Founded in the Broadway season of 1949-50, as the Outer Circle, this group of dedicated drama-critics banded together under the leadership of John Gassner, widely known and respected as a theatre-reviewer, essayist, dramaturg, and professor of theatre. The impetus for creation of what later became the Outer Critics Circle was the recognition by Gassner(1903- 1967) and other critic-colleagues-writing for academic and special-interest journals-that they had no forum where they could meet to discuss the theatre 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 the charmed inner-circle.
Although the Drama Critics Circle annually chose a Best Play-only later including an annual Best Musical award-John Gassner and his fellow-founders believed other aspects of Broadway theatre- 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 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 Theatre. At that time, few Broadway stars, directors, or playwrights would have given a New Jersey-based weekly-reviewer a personal one-on-one interview.
Then as now, theatre-critics and reviewers who wanted to join OCC had to apply, with samples of their theatre-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 awards-ceremonies were informally conducted, often with some folding-chairs set up in a quiet corner of a hotel-lobby. Or in a church social-hall. Nonetheless, the OCC Award was for many a prized Citation to be framed for their apartments.
The most impressive of the earlier awards-ceremonies was highlighted by the presence of Leslie Uggams, winner for Halleujah, Baby! Not only had she bought a beautiful new gown especially for the event, but she had also brought along Betty Comden and Adolph Green to share in her honor.
Since that time, the OCC Awards have grown in scope and importance, notably because the OCC has traditionally been the first to announce its awards-nominees and winners, before the Drama Desk and the Tony Awards committee. In the early 1960s, the awards and forums of the OCC were supervised by Broadway veteran Charles Friedman and Joseph Kay, Manhattan reporter/critic for the Kansas City Star. Joe Kay also covered the United Nations, a form of theatre itself.This "Management-team" was succeeded by OCC President Marjorie Gunner, who guided the group for 25 years before retiring in 2004. Currently, Simon Saltzman- a New Jersey-based theatre-critic-is the President.