Founded during the Broadway season of 1949-50 as the Outer Circle, this group of dedicated drama critics banded together under the leadership of John Gassner (1903-1967), widely known and respected as a theater reviewer, essayist, dramaturg, and professor of theater. The impetus for the creation of what later became the Outer Critics Circle was the recognition by Gassner and other critic-colleagues writing for academic and special-interest journals that they had no forum where they could meet to discuss the theater in general, and current New York seasons in particular.
OCC’s creation was also a reaction to the already prestigious New York Drama Critics Circle. Its invitational membership was composed of first-string critics from Manhattan’s major newspapers, the national news-magazines, and important publications such as The Nation, The New Republic, Harper’s, The Saturday Review of Literature, and The Atlantic Monthly. There was no possibility that the reviewer/critics of less-well-known weeklies, monthlies, and quarterlies could join that charmed inner circle.
Although the Drama Critics Circle annually chose a Best Play (only later did they add an annual Best Musical award), Gassner and his fellow founders believed other aspects of production should also be saluted with annual awards. Shortly after the founding of OCC, the Off-Broadway movement began to develop, but it was of only marginal interest to the mainstream critics. The OCC’s founders recognized the importance of including Off-Broadway with Broadway at awards time.
The early Outer Circle soon discovered that reviewers for smaller New York newspapers and magazines, as well as reviewers who wrote for publications in Connecticut, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, wanted to be included. Not only did this offer them the opportunity to discuss their own work and publisher problems, but also to talk about the current season with fellow critics.
Frequent forums made it possible for the out-of-towners to participate in discussions with major talents actively working in the Broadway and off-Broadway Theater. At that time, few Broadway stars, directors, or playwrights would have given a New Jersey-based weekly reviewer an one-on-one interview.
Then, as now, theater critics and reviewers who wanted to join OCC had to apply with samples of their theater reviews or essays. If their work met the standards of the OCC, they were invited to join. In addition to the benefits noted previously, OCC membership helped validate their requests for press tickets. This became especially important as the prestige of the annual Outer Critics Circle Awards increased.
Early award ceremonies were informally conducted, often with folding chairs set up in a quiet corner of a hotel lobby or in a church social hall. Even then, the Outer Critics Circle Award was for many, a prized citation to be framed for their apartments.
Since that time, the Outer Critics Circle Awards have grown in scope and importance, notably because the OCC has traditionally been the first to announce its nominees and winners. In the early 1960s, the awards and forums of the OCC were supervised by Broadway veteran Charles K. Freeman and Joseph Kay, Manhattan reporter/critic for the Kansas City Star. Kay also covered the United Nations, a form of theater itself.
This team was succeeded by Marjorie Gunner, who guided the group for 25 years before retiring in 2004. Currently, Simon Saltzman, a New Jersey-based theater critic, serves as President.