L-R: Kirstin Riegler as Bird, Jobari Parker-Namdar as Bird, and Ariel Vinitsky… (Bruce Douglas/ )
Should the Helen Hayes Awards be handed out on two separate tiers, splitting larger and smaller theater companies into separate groups? Or not?
The debate has run on two distinctly separate tracks as the HHA considers changes to its often-criticized annual trophy-doling process.
In June, many small theaters made a vocal case against dividing the prizes during a “summit” run by TheatreWashington, the umbrella organization that manages the Hayes Awards. Heads of larger D.C. theaters were scarce at that meeting.
Two months earlier, seven large companies quietly made it clear to TheatreWashington that reforms were necessary, or they might have to “rethink their future involvement,” according to TheatreWashington President and CEO Linda Levy Grossman. Heads of three theaters — Eric Schaeffer of Signature Theatre, Paul Tetreault of Ford’s Theatre, and Molly Smith of Arena Stage — met with Grossman, Abel Lopez, Brad Watkins and Glen Howard of TheatreWashington.
An announcement on changes (or not) to the awards is expected next month.
“I would absolutely not characterize it as demands,” Grossman says of the larger theaters’ message. “I think it would be more accurate to say they felt some of their recommendations would be for the better of the entire the community. There was no demand that you must make the changes we say you must.”
The companies signing on with Signature, Ford’s and Arena were the Shakespeare Theatre Company, Studio Theatre, Round House Theatre and the Kennedy Center, Grossman says. Schaeffer, speaking for Tetreault and Smith, declined to comment for this article.
The larger theaters sent TheatreWashington a letter that included the possibility of “rethinking” their participation in the awards.
“That could mean anything,” says Grossman, declining to characterize it as a threat to withdraw.
The letter has not been made public. “That was never meant to be shared,” Grossman says, “and we have not shared it.”
Hard to judge
Even so, knowledge of it rattled Janet Stanford, artistic director of Bethesda’s Imagination Stage. She responded with an e-mail blast urging people to stand against dividing the awards and potentially disqualifying theater for young audiences (TYA) at the June 24 summit.
“One of many ideas up for discussion is to exclude TYA theatres from consideration alongside the region’s adult theatres,” Stanford wrote.
The Helen Hayes Awards have often come under fire for eccentric results pegged to its all-inclusive process. Ever since the awards debuted 30 years ago, cash-poor troupes have been weighed alongside multimillion-dollar Goliaths. Money, goes the HHA reasoning, does not necessarily buy quality.
But the difficulties of judging have deepened over the past several years as the city’s artistry has expanded.
Synetic Theatre, a movement-based troupe unlike any other company in the region, has sometimes dominated the awards with its singular productions. (A whopping seven actors were nominated from its 2011 production of “King Lear.”) And the area’s burgeoning corps of youth-oriented theaters has only made award-giving more complex.
That was thrown into sharp relief in 2012, when the region’s most-nominated musical was Adventure Theatre’s hour-long kids’ production “A Year With Frog and Toad.” Meanwhile, the Kennedy Center’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s sophisticated “Follies” seemed to flummox the judges, who declined even to nominate star Bernadette Peters.
In Washington, “Follies” was nominated for only four Hayes Awards and won none. When it moved to Broadway, it was nominated for eight Tony Awards.
The judging system
Chicago hands out awards in separate ceremonies for Equity and non-Equity companies, a distinction that has been in place since 1973. Philadelphia’s Barrymore Awards recently announced reforms, including salary thresholds in order for productions to be eligible. The minimum salaries are $150 a week for actors, $500 a show for designer, and $750 a show for directors.
The Hayes Awards requirement is vague, only insisting that to be eligible, a theater “financially compensates all artists on a regular basis.”
Regarding judging: it’s a challenge to find capable professionals willing and able to see dozens and dozens of productions a year, and solutions vary from city to city. (Broadway has it easy: only about three dozen shows open there each season.) Philadelphia’s revamped Barrymores are trying to create a narrowed, more professional panel of only 10-12 judges who will see up to 60 productions a year, as recommended by a larger, rotating pool of nominators.
On the other hand, Chicago’s Jeff Awards are judged by a committee of 50 professionals. Five judges per show, plus two people from the artistic and technical committee, make the nominations, and the whole committee then votes on winners. Jeff judges see as many as 150 shows a year, according to the Jeff Web site.