I’ve asked several theater practitioners here in DC to outline their vision for an event to replace the Helen Hayes Awards. (See the inaugural post in the series here.) The following contribution is from Hannah Hessel.
It is important for me to note, at the outset of this blog post, that while I only speak for myself, I’m in a somewhat unique position here in the DC area theater community in that I have worked for theaters at all ends of the scale. Currently, I seem to be doing it all at the same time. My full-time job is at the large Shakespeare Theatre Company (STC); my artistic home for the past 7 years has been at the small Forum Theatre; and I recently founded Project Gym, a space in which independent artists come together to grow their creative muscles. At the same time, I have never been nominated for a Helen Hayes Award, and no matter what changes are ahead, I don’t expect to be. The work I do places me as a secondary artist, a collaborator. All of which is to say: I have no bones in this debate, and I also have all my bones in this debate as well.
I don’t want the awards divided into two, because I don’t want to buy two dresses.
At last year’s Helen Hayes Awards I cheered for STC with as much a feeling of pride as I had when I cheered for Forum… but really, I was there for the party. I was there to see friends and have a night during which we could all be in a room together—or multiple rooms, with bars and photo booths and dancing. The Helen Hayes Awards have continually thrown good parties; I think I’ve only missed two in the past ten years. The show is fine, the awards are silly, but we go and we have a good time… but they do not seem to fulfill what is and should be the mission of the Awards: to celebrate the work that happens here and bring it the recognition it deserves.
So, now for my proposal… which I believe would correct this problem.
Scrap categories. Take a cue from the Obie Awards and award anything outstanding. Categories would be created each year by the judges, and the ceremony would be a celebration bringing us all together—not tearing us apart, which is what the current awards seem to be doing. The day the nominations come out are always filled with more negative comments than positive: how did they get nominated for that? Them again? Rather than celebrating the artists or saying: wow, I wish I could have seen that!
As for judges, here’s what I would do: create a two-tiered system. Judges in the larger tier would see as many shows as they see now and fill out similar reports. Judges in the smaller tier would see as many shows as possible, but would not have to fill out reports; they would simply take the data from the larger responses and debate which of the shows and artists with high ratings deserve the title “Outstanding” for the year.
Judges should represent the full spectrum of the community: theatre professionals at all levels, theatre amateurs, audiences, and students. They would also define the categories; artists could receive an award that would cover more than one performance, for example, or more than one person could be given an award for a single category. All of the productions and artists that made the high-ratings cut-off line would receive honorable mentions, which they could publicize to their hearts content. And best of all, we would all know the results before the ceremony! The ceremony would just honor the artists’ work. How amazing would that be?
As for the controversial “non-resident” awards: they deserve a place at the table, too. Sure some of them might go to celebrities, sure, and some of them might not come to town to receive their awards… but they are part of this city, too, for the time they spend here. Furthermore, the institutions that bring them in are taking an artistic risk. I am proud of STC for bringing in the powerful and important piece from the National Theatre of Scotland, Black Watch, for example. District audiences needed to see what otherwise would have passed them by. And by golly, those actors felt at home here. Why would we tell them they are not? If they like it, maybe one of them might come back. Maybe they might see that this is a great place to work and create. Maybe they might one day become residents.
Those are my ideas. It’s a big change, but I dream big. And I want to celebrate this city.