TheaterWorks Hartford wins Obie Award for ‘Russian Troll Farm’

TheaterWorks Hartford’s politically charged 2020 virtual theater production “Russian Troll Farm” has won an Obie Award, one of the highest American theater honors.

The dark comedy by Sarah Gancher was conceived as a virtual project timed to be seen prior to the Presidential election of 2020. It dramatizes the lives of office workers charged with writing and disseminating misinformation that could affect the election.

The show was co-directed by Elizabeth Williamson, who had then recently left her position as associate artistic director of Hartford Stage, and digital theater artist Jared Mezzocchi, who returned to TheaterWorks in 2022 with his solo virtual show “Someone Else’s House.”

The award will be presented Monday in a ceremony at the music club Terminal 5 in New York City. It comes just as “Russian Troll Farm” is achieving new life in a different format. Williamson is now the artistic director of the Geva Theatre in Rochester, New York, and is staging a live version of “Russian Troll Farm” from Feb. 28 through March 26. This new version will be directed by Darko Tresnjak, who was Hartford Stage’s artistic director from 2011 to 2019.

The original show was named one of the top 10 theater events of 2020 by the New York Times.

The Courant wrote in its “Magical Moments of Connecticut theater in 2020″ that “‘Russian Troll Farm” showed how online theater can rise to the occasion. ... The show deliberately shifted styles and paces to make its point that the Russian interference was some sort of epic theater. But the production also knew how to build in power gradually, then hit you with a dizzying array of images and sounds for a psychological tornado of an ending.”

“Russian Troll Farm” was originally broadcast from Oct. 20 through Nov. 2, 2020, while theater buildings were still closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The first five performances were performed live on camera, then a pre-recorded version was shown for the rest of the run.

A Connecticut theater production would not ordinarily be eligible for the Obies, which honor works presented Off-Broadway in New York City. But “Russian Troll Farm” was a co-production of three theaters, one of which is New York-based. TheaterWorks Hartford worked on the show with TheatreSquared in Fayetteville, Arkansas and the New York City-based theater company Civilians.

Also unusual: a show that happened in 2020 won an Obie in 2023. Due to COVID, the Obies have not been held live in several years. The organization decided to use this year’s ceremony to acknowledge notable works staged from 2020 through 2022. Over 400 productions were considered. The winners were announced in advance so that Monday’s ceremony could be a celebration without the anxiety of surprise announcements.

The widened requirements for eligibility are in keeping with the Obie Awards’ reputation as an informal, open-minded event that understands that to properly celebrate the ever-changing world of progressive small theater it needs to be flexible. The awards are not competitive, in the sense that nominees are not announced or placed in contention against each other. Awards are given for single projects but also for “sustained achievement” if an actor or director or designer has done exceptional work in more than one production.

There is always a long list of Special Citations, many of which fall outside the usual categories found at awards ceremonies. Among this year’s special citations are one for Richard Nelson, a former chair of the graduate playwriting program at Yale, for “the completion and producing of ‘The Rhinebeck Panorama,’” his series of real-time, in-the-moment conversations of a contemporary American family. Another is for Laurie Woolery and Shaina Taub, the director and songwriter of the recent New York Public Theater production of “As You Like It.” Woolery directed “Dream House” at the Long Wharf Theatre last year and is back in New Haven now directing “Mojada: A Medea in Los Angeles” for the Yale Repertory Theatre, where it runs March 10 through April 1.

It is in the Special Citations category that “Russian Troll Farm” is honored with one of two Obies given this year for “Digital+Virtual+Hybrid Production.”

One of the many other 2023 Obie winners with Connecticut connections is the Sol Project, an initiative promoting the works of Latinx playwrights, founded by current Long Wharf Theatre artistic director Jacob Padron. Playwright Martyna Majok, who has an MFA in playwriting from Yale, is receiving an Obie for her play “Sanctuary City.” There are innumerable connections between the Off-Broadway scene and Connecticut’s regional theaters, which often employ the same talent and share in the development of new projects.

The Obies were founded in 1956 by the Village Voice newspaper, which helped spur the growth of the Off-Broadway theater movement through its reviews and support. In 2015, when the Voice was having trouble surviving as a newspaper (it ceased publication as a weekly paper in 2017 and was relaunched in 2021), the American Theatre Wing, which runs the Tony Awards for Broadway-based theater productions, joined the Voice in organizing and presenting the Obies.

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