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How The Lilly Awards Help Make Women’s Stories Matter

How The Lilly Awards Help Make Women's Stories Matter

The recipients of this year’s Lilly Awards gathered on
the stage of Off-Broadway’s Playwrights Horizons Monday afternoon and remained there
as all the awards were presented, chatting, laughing, crying at
speeches and occasionally supporting each other with hugs. 

Love and support may not be characteristic of many awards shows, but The Lilly Awards, which recognize women’s contributions to theater, are different. The recipients either know that they are receiving an award in advance or are unaware that they are one of the “secret winners” who had no idea they were even considered. Sometimes the awards are presented with
gravitas,  sometimes with a song and dance. This awards show is a celebration,
not a contest, and by honoring the work of women in the American theater, they
encourage more women to become involved and to continue honing their craft.

The non-competitive aspect perfectly expresses what The
Lilly Awards want to accomplish. “It’s been helpful just to celebrate all the
good stuff, all the people who don’t get celebrated enough,” said playwright
Julia Jordan, founder of The Lilly Awards and vice president of the board. “Shaming
is very powerful and has worked wonders in the short term, raising the
percentage of female-written productions, but, ultimately, it is the work
itself that is going to win the day.”

The winners this year comprised an eclectic group of
theater women, including two-time Tony winner and 2015 Tony nominee
Chita Rivera and Broadway producer Daryl Roth. Joining them were composer
Diedre Murray, playwright Lisa D’Amour, playwright Boo Killebrew,
director/choreographer/producer/performance artist Shakina Nayfack, actor
Quincy Tyler Bernstine, playwright and actor Heidi Schreck, director and choreographer
Graciela Daniele and actor Didi O’Connell. The honor of Miss Lilly, which goes
to a man who has worked to achieve gender parity in theater, went to New York
Theatre Workshop artistic director Jim Nicola. NYTW associate artistic director
Linda Chapman was crowned the first ever Mizz Lilly. 

The Lilly Awards began in 2010 when founders Jordan,
playwright and bookwriter Marsha Norman, and playwright Theresa Rebeck realized
that, of all the New York City productions in which women had a significant
role, not one of those women was nominated in any of the prominent
end-of-year awards. They were particularly upset about the absence of Melissa
James Gibson’s play “This,” which opened at Playwrights Horizons to a rave
review in the New York Times but received no award nominations. From this
anger, The Lilly Awards were born.

“We knew women who had worked so diligently with such
thrill and verve. It was unthinkable that they hadn’t been honored again and
again and again,” said Norman, a Pulitzer and Tony winner and president of The
Lilly Awards board of directors. “And yet most of them had never won a thing
before getting a Lilly.” Daniele, for example, has never won a Tony Award
despite having been nominated ten times. 

Whether winning a Lilly Award makes a difference in an
artist’s career is difficult to determine. But the nominators, roughly 200
previous winners and theater professionals, have a good track record in
honoring not just legends but emerging artists on their way up the ladder. The
first year of The Lilly Awards, winner Annie Baker had recently finished a
successful off-Broadway run of her play “Circle Mirror Transformation.” She
then won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for her play “The Flick.” Directing awards that year included Pam MacKinnon and Leigh Silverman, both of whom directed multiple
Broadway productions in the five years after winning. Another first-year
winner, the costume designer Jane Greenwood, had been nominated for a Tony
Award 17 times with no wins. In 2014, the Tony Awards finally honored her with a
lifetime achievement award. 

This year, many of the emerging winners hope the award
makes an impact on their careers. Nayfack, a transgender woman who in the last year
founded the theater company The Musical Theatre Factory and transitioned, would
love for the award to lead to more visibility for her work and her company. “I
have a number of projects in the works as a writer, director and performer,”
she said. “I hope that this will give me some credibility in the eyes of the
people who are evaluating those things. The Musical Theatre Factory is
celebrating its one-year anniversary, and its future is still unknown in terms
of sustainability. I hope this award will help us find the support we need.”

Nayfack added that her award is also important for
transgender women in theater. “My hope is that trans stories and
characters and transgender writers and performers will all benefit from me
winning this award because it’s making headway for us to be telling our own
stories, playing our own characters and using our own voices,” she said. The Lilly Awards are sending a huge message
that feminism needs to include the transgender experience.

Playwright Boo Killebrew, who won the Leah Ryan Prize for
Emerging Women Playwrights for her play “Miller, Mississippi,” said in her
acceptance speech that this award inspires her not to quit. “The fact that the
play is speaking to people, that it is accessible to people, that people are
able to connect with it, well, that’s huge,” she said after the ceremony. “In
my writing, I have never taken a risk like this, and now I know that there is no
other way to go.”

Theater artists may not be performing and writing to win
awards, but few will dispute an award’s effect. “Awards do matter,” said
Jordan. “To be on a list in New York City changes the life of a play. It leads
to a career.”

For many of the winners, from those who have enjoyed long
careers to those just starting out, the awards ultimately confirm support from their
community. “I always say, ‘you don’t have to wait for anyone’s permission to
make theatre,’ and it’s true,” said Nayfack. “You don’t need permission, but
support, that’s different. Support really helps.”

One can also credit the awards with helping to improve the overall gender-parity statistics in theater. According to the 2009 study that
Jordan initiated, works by women made up only 17.8% of the total number of new
plays produced in the United States in non-profit subscription houses of 99
seats or more. Norman now puts that percentage at 22%. This increase may be
progress, but the figure is a long way from equality. “The idea that stories of women told by women
are basically untold in the American theater is unacceptable,” said
Norman. “When women’s stories
are not told, that means women’s lives do not matter.”

With a little song and a little dance, The Lilly Awards help make women’s lives

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