the Pulitzer, but won a Tony. There’s a strong connective tissue that goes all the way through to Fun Home and Hamilton and all the other work we do.”
Of course, the awards also give theatre valuable visibility.
“It is promoting the Broadway season to an international audience, but beyond how the telecast helps with the health of Broadway and celebrates excellence, it occurs to me – in these times when we are fighting for arts education – how it is the only live television broadcast dedicated to the performing arts in America. It’s a great advocacy tool for kids who may be sitting at home and thinking: ‘Maybe I want to do that’.”
Education is a cornerstone of the Wing’s work. “We invest more than $2 million a year in grants, fellowships and other resources,” she explains. These include SpringboardNYC, a college-to-career boot camp for actors, and the Theatre Intern Network, a social and professional networking organisation for theatre interns in New York City. There’s also the Andrew Lloyd Webber Initiative, which provides students at all levels with enhanced theatre education to initiate meaningful relationships with theatre in childhood and open doors for pursuing theatre as children become young adults.
“It’s an extraordinary gesture. It started with an $1.3 million investment from Lloyd Webber, which we matched with another $1 million. In the last two years we’ve reached 22,000 kids in 22 states. It’s exciting and, again, it’s all about pipeline – making sure there’s diversity in that pipeline. It’s not just for kids who already have access. A lot of arts education has been ripped out of schools, so we want to reach those who aren’t getting it.”
It’s all part of the wider mission of the Wing, founded by seven suffragettes 101 years ago, with philanthropic aims to support troops. They went on to raise more than $7 million for US soldiers and became one of the most significant active relief organisations in the world. But it was also about empowering the disenfranchised.
“To think about those women, before they had the right to vote, organising and leading an organisation, gives us a responsibility to move the dial through the art and artists leading the way,” says Hitchens.
It’s significant that the organisation was originally women-led, and is run by one now, as is the Broadway League, which is presided over by Charlotte St Martin.
Yet there are still comparatively few female artistic directors, either in the US or the UK. “Women are critical on the creative side of theatre and in telling stories – and we’re helping to introduce potential careers to young people, not just as actors,” says Hitchens.
Her own career is testament to that. “I was a musician and was coughed out of a conservatory, thinking, ‘Now what?’ I fell into management roles before I was really ready for them, but I went with it. To have more women as executive directors and artistic leaders would be wonderful.”
The American Theatre Wing
Former name: Stage Women’s War Relief
President: Heather Hitchens
Number of employees: 11 full-time staff and 8 part-time staff/consultants
Key staff: Megan Kolb (director of programs), Nicole Mitzel Gardner (director of development), Ian Weiss (director of digital strategy)
The 72nd Tony Awards will be held on June 11 at Radio City Music Hall, New York
‘La MaMa is a world view and art, the vehicle to express it’
New York’s La MaMa Club birthed stars such as Bette Middler and has a Tony to its name. Nick Awde meets artistic director Mia Yoo…
This year, the Regional Theatre Tony Award will go to a venue on Broadway’s doorstep, the La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club, a non-profit in New York’s East Village.
As its title implies, the award acknowledges the achievements of an organisation doing important regional work. Originally, New York organisations were not included. This changed in 2014, following discussion about the large number in the city that make an impact, but don’t qualify for the Tonys, which are restricted to Broadway. The first NYC recipient was Off-Broadway’s Signature Theatre.
While awards such as this aren’t the goal of an independent theatre, La MaMa’s artistic director Mia Yoo says: “The Tony is acknowledging that what happens Downtown affects Uptown and vice-versa.”
Founded in 1961 by Ellen Stewart, as a fashion boutique doubling as a theatre, La MaMa is one of the four core theatres that started the Off-Off-Broadway movement. Stewart ran the theatre true to her experimental vision until her death in 2011, after which Yoo took over as her designated successor.
It’s a vision that nurtured giants such as Julie Taymor, Harvey Fierstein and Bette Midler, and, says Yoo, it continues to be the secret to La MaMa’s success.
“The commitment in our mission is connected to the artist. We jump off that cliff with the artist. They get to explore, experiment, do something they’ve never done before and hopefully, in taking that risk, something groundbreaking can happen.”
Much of that empowerment rests on La MaMa’s non-profit attitude, which sees it juggling 60-70 productions a season, in contrast to the traditional Broadway model.
“La MaMa’s model wouldn’t work for Broadway,” agrees Yoo. “We have continued to be as lean, flexible and adaptable as possible and that’s the challenge as we continue to look into the future: how do we maintain that essence and sustain ourselves.”
So, will a Tony award change La MaMa? “It’s hard to say, we’ve never gotten a Tony before,” says Yoo. “We’re on the verge of our capital renovations project so maybe this will further increase the visibility of La MaMa and help us fundraise.”
The long-overdue renovations add to a busy period for the venue. There’s Culture Hub, an art technology studio exploring ways of using digital technologies to extend artistic content and build distance-learning content. And, last year, La MaMa’s archives received a $100,000 (£75,300) grant to digitise its videos from the 1970s.
La MaMa’s international connections also continue to thrive. Even in its boutique days, Stewart was touring and setting up satellites overseas. Current La MaMa projects include building a second contemporary performance festival of work from New Zealand and working with Croatia’s Perforation festival. In Italy, La MaMa Umbria International offers a major artist residency and annual festival programme.
“La MaMa became a world view and art became a vehicle to express it. It is about bringing many voices and creating a platform for underrepresented and non-traditional voices,” says Yoo. “And that meant we needed to go beyond the borders of our country and bring other perspectives to audiences to realise the power of cross-cultural exchange. All these tentacles [make] the huge network and community of La MaMa.”
London was previously one of those tentacles. La MaMa worked with Mike Figgis, the People Show and Wilton’s Music Hall. So, is it time for a reboot?
“I hope we could continue to bring in the different theatre companies and the incredible art that’s happening from the UK,” says Yoo, diplomatically.