Friday, June 10, 2011

2011 Tony Awards: Isabelle Stevenson, Special Tony and Excellence in Theatre Honorees

Other non-competitive Tony Awards bestowed this year include a Special Tony for The Handspring Puppet Company's work on War Horse, three honorees for the Tony Honors for Excellence in Theatre (William Berloni, The Drama Book Shop, and Sharon Jensen and Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts), and the Isabelle Stevenson Award, given this year to Eve Ensler.

The Isabelle Stevenson Award for Humanitarianism: Eve Ensler

Just the third recipient of this honor, Eve Ensler seems a natural choice, given all she has accomplished through theatre all of the world.  The award, named for the late Isabelle Stevenson, longtime chair of the American Theatre Wing, is presented to an individual in the industry who sets new standards in volunteerism and a substantial contribution to worth causes whether they be related to theatre or not.  (The award may be given annually, but not necessarily each year, and is selected by the Tony Committee.).  Ms. Ensler's work on behalf of ending the violence against women through her V-Day Campaign has reached millions of people worldwide and has collected over $80M in funding for projects that promote education and provide shelter and relief for women who are victims of all types of abuse, be it individual or systemic rape or other tortures.

V-Day came about as a result of a special Valentine's Day performance of Ensler's The Vagina Monologues well into its second year off-Broadway.  The show itself featured three actresses of various generations performing these monologues about their bodies, sexuality and how it all changed their lives (among other things).  The cast list by the time it closed read like a who's who in theater, television and film.  But that special benefit performance featured the talents of none other than Academy Award winners Whoopi Goldberg, Glenn Close and Susan Sarandon among others.  Since then the play has had thousands of free performances on that date on every continent except Antarctica. 

Awareness is at all time high, and yet there is so much more to be done.  And so Ms. Ensler's next play, Emotional Creatures, featuring monologues by and given by girls worldwide, looks to be taking the same path.

Special Tony Award: The Handspring Puppet Company

It really should come as no surprise to anyone who has seen War Horse that the people behind the creation of Joey, Topthorn, several other horses, two crows and goose, The Handspring Puppet Company are receiving a Special Tony in recognition of their remarkable work.  Eight shows a week, these creatures come to astonishing life (and heart-wrenching death in some cases) with the aid of teams of puppeteers who make them twitch, snort, whinny, bat their eyes and move their ears.  So realistic are these structures made of cane, metal and leather, that it is only moments into the performance before you forget the people are even there.

According an article about the group at, the South African founders, Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler, are most proud of this award because they feel it elevates the art of puppetry, often looked down upon by actors.  I think their work elevates puppetry to a new standard.  A win-win if you ask me.

Tony Honors: William Berloni

You probably don't know William Berloni by name, but you probably know his work if you've seen any professional production of Annie or marveled at the adorable mutts in Legally Blonde.  Berloni's first job in the theatre was to find and train a "Sandy" for the very first production of Annie at the Goodspeed Opera House.  That first job turned into a career, including finding and training a rat for The Woman in White, and a real baby lamb for the Bernadette Peters revival of Gypsy.  And there appears to be no end in sight: up next, the 2012 revival of, you guessed it, Annie.

Tony Honors: The Drama Book Store

As even the largest bookstore chains are going out of business, it is amazing and heartening to find an individual bookstore that is thriving in this age of online shopping.  And that it is a store that specializes in theatre books tickles me to the core.  The Drama Book Store started as a card table of scripts sold at various theatre lobbies on Broadway.  Then came the Times Square Store, which opened in the 1950's and stayed there until early this century (At one time you could see the shop windows three or four stories up.  Those windows are now blocked by that giant billboard that wraps around the building on the corner opposite the Palace Theatre).  These days, the shop's home is just east of the Port Authority Bus Terminal. Still run by Rozanne Seelen and her nephew, Allen Hubby, the store thrives because of the personal touch.  Imagine having tomorrow's big playwright helping you find just the right monologue for an audition - Douglas Carter Beane was just one playwright/employee.  Or how about hobnobbing with theatre actors who meet there to chat and browse the shelves like Jessica Tandy used to?

Yes, there is a lot to be said for the human touch, especially when it comes to theatre!  For a very interesting interview with the owners of the store, go to

Tony Honors: Sharon Jensen and Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts

I think that in a community as inclusive as the theatre community is, you'd be hard pressed to find anyone who doesn't think Sharon Jensen and her work with Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts is worthy of such recognition.  Ms. Jensen is the Executive Director of the Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts and has been for 22 of its 25 years in existence.  Over the last quarter century, the organization has represented actors of color and those with disabilities.  Formerly known as The Non-Traditional Casting Project, the group came about after an Actor's Equity study that showed that 90% of all actors hired were Caucasian, and if you took out racially specific works, that percentage was higher. 

These days, their focus has been getting more Asian Pacific Americans actors opportunities, spurred on by the 1989 Jonathan Pryce/Miss Saigon controversy.  And, more and more, they are working with actors with disabilities that confine them to wheelchairs, use canes, or who are blind or have other disabilities.

There are articles and interviews with all of the Special Tony Honorees at  Congratulations to all!

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