When last year’s Tony award nominations were announced, playwright Theresa Rebeck sent an email to some of her theater comrades pointing out the obvious: no female writers had made the list, despite the myriad “important plays by women” conceived that year. She refused to stand by and see talent shunned from the spotlight. “Anybody got any ideas about how to make some noise about this?”
Award-winning playwrights Julia Jordan and Marsha Norman joined Rebeck to establish a noisemaking “Committee for the Recognition of Outstanding Women in Theatre.” Their modus operandi: To hell with the Tonys for overlooking brilliant female writers and directors—why not honor these women with their own awards ceremony? A host of prominent male and female voices in the theatre community jumped on the Committee bandwagon to create the Lilly Awards in celebration of women’s invaluable contributions to the stage.
Named after renowned 20th century playwright Lillian Helman, the second annual Lilly Awards were held on Monday night at the Playwrights Horizons theatre school in Times Square. Not surprisingly, the fete was just as entertaining and animated as any of the nominees’ regular fare. Award presenters enlivened their speeches with irreverent jokes and ardent praise for the Lilly nominees, while recipients displayed heartfelt gratitude for being honored amongst a community of such talented women. A delightful balance of sentiment and sass hit all the right notes with the audience.
In the ceremonial invocation, actress Debra Monk (Chicago, Curtains) applauded Lilly nominees for their courageous artistic endeavors and reminded the audience that women should “never be afraid” of taking risks, theatrically or otherwise. She went on to introduce Susan Stroman, the Tony-nominated director of this year’s Scottsboro Brothers musical, hailing her as a woman with limitless talent. “The only thing she can’t do is cook,” Monk quipped before calling on culinary goddess Ina Garten, Stroman’s “dear friend” whose domestic know-how more than makes up for Stroman’s deficiencies in the area, to present the five-time Fred Astaire winner with the 2011 Lilly Award for Direction.
Ina Garten was not the only attendee to be deemed a “goddess” at the Lillies; the term was used several times during the ceremony to describe nominees. In a different context, it could be taken for stereotypical Girl Power jargon. But on the stage, it’s a compliment of utmost sincerity. Goddesses invariably steal the show with their sublime theatrics. Each Lilly award winner paid tribute to the influential goddesses in her life, thanking the powerful female role models, mentors, grandmothers and teachers who helped shape her career.
All of the male presenters professed their great esteem for the women on stage, peppering their praises with off-the-cuff humor. Actor Hamish Linklater, who stars alongside Julia Louis-Dreyfus in CBS’ The New Adventures of Old Christine, took hilarious hyperbolic liberties while introducing his mother Kristin Linklater, a celebrated vocal coach and founding member of Shakespeare and Company who was honored with the 2011 Lilly Award for Hearing Her Own Voice. Hamish rattled off his mother’s long, convoluted list of achievements (including performing “22 Shakespearean sonnets to the music of a contemporary Korean composer in Hamburg”) in a commanding, baritone voice, highlighting every accomplishment with dramatic inflections (“She’s played Lear! She’s coached Baryshnikov!”) “That’s one of my contributions to theater,” said Linklater, rolling her eyes at her son’s comic rant.
Director Doug Hughes presented the evening’s first Lilly Lifetime Achievement Award to the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Artistic Director Lynne Meadow, who, he remarked, “has received every award except the Stanley Cup”. The second Lifetime Achievement Award and last Lilly of the night went to renowned playwright Ntozake Shange. Best known for her Obie Award-winning, 1977 play For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf, Shange has also received awards for her numerous novels and poetry volumes (she was the World Heavyweight Poetry Champion from 1991-1995). Shange humbly accepted her award before the audience’s thunderous standing ovation.
Though The Lillies initially came into being through Theresa Rebeck’s angry email, Monday night’s awards were lighthearted and celebratory. Much like the event’s namesake, Lillian Hellman, the women honored were sparkplugs who are fighting to turn the tides of gender disparity in theater. “I never met Lillian Hellman but I do understand that she used to drag a canister of oxygen to drama school council meetings and then light up a cigarette,” said award-winner Lynn Ahrens. “Everybody would move away from her because they thought she would blow up, and I think it’s really good to be a woman who knows how to explode.”
Lizzie Crocker is an editorial assistant at The Daily Beast. She has written for NYLON, NYLON Guys, and thehandbook.co.uk, a London-based website.