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 Lee Liebeskind.
I have been thinking about the Helen Hayes Awards for a long time: more so in the wake of Nelson Presley’s article about the potential split into two tiers. The question that has been stirring in my mind for a while is: Do I care? Do I care about awards at all? About theatreWashington and Helen Hayes and any of it? Though I often answer with a flippant No, the truth of the matter is that I do care. Not about some trophy or award—my ego likes recognition, of course, but I’d rather get that from my peers. No… what I care about is community.
From Arena Stage to Landless Theatre, from Signature to Rorschach, from Imagination Stage to Constellation Theatre, we have a wonderful tapestry in DC. I care that we are one community: it’s important to me. And nowhere is that sense of community more apparent to me than at the Helen Hayes Awards. When I talk to people about the awards, occasionally they’ll mention a speech someone gave or an award that went to a surprise newbie… but the real memories are of dancing the night away with friends, of a young fresh actor sharing a drink with a DC legend, of spending time together.
In thinking about what to do with the awards, I begin with that sense of community and togetherness. That’s what I think we should honor. One idea I’ve been considering is to keep the current awards, but evaluate plays in a different way: the way SAG does it.
Here’s how it would work: artists in the DC area would sign up with theatreWashington (thus expanding the organization’s judging pool). A few months before voting would begin, local theaters would submit their shows for the awards they’d like to be considered for, and theatreWashington would approve or disapprove those submissions. (It’s their awards show, after all.) Once the nominees were announced, members of the DC theater community would get to vote; you’d be on the honor system with regard to voting for shows you’d been involved with… but the point is, the awards would be chosen by the community itself. The community would be coming together to choose what productions to honor.
I also think that we ought to reinvent the ceremony itself so that it resembles the Tony Awards more closely. Numbers from the nominated musicals, scenes from the nominated plays: they’d make the awards secondary to showing off the talent we have in the community. If we were to live-stream the event, furthermore, members of the public would be able to see more directly what we’re capable of. It would be an invaluable marketing opportunity.
Those ideas aside… what I would really MUCH rather do is create a brand-new DC theater conference: a chance for artists and administrators from the whole area to come together to discuss the issues affecting us. We could book a few performances by local artists—perhaps even a few performers many of us never get to see, like Paige Hernandez or Christylez Bacon, or work by banished? productions or Borealis Theatre. We could bring in some of the Georgian theater Howard Shalwitz has been championing, or some of the Israeli theater that Ari Roth imports, to inspire new thinking and performances in DC. We could have panels on topics we’ve been dying to discuss with one another in open forums. We could all learn a lot from each other.
But that’s just me, and I don’t really care about trophies (although my ego does): just recognition from—and connection with—my peers.