Formed in 1949 by a group of New York theater critics, editors, and reporters, the original mission of the organization was to educate the community on vital issues concerning the theater by sponsoring guest panel luncheons featuring theater professionals, with the aim of prompting informative and stimulating discussions. While maintaining that mission, with panel discussions ever since its inception, Drama Desk became the first major organization to honor Outstanding Achievement Off-Broadway in 1955, with its Vernon Rice Awards, named for the late New York Post critic who had pioneered Off-Broadway coverage in the New York press. No nominations were offered, resulting in a competition for “best” in a category; instead, awards were bestowed for “outstanding” artistry. Starting with the 1974-75 season’s ceremony, nominees were selected for each category, from which a single winner was selected by Drama Desk voters. That same year Drama Desk was incorporated as a not-for-profit organization.
Currently, Drama Desk bestows the only major New York theater awards that do not make any distinction within their annual nomination categories between what appears Off- and Off-Off Broadway and that which is produced on Broadway.
All Drama Desk officers and Nominating Committee members perform their various services for the organization on a voluntary basis. Nominating Committee members generally attend 6 to 8 performances most every week, and meet twice a month to keep pace with the many eligible shows they are responsible for seeing and passing judgment on. Time and again, the organization has taken pride in announcing that the awards are then voted on “by impartial media people only,” without any vested interests in the results. Today, more than 130 New York theater critics, reporters, writers, and arts editors vote on the Awards.