NEW YORK CITY: Theatre Communications Group ended a whirlwind weekend of convening at the TCG Fall Forum with an evening of celebration at the Edison Ballroom on Monday night. TCG gathered for the annual gala to honor the celebrated career of actor Brian Dennehy and the legacy of American Theatre magazine with an evening of performances and speeches with the theme of “Love Letters”—an homage to Dennehy’s performance in A.R. Gurney’s play on Broadway with Mia Farrow in 2014.
Taylor Mac kicked off the evening with an energetic curtain speech, saluting founding American Theatre editor Jim O’Quinn, welcoming new editor-in-chief Rob Weinert-Kendt to the helm, and introducing TCG executive director Teresa Eyring.
“While we’re grateful for everything that we’ve accomplished together over the past year, what really fires us up is what’s possible in 2016—how can we move forward our vision of a better world for theatre, and a better world because of theatre?” said Eyring.
Tony winner Jessie Mueller performed “She Used to Be Mine” from Sara Bareilles’s musical Waitress, which is slated for Broadway this spring after a successful run at American Repertory Theater.
To celebrate American Theatre, which has been serving nonprofit theatres across the nation since 1984, collaborators feted O’Quinn and the continuing legacy of the magazine. Emily Mann took the stage first. The artistic director of the McCarter Theatre Center has had a long relationship with the magazine; her 1985 play Execution of Justice was the first playscript published in AT, and she has since graced two covers. In her speech, she credited American Theatre for propelling her career, and said that the magazine undoubtedly had affected every person in the ballroom.
Anne Bogart, one of the artistic directors of the SITI Company, thanked TCG and Peter Zeisler—the late executive director of TCG—for encouraging her to found the company with Tadashi Suzuki. She recalled the newsletter form that American Theatre began as, and commended the work over the years that the magazine has done to reflect and document the American theatre movement.
TCG publisher Terry Nemeth and Weinert-Kendt presented O’Quinn with a poster picturing every issue of the magazine that he presided over—all 323 of them. “It makes me feel good about the amazing collaborators who have come and gone in the AT masthead, and especially about the multitude of artists whose work we have attempted to provoke and whose careers we have brought into the public eye,” O’Quinn said.
The theme of the evening was how both TCG and American Theatre have inspired performers and continue to give artists the resources and exposure to fulfill their goals.
“You feel like you’re plucked from a place where you are in the trenches, and there is an organization that recognizes your talent, your potential, and your ability and says, ‘You come here, and let’s develop you,’” said Diane Rodriguez, president of the TCG board of directors and the associate artistic director of Center Theatre Group.
Rodriguez and Jon Moscone, secretary of the TCG board, presented the Text to Pledge campaign, during which guests could send a donation and a message that appeared on a screen in real time. The love letters to Dennehy and American Theatre were displayed throughout dinner, and brought laughter to the crowd with messages such as “Brian Dennehy is hot,” followed by Dennehy’s donation and retort: “I feel lukewarm.” The campaign was a success, raising $30,000 over the course of the night.
Next, actors who have worked with Dennehy read their own encomiums to the honoree. TCG board member John Douglas Thompson said that the theatre gods were on his side when he began rehearsals with Dennehy for the Goodman’s production of The Iceman Cometh. “He could draw all these comparisons and connections in history and distill it down to moments in the play, which is quite amazing,” said Thompson. “I felt like I was with a giant. He is a woolly mammoth—they don’t walk anymore, and he is the last one.”
Nathan Lane, who also appeared in The Iceman Cometh, called it the theatrical highlight of his life. “As Brian well knows, O’Neill and Miller and all the other great writers are a test—a test of who you are as an actor and as a human being—the ultimate test,” said Lane. “And If you are a real actor, you want to be tested time and time again by these great artists. That is a test Brian Dennehy has passed and surpassed countless times, proving his own greatness. He has been an inspiration to me and many others, and of course a great and trusted friend. No one deserves this honor more.”
Robert Falls, longtime collaborator with Dennehy and director of the Iceman production, recalled his inaugural season as the artistic director of the Goodman, which began with a production of Brecht’s Galileo starring Dennehy. “I needed an actor of incredible physical energy, intellectual vigor, sensuality, with an appetite, a presence, and a command of the stage of a king,” Falls said. “That is the performance Brian gave in our first collaboration at the Goodman Theatre.”
Dennehy took the stage to share some love letters of his own. “At my age, it is mostly looking back—and looking back is mostly about people,” said Dennehy. His collaboration with the Goodman began with Falls saying, “We are going to work together, and we are only going to do things that we are not sure we can do.” His closing remarks referred to the breadth of his stage career: “From the Skowhegan Playhouse in Maine to the Broadhurst on 45th Street, it’s been great fun,” Dennehy said. “Even when it was bad, it was good, because it was the theatre.”
Mimi Lien, set designer and 2015 McArthur Genius Grant recipient, thanked TCG for the encouragement and support she received in 2007 as a participant in the career development program for directors and designers. “It was a really incredible program and it landed at the perfect time in my early career,” she said. She added that the 2009 TCG Conference in Baltimore inspired Lien to cofound JACK, a performance venue in Brooklyn.
Lien then introduced the final act of the evening: a number from Futurity, a new musical presented in collaboration by Ars Nova and Soho Rep, now at the Connelly Theatre through Nov. 22.
It was a night to remember, celebrated by a field of impassioned people with the same goal in mind: a fulfilling life in the theatre. In that, they honored the ideal model.
“I’ve had a life in the theatre, and I can’t imagine it any other way,” said Dennehy.