I’m really glad that the city in which I live cares enough about theater to honor its practitioners so lavishly. The Helen Hayes Awards are, to my mind, a smart (and fun) way to encourage excellence in our art form and to promote what we do both locally and across the country. We have a lot to be proud of, and I think it’s right and good that we say so, loudly and beautifully, once a year.
That having been said, if I were in charge of the Helen Hayes Awards, there are a few things I’d do differently. I share them here with all due respect to the judges, several of whom are friends of mine, and to the organization itself. I know what they do must be very difficult, and I’m grateful that they do it… but I think the awards could be both more meaningful and more effective at inspiring and promoting theater in DC.
First, eliminate the ties, or at least make them far more rare. In this year’s ceremony, five categories resulted in ties. (Or six, if you count the fact that they gave out two John Aniello Awards.) While I wouldn’t want to set a hard-and-fast rule about how many ties should be allowed, I can say with great passion that five feels like far too many; I heard the same sentiment from several fellow attendees, too. My gut wants a tie to be a once-every-few-years phenomenon. The truth is, ties cost credibility. Ties make the Helen Hayes seem wishy-washy. Ties are uninspiring.
A member of the rules committee who shall remain nameless suggested to me that ties were inevitable, thanks to the Helen Hayes scoring system — a comment to which there can be only one response: change the scoring system. I would be more than happy to make recommendations; the trick, I believe, would be (at least in part) to rate the plays on a scale of 1-100, rather than 1-10. It cannot be as hard as I was led to believe, in any event. There are only rarely ties at the Academy Awards.
Next, address the Synetic conundrum. Now… let me say right off the bat that I think Synetic Theater makes powerful, beautiful, authentic art. While the performances they produce definitely tell stories, however, they just aren’t plays. (Not in my book, anyway.) They’re more dance than theater… much more. There are (usually) no lines, for goodness’ sake, only performers using movement to convey a narrative. They have far more in common with the work of the Washington Ballet than the work of, say, Arena Stage.
I’m not alone in making this claim, of course. It’s an annual tradition to gripe about Synetic’s “physical theater” being set side-by-side with the likes of Oklahoma and Clybourne Park. It’s high time something was done to address the issue… but I would suggest that “requiring the play to include lines,” as many have suggested, might be too strong a response. You see… for as strongly as I believe everything I’ve just written, I do acknowledge that there are many others who feel differently. Because of that fact, I believe we should try to keep the definition of “what theater is” open widely enough to accommodate more than one point of view. After all, that’s the beauty (and the difficulty) of democracy.
Still: including “physical theater” (I really hate that term — all theater is physical) doesn’t mean we have to lump it in with musicals and plays and judge them side by side. So what I (strongly) suggest is adding four new categories:
- Outstanding Physical Theater (ugh) Production
- Outstanding Director of a Physical Theater Production
- Outstanding Performer in a Physical Theater Production
- Outstanding Supporting Performer in a Physical Theater Production
The latter two of these categories are intentionally gender-neutral, which is merely a reflection of the fact that there isn’t much physical theater work happening in DC… which brings me to the real reason I’ve made this suggestion. If theater of this type is so important and cherished, then shouldn’t it deserve its own award? Shouldn’t we be encouraging more companies to do this sort of thing? Heck, maybe this sort of thing is already happening more than we realize (I’m thinking of the Taffety Punk Theatre Company’s production of suicide: chat room not long ago) and just needs a light shone on it. An award of its own would make a real difference. And if there are only three nominations for a category in a given year? So what.
Next, we have to solve the problem I just exacerbated: there are a few too many awards. My suggestion: stop paying so much attention to non-resident productions. Honestly, I simply can’t figure out why we honor them at all. Are we trying to encourage them to come back again? Do we think an award does that? I don’t, and I think our main focus should be on honoring the people who live and make work in this city. In fact, I think that’s of absolutely vital importance in an age in which a theater’s connection to its local community will be vital to its survival. If we must continue to do something for the out-of-towners, let’s give one award to Outstanding Non-Resident Production — if only as a nod to the local producers who made things happen — and call it a night. That eliminates three categories right there.
But I need to add one back in, because (speaking as a playwright) the Charles MacArthur Award for Outstanding New Play or Musical is a woeful mess. The first issue is that the award lumps plays and musicals into a single category. The second is that the award can be given to both resident and non-resident plays. It’s as if the Helen Hayes organization has very publicly stacked the deck against local theaters developing and producing new work, especially work by local authors.
As a playwright, this really, really makes me angry. One award needs to be given to an Outstanding New Play, another to an Outstanding New Musical, and both should be resident productions. (If you want to go crazy, you could also add Outstanding Adapted Play or Musical… but let’s hold off for now.) To really turn this city into a net exporter of culture — a city that honors and values storytellers — we need to do this, and we need to do it starting next year.
Bottom line: I added four new awards for physical theater and one for writing, then eliminated three for non-resident productions. That’s plus two: not the direction I wanted to head. But you know what? Eliminating the ties will keep the evening shorter, and my final suggestion — decreasing the nominations — will get us the rest of the way there.
Can anyone explain why there are more than five nominations in any one category? I suspect it has to do with the same scoring system that results in all those ties. Please: end it. If the Academy Awards can figure out how to do it, the Helen Hayes can, too. No more than five nominations in a category. It’s more than enough.
Before I sign off, I want to share one final thought. There’s a reason I use the word “change” in the title of this blog post instead of “fix.” I really want to be clear in communicating that I’m sure others have struggled with these (and other) issues and that there are probably factors I haven’t considered. I know I don’t have all the answers. But I do have a few ideas, and I wanted to share them.
Update: I note that the Helen Hayes organization seems to have removed the tag I used when I posted this story to Facebook — in an attempt, I assume, to make sure it didn’t show up on their Facebook wall. This is an understandable but woefully old school attempt to control the conversation, rather than join in. I wish they had simply engaged with the ideas I’ve offered instead.