``Commercial success is not what the Tonys are all about,'' says Isabelle Stevenson from behind her desk at the West 57th Street headquarters of the American Theatre Wing (ATW). Mrs. Stevenson is the president of the ATW, which last night presented its 41st annual Antoinette Perry (Tony) Awards at the Mark Hellinger Theatre here in conjunction with the League of American Theatres and Producers. ``People sometimes make the mistake of thinking that the Tony Awards are money oriented. They are not given for the longest run or the largest box office grosses or the best reviews. Tonys simply recognize distinguished achievement in the theater,'' she says firmly.
Stevenson, a patrician-looking woman who could easily be cast in the role of a Park Avenue grand dame, came to her position as Wing head after performing in the theater as both actress and dancer. She has served in her present capacity for 22 years, succeeding Helen Menken, who succeeded Helen Hayes.
Now she is known as a tireless worker who makes certain that ATW, a service organization for the theater community, does not turn into an anachronism in a world of Actors' Studio and television.
Although Stevenson considers the 1986-87 New York theater season a great successs - total audience levels were up 7.5 percent from last year and the number of productions up to 41 from the previous year's 33 - she believes that something must be done to reduce the prohibitive prices of tickets, which many theater people feel have been the main cause of Broadway's slump in the last few years.
``Top prices for tickets on Broadway are now around $50 for many plays. I constantly hear, when friends come here and ask me to recommend a play: `But is it worth the price?' Sometimes it's hard to say,'' she admits reluctantly.
``Certainly we must bring ticket prices down. But we must also remind people that not everybody has to sit in the orchestra. There are often cheaper seats available in the balconies. I remember the thrill of seeing shows from high up when I was younger.
``But will prices come down? I really don't think so. Nothing ever comes down ... the price of onions or the price of a bus ride. But we must at least try. Perhaps the unions and other organizations in the theater will recognize that they may be pricing themselves out of jobs.''
Stevenson holds many controversial opinions about New York theater and she doesn't hesitate to articulate them:
``I believe that the press ... has too great an influence on whether or not a show stays open. Critics don't influence Off Broadway that much. But there, people aren't investing such large sums of money in tickets and can afford to take a chance. So a show can run until it finds its audience.
``How can we overcome the power of the critics? Newspapers ... should have more than one critic of equal rank reviewing the same plays. It would give diversity. And why must reviews appear the next day? Why can't they appear a few days after opening night, giving critics a chance to reflect further and word of mouth a chance to get around more?''
Stevenson says she's not at all upset by the fact that so many current Broadway hits - such as ``Cats,'' ``Les Mis'erables,'' and ``Les Liaisons Dangereuses'' - originated in Britain.
``[These shows] are wonderful additions to our theater seasons. There should be no barriers ... either way. Wouldn't it be wonderful if there comes a time when London and New York theater operate as one? There are already many co-productions.
``I believe that all Broadway productions should tape their shows and donated to the Library of Performing Arts at Lincoln Center. This year, since `Rags' closed without many of our 615 awards voters having seen it, they were able to view the tape in order to judge it.''
``There's a tendency for more and more plays to open in regional and university theaters, then move into Broadway. `Fences' and `Big River' took that route. Also there's the trend of New York producers to use Off Off Broadway and Off Broadway as tryouts for productions before they are moved to larger theaters on Broadway.
``Some major productions now even manage to recoup their investment by touring across the country before they come in to New York.''
``You know,'' Stevenson says thoughtfully, ``the theater is an unbusinesslike business. But there have to be ways found to cut costs so that more people can afford to buy tickets.''
Under Stevenson's guidance the ATW has initiated ``Working in the Theater'' seminars, held at the City University of New York's Graduate Center and aired on cable TV in New York. Chaired by Stevenson, these seminars bring together professionals from every aspect of the theater to discuss problems of working in the theater and the skills it requires. ``Soon we will be sending tapes to universities all over the country so that more students will be able to see them. Perhaps other educational TV channels will also run them,'' she says.
Saturday Theatre for Children is another Stevenson innovation, which introduces youngsters in the local school system to live theater. The Theatre Wing also produces hospital shows and runs a professional student theater ticket program.
Stevenson believes that the Tony Awards TV show performs a major function in ``selling theater to the American public. It makes you want to come to the theater by pointing up its excellence and inviting audiences to come and see for themselves. For so many years, people have been saying that the theater is dying. Well, it will never die, even tough prices may be too high. There's something about professional live theater that is different from any other form of entertainment. It's exciting, stimulating, vital. It stays with you. You have to go. What we must do, is see to it that it is made available to more people.''