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The 2014 Lilly Awards Burst Into Bloom

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On Monday, June 2, the fifth annual Lilly Awards Ceremony lit up Playwrights Horizons (416 West 42nd St.). The Lilly Awards, affectionately called "The Lillies," were founded in 2010 by Julia Jordan, Marsha Norman, and Teresa Rebeck to honor the work of women in the theater. The Lillies were named after Lillian Hellman, the pioneering American playwright who famously said "You need to write like the devil and sometimes act like one."

Why separate awards for women in the theater? Before the Lillies, women had been excluded from receiving major theater awards, so they made their own. Teresa Rebek had a spread sheet proving that before then, if you happened to meet a woman on a set, she was most likely a costume designer. If 70 percent of the ticket buyers are women, why the heck weren't women in theater garnering more awards?

Marsha Norman suggested that one reason was because men played on teams and women needed to as well, to coach each other, support each other, clap each other on the backs. "So play on a friggin' girls' team!" she proclaimed.

And they have. The amount of workshops, financing, and all around interest that these women take in each other and all women trying to find a voice has had ripples. This year, five women playwrights won Pulitzer prizes. But the struggle isn't over. In 2014, the Pulitzer Prize for theater went to Annie Baker for her play, The Flick. Runners up were Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron and Madeleine George for The Curious Case of The Watson Intelligence. But, as Michelle Willens wrote in The Atlantic, "All these works have two things in common. They didn't play on Broadway."

Despite the "resilience" of the glass ceiling in theater, Lillies take the time to reach out to youth here and around the globe. Writer, actress, playwright, Dominique Morisseau spoke of taking kids from the South Bronx to Broadway plays, noting how, in follow-up discussions, these kids saw themselves in the characters even though the plays had nothing to do with their background. Broadway musical director Mary Mitchell Campbell along with Juilliard students conceived of to transform the lives of youth through the arts. ASTEP connects underserved youth with visual and performing artists to awaken their imagination and foster critical thinking to help them break free of poverty. Mary just came back from India where she helped girls ages 9-11 find their voices and created a moving song about finding one's voice.

Winnie Holzman (book writer of the Tony Award-winning Wicked) said, with a grin, that she was "much too young too receive her Lifetime Achievement Award." And it was so moving when the cast of Raisin in the Sun honored the life of the late playwright, Lorraine Hansberry. Also, Linda Mindich presented an award of $25,000 to fund a new work by a woman playwright.

The night was full of "womanisms." Billie Allen, actor, dancer, and founding member of The Women's Project and Productions and of the League of Professional Theater Woman, among other honors, told how, when she was the understudy for the original production of Raisin in the Sun, she was eight months pregnant by the time she was needed. When she confessed, the clueless director said that they had been about to ask her to lose a little weight. Kelli O'Hara, nominee for five Tony Awards, including four for best actress in a musical for her performances in South Pacific, Pajama Game, Nice Work if you can get it, and The Bridges of Madison County, and mother of a young son, said, with a tug at the front of her dress, that she accidentally left her breastfeeding paraphernalia somewhere.

Men weren't neglected. Todd London, author and artistic director of the New Dramatist, and winner of a visionary leadership award in 2009 as "an individual who has advanced theater nationally and internationally, received a Lilly for the particular help he gave to women, along with bouquet and a rhinestone tiara which he wore for the ceremony.

After the ceremony, there was a cocktail party across the street at the West Bank Café (407 W. 42nd St.) followed by a cabaret performed by honorees and some surprise guests.

Brava to all the Lilly Award winners: Kristen Anderson Lopez, Susan Bernfield, Johanna Day, Winnie Holtzman, Joyce Ketay, Mary Mitchell Campbell, Rebecca Niomi Jones, Dominique Morisseau, Kelli O'Hara, Jen Silverman, Jeanine Tesori, and Leisl Tommy.

May the Lillies continue to bloom and bloom!

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