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 Kevin Finkelstein.
According to its website, theatreWashington currently has 90 member theaters. Of those 90 members, only 27 received at least one Helen Hayes Award nomination in 2013. That’s 30%—the other 70% got no recognition—and that, I believe, is the primary reason we need to fix the awards. I also believe, furthermore, that the only way we can make that fix—the only way we can recognize excellence among the other 70%—is to separate the awards into two tiers.
My reasoning begins with an analysis of the judges. Chad Bauman, the former marketing director of Arena Stage, wrote an outstanding piece for DC Theatre Scene last year about being a Helen Hayes judge. He didn’t fault the training he was given by theatreWashington; indeed, he talked about the problem he had trying to evaluate individual productions. It was difficult to avoid “comparing” productions, even though Helen Hayes judges are specifically asked to judge each production on its own merits. Going from a show with a beautiful set, gorgeous costumes, and a large stage to a show with a design budget one quarter the size was hard, as anyone would understand. For me, the key takeaway from Chad’s article is that the current system asks judges to evaluate apples and sandboxes. The creation of two tiers would address this problem.
Let’s look at both Chicago and Boston, two cities that feature multi-tiered award systems. Chicago’s JEFF Awards differentiate between Equity and Non-Equity houses, while Boston’s IRNE awards divide their tiers by budget; both models have generally been met with enthusiasm in their respective markets. Implementing either of those options for the Helen Hayes Awards would mean doubling, roughly, the number of awards being given, which would in turn give theaters more to crow about and entice bigger audiences with. And isn’t increasing audience numbers the generally-accepted primary reason for companies to join theatreWashington?
In addition to adding a second tier, I also believe that theatreWashington ought to loosen the eligibility criteria for the second tier. Specifically, I’d like to see them relax the requirement that a company must perform a given show at least 16 times. Off the top of my head, I can think of a half a dozen “second-tier” companies that are creating driven, passionate work, but that don’t have the means to sustain a sixteen-show run. Audiences don’t discriminate between short-run and long-run types of companies: why should theatreWashington? I agree that there ought to be some baseline, but theatreWashington needs to adapt to the facts on the ground: theater companies are producing in a variety of ways now, not all of them traditional.
The Helen Hayes Awards provide a valuable service to the Washington, DC market. More than the fun of “drama prom,” the Helen Hayes Awards strive to highlight the very best of what we do. They unite the community and celebrate the incredible work that happens every year in DC. If we truly want to celebrate outstanding achievement in the DC area, then the Helen Hayes Awards need to be more inclusive of the work that’s actually happening in the city—the whole range of work.