There’s been more than a little bit of angst the last few months—angst that reached a bit of a crescendo recently—about the future of the Helen Hayes Awards. As a member of the theatreWashington Board of Governors, I’ve been privileged to be part of some heavy-duty conversations about that future, all filled (to my estimation) with well-meaning people trying to wrestle with difficult ideas and complicated emotions and widely-varied visions about how to serve the DC theater community at large. To date, however, despite great effort—much more even than I’m aware of, I’m sure—we don’t seem to have arrived at any clarity. Moreover, there’s been a bit of heat building, too: particularly great disaffection in response to a perceived lack of transparency and a devaluing of the city’s smaller theaters. These are troubling days.
(For the record: my experience with theatreWashington suggests that the organization does actually value inclusiveness—we have always been encouraged to discuss and debate any rules changes with as many members of the community as we can. Moreover, theatreWashington seems to work hard to invite as many smaller theaters into the organization as it can.)
My general impression is that we’re dealing with a failure of imagination. We are all—and I lay this criticism at everyone’s feet—trying to focus on adapting the current Helen Hayes Awards to suit the needs of a theater community that has evolved significantly since the awards were first instituted. We’re doing what we often do when something we created isn’t working: we’re revising. But here’s the hard truth: the current awards system doesn’t suit us anymore… at all. We’re beyond revision. It’s time for us to consider scrapping the whole thing and starting again.
And why shouldn’t we? We are a rich metropolis full of imaginative creators and leaders. Why don’t we decide that we’re important enough, bold enough, to invent an entirely new way to serve and reward and acknowledge excellence in our theater community? Why should we limit ourselves to adaptations of what’s come before us, or to emulating the models we’ve seen elsewhere?
I think the answer to those questions begins with a return to first principles, as it were—to the very goals we’re trying to achieve. Of course… we might not all agree about what those goals should be, so let me start by articulating my own version of them:
- To reward and encourage theatrical excellence in DC
- To build a sense of community among DC theater practitioners
- To promote the value and appeal of theater to DC audiences
- To represent the brand of DC theater to the world at large
If those aren’t, in fact, the right goals, they’re at least close, I hope you’ll agree. And if they are, I think we should ask ourselves—starting from scratch—what sort of event, if any, will help us achieve them.
So I’ve decided to do just that. I’ve asked several theater practitioners—and I’m looking for others—to outline their ideas for an annual event that will respond to the challenges I’ve outlined. I’ll be publishing those ideas as they come in, and—in the spirit of complete transparency—we’ll discuss and consider them together. Some will naturally resemble the current Helen Hayes Awards, but with minor variations, and some—like my own, which I’ll articulate shortly—will consist of radical departures. But they’ll all happen in the light of day, and we’ll all ponder them collectively, and perhaps we’ll find out way out of the thicket. We shall see.
I’m going to keep my own idea about what to do as short and sweet as I possibly can. (Not my strong suit, I know.) Here goes.
I think we ought to take our inspiration from the Swedes—specifically, from the Nobel committee. I believe we ought to scrap the entire slate of awards we currently give and instead give out:
- The Hayes Prize for Performance
- The Hayes Prize for Direction
- The Hayes Prize for Design
- The Hayes Prize for Writing
- The Hayes Prize for Theatrical Innovation
And that’s it: that’s the list. Nominations for each prize could be submitted by anyone—absolutely anyone who sees or makes theater in the DC area. Committees comprised of (ineligible) experts in each category would review the nominations and (if and only if they find someone worthy of the award) choose a winner. Prizes would come with money—and who among us doesn’t need money?—and a serious amount of prestige. Much more so than the currently-diluted Helen Hayes Awards, I believe.
Recipients would be announced at a press conference in the morning, and that evening there’d be a ceremony at which they’d receive public accolades, followed by a general celebration of everything that’s been beautiful and wonderful throughout the community the previous year: scenes from great plays, songs from great musicals, and so on. Just a bunch of happy… followed, of course, by a party.
And I would also add one more new element, tucked between the morning press conference and the evening ceremony: a daylong conference for DC’s theater practitioners. The conference would provide artists with a chance to attend workshops, give rousing speeches, connect with one another, and learn from one another; to build a community of practice and nurture our shared heritage and vocabulary; and to help us help each other develop professionally.
That’s what I would do.
What about you?