After a Broadway season in which one play out of 25 was written by a woman (Emma Rice, adapting Noel Coward’s “Brief Encounter”), accomplished females in theater convened on a New York stage last night for honors of their own devising, the second annual “Lilly Awards.”
The festive ceremony at Playwrights Horizons called attention to prominent women in the theater and to discrimination that the statistics suggest still predominates.
“There was a time when I started when there were no women,” director Susan Stroman, 56, said upon accepting her Lilly, a medallion that’s worn around the neck. “Now it’s feeling different.”
Other recipients included playwright Lynn Nottage (“By the Way, Meet Vera Stark”), lyricist Lynn Ahrens (“Ragtime”) and actress Elizabeth Marvel (“Other Desert Cities.”)
“This is the most joyful event of the year,” said Nottage, who has won a Pulitzer Prize (for “Ruined”) and a MacArthur ”genius” grant but not a Tony Award, because she hasn’t had a play on Broadway.
The awards were named for Lillian Hellman, the playwright and memoirist who died in 1984 at 79. Playwrights Theresa Rebeck, Julia Jordan and Marsha Norman created them and were among those handing them out. Rebeck said that recipients were selected by a secret committee that includes men.
Men were invited to present, including Eric Bogosian, who gave a Lilly to his wife, director Jo Bonney; and director Michael Mayer, who awarded one to costume and set designer Susan Hilferty, with whom he collaborated on the musical “Spring Awakening.”
“It’s so easy to get the guys to show up,” Rebeck said at the after-party at the West Bank Cafe. “This isn’t girls against the guys.”
But “calcification around gender issues,” Rebeck added, has hindered women playwrights and is one reason why just a third of the plays off-Broadway this season were by women.
She noted that artistic directors, many of them men, often stay in their jobs for decades, helping to perpetuate the status quo.
“New York is not like London,” she said. “The big theaters there change artistic directors every eight or ten years.”
Lynne Meadow, artistic director of the Manhattan Theatre Club since 1972, received a lifetime achievement award, as did playwright Ntozake Shange (“for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf”).
“There is a long way to go,” Meadow said during the ceremony, “before women are as visible as they are here onstage.”
MTC has presented “Ruined” and multiple plays by John Patrick Shanley, David Lindsay-Abaire and Terrence McNally. Meadow said at least two of the six plays on her theater’s roster next season are by women.
The lone male winner was Tim Sanford, artistic director of Playwrights Horizons, which this season presented acclaimed plays by Bathsheba Doran and Amy Herzog, both of whom also got Lillies.
“Our mission is to be inclusive of all voices,” Sanford said in an interview after he was crowned with a tiara.
Julie Crosby, artistic director of the Women’s Project, a producing group, said the Lillies draw valuable attention to the challenges of women in theater, particularly writers.
“People want to pick the playwright who they think will sell,” she said. “Women aren’t as well-known, so the perception is that they won’t sell as many tickets. We need to break that cycle.”