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 Patrick Kilpatrick.
I feel I should begin this piece by admitting that I’m not sure I should have any voice in this discussion at all. I work exclusively for one theater as an administrator, actor, director, fight choreographer, carrier of really heavy things, and whatever else needs to be done. That theater has, in the past, produced at most one show per season that is Helen Hayes eligible. We have, in total, produced only five shows that were eligible. We have been Helen Hayes Recommended once and have never received a nomination. Personally, I have never been to the awards ceremony, and I have never paid more than cursory attention to the awards. I scan the list of nominees to see how many of the nominees I know. The day after the ceremony, I look at all the pictures on Facebook of people dressed up and having fun. That’s it.
And I read all the complaints, too. If the ceremony is intended to celebrate DC theater, why are there awards for shows and casts that were entirely transplanted from elsewhere? If the awards are meant to be prestigious, why are there so many of them? And why do we allow ties? If I have twelve favorite foods, do I really have a favorite food, or do I just have trouble making up my mind? And so on.
The Helen Hayes Awards, in my opinion, should be about building community. If we want to attract more and better artists to the area, we need lots of professional theater… but we also need a strong sense of community. A functioning awards system could help us create that sense. And yet…
I know one idea being bandied about—the most popular and controversial idea—is splitting the awards into two categories: one for large theaters and one for small theaters. But I don’t think that’s the way to go. If you do that, more theaters will be acknowledged and more awards will be handed out… but we’ll also create an even bigger gap between the perception of the large theaters and the small theaters.
As it is, small theaters are allowed to go toe to toe with large theaters. Non-Equity actors are allowed to compete with Equity actors. And I think they should be. In other words, I have no problem with the way the awards are set up currently. I don’t like the non-resident awards, I don’t like that there are ties, but those are relatively minor problems. So I kind of think the ceremony, with some tweaks, should stay pretty much the way it is.
But the celebration of DC is what we’re lacking. I think we should expand the idea of the celebration. Right now it’s about awards. Who was nominated? Who won? But it’s not about “Look at all the amazing work we’re doing in this city.” That’s what we need.
With that in mind, I would be a proponent of expanding the entire event. Make it a week, or two weeks. Take an idea from the American College Theater Festival: bring the best shows of the season back for the “Helen Hayes Celebration.” Let theaters remount the shows that have been nominated for one or two performances. Give audiences a chance to SEE those shows… because by the time the nominations come around, it’s too late.
That would be a true opportunity to celebrate DC. A week or two of the very best we have to offer. Not just an evening of awards and getting dressed up.
I know there are logistical difficulties for the theaters involved, especially smaller theaters. How do you pay for that? How do you gather the actors who have moved on to the next project? What if the space you used isn’t available? But colleges do it, because they want people to see their great work. And so should we.
Oh, and to be perfectly blunt: if you can’t remount a show because half your cast is from NYC and went back home: that wasn’t a DC show anyway.
But I’m not here to solve logistical difficulties. I’m just here to come up with big ideas that other people will have to make work. Besides, my company is moving to Baltimore: soon, we’ll never be eligible again. So why would you listen to me?