The first I heard of the Lilly Awards was when I was lucky enough to be invited to the fourth annual ceremony on June 3rd, 2013, at Playwrights Horizons presented by The Committee for Recognizing Women in Theater. And it's no wonder I'd never heard of it since women have had to fight so hard for recognition in theater. The Lilly awards were named for Lillian Hellman who wrote, "You need to write like the devil and act like one when necessary." But Hellman dreaded being called "a woman playwright" while Marsha Norman, Teresa Rebeck, and the others celebrate their woman artist role. And when you hear their achievements, it's no wonder!
Listening to the award winners give their acceptance speeches, I understood just how much women in theater advocate for each other. When actress, writer, and teacher Susan Smith Blackburn died of cancer, Mimi Kilgore, her sister, created the prestigious Blackburn Award to support women in theater. Five of these women have gone on to win Pulitzers. Veteran New York actress, two-time Tony award-winning Lois Smith, whose career has spanned five decades and is still going strong in theater, television, and film, won a lifetime achievement award as well. Other honorees were Jessica Hecht, Jill Du Boff, Paula Vogel, Julie Crosby, Laura Marks, Tanya Barfield, and Lear deBessonet. Jihae Park was honored for winning the Leah Ryan Prize for her play Hannah and the Dread Gazebo. Jihae said, "I wanted to make something beautiful out of sorrow." And really, isn't that what the Lillies do? Instead of stoking the resentment of being overlooked in the male dominated world of theater, they created their own place to shine.
The committee didn't just stay within their own art form to acknowledge women's hard-won achievements. Eighty-one-year-old Denise Scott Brown, an American architect, planner, writer, and educator, was presented with a Lilly Award. There's a worldwide effort to acknowledge Denise for the Pritzeker Prize in architecture that had been only awarded to her husband, Scott Brown, never mind that they were creative partners. Denise told us that her mother had been an architect, so she had thought of it as a woman's profession. She had been shocked when she began architectural school and saw all those men in her class. What are all these men doing here? she wondered. Rather than acknowledging her for her creativity, people accused her of "marrying the boss" so she could get ahead. They always thought rather than collaborating with her husband, she was just typing his work. At one point, their typist was so enraged that she wrote at the bottom of one of their papers, "I typed this," and signed her name. But Denise is getting her due now as the other Lillies are.
After the awards, at the reception across the street at The West Bank Café, I saw several of the younger winners sitting at a round table together, toasting each other. The happiness on their faces from their own achievements and the achievements of their colleagues was tangible. I could feel it like champagne fizz. When I tried to snap a picture, they looked as if they were made of brilliant light. And they are.