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Theater Pros Practice Freaking Out at the Drama Desk Awards

The annual Drama Desk Awards reward not just Broadway productions, but also Off and Off-Off Broadway shows. Inclusive as that may seem, the ceremony (held this year on Sunday night at Fiorello LaGuardia High School) also has an added, low-profile benefit for just the Broadway actors: It allows them a chance to practice working through their jittery awards-show nerves and bumbling speeches before having to go through it all again on live national television at the Tonys. (This year, the Tonys go down June 13 at Radio City Music Hall.)


“There is no logic to this sort of thing, that it should be so nerve-racking and nauseating,” said Liev Schreiber backstage after a slightly fumbled acceptance speech for Outstanding Actor in a Play for A View From the Bridge. “There is no logic to professionals who make their living eight nights a week performing in front of live audiences, crawling in puddles of mud when they do these awards ceremonies, which is what happened to me this evening.” In good humor, he looked for answers. “Part of it was because I completely was counting on the fact that Alfred Molina would win,” he explained. “And the other part is that I thought it was bad luck to write speeches. I’m going to reevaluate that philosophy.”


Tom Kitt, nominated for orchestrations for American Idiot and Everyday Rapture, said he’d brought his wife along to keep him calm. “Just looking at each other and talking to each other makes us feel relaxed,” he said. Composer John Kander, who won for Outstanding Lyrics for The Scottsboro Boys, said he was a hopeless case at such ceremonies. “I’m not very good in crowds,” he said. “I turn to stone.” David Bryan, the Bon Jovi keyboardist and co-writer of Memphis, which won four awards, relied on necromancy to cool his heels. “We have to sacrifice a chicken, you know, and kill a frog,” he said of his pre-awards-show rituals. Also helpful: a long, soothing walk from the nosebleeds. “I guess we forgot to send an e-mail or something,” he said, “so I had the cheap seats; we’re all the way up in the back.”


Self-induced oblivion was the preferred nerve-calming technique for Chad Kimball, nominated for Outstanding Actor in a Musical for Memphis. “I just came from a matinee, and I actually kind of forgot [I had to be here],” he said. (The award would go to La Cage Aux Folles' Douglas Hodge.) And Bobby Blume, who produced the awards show, took his advice from a movie about a Broadway master. “I remember Bob Fosse in All That Jazz,” he said. “He got ready and looked in the mirror; he’d take a deep breath and go, ‘Showtime!’” Blume gave dainty spirit fingers and smelled pleasantly of talcum powder.


Viola Davis, who won for Outstanding Featured Actress in a Play for Fences, said that win or lose, the most important ritual of the night is trying to show the world that you didn’t expect the award and that you don’t need it, even if you did get it. “I have a ritual of really telling myself that this is not what it’s about ” she said. “You have to project an image of yourself [showing that if you left] without the award, you’d be thinking, ‘I’ll be okay. I’ll be all right.’” Jan Maxwell, who won for Outstanding Actress in a Play for The Royal Family, was practicing the post-award ritual of beating herself up for a bad speech. “[Royal Family director] Doug Hughes was one of the most wonderful directors I’ve ever worked with, and I forgot to mention him, and I’m gonna kill myself!” she said after her win. A Little Night Music's Catherine Zeta-Jones, who tied with Memphis’s Montego Glover for Outstanding Actress in a Musical, said she was going to play the domestic card that night: “I’m actually going to go and have a hot bath tonight. And then straight to bed.” Schreiber, however, planned on celebrating in time-honored theater tradition. “You know, before I had two children, [my celebration ritual] was getting very, very drunk,” he said. “It’s probably still getting very, very drunk.”


Photo: Neilson Barnard/Getty Images