This is the fifth entry in a continuing series of guest posts. Our contributor is Karen Lange, one of the co-artistic directors of Pinky Swear Productions, an up-and-coming small theater company in DC. Karen is smart, sharp, and fearless, and I’m pleased to be able to share her thoughts. My intent is that her post will initiate a series of posts and guest-posts on the subject of the Helen Hayes Awards.
Whereon the stars in secret influence comment — from Sonnet 15
The Washington Post is rightly famous for its investigative journalism… and the tradition seems to be living on in the Style section. Move over Woodward & Bernstein, here comes Nelson Pressley. Who ever thought there were so many secrets and so much intrigue in DC theater?
Today’s Washington Post ran an article about the Helen Hayes awards and the public summit meeting they held in June to invite comment from the DC theater community about how the awards should be structured. The liveliest topic of discussion at that meeting was the possible split of the awards into separate tiers for the small and large theaters, each (possibly) with its own ceremony. (In the current arrangement, every professional theater in town that meets certain criteria is judged for the same prizes.) The summit was well-attended—by smaller professional theaters in DC. One group was conspicuous by its absence, however: the largest equity theaters in DC. I call that group Big Theater.
What the Post revealed today is that while Big Theatre may have skipped out on the public conversation, they didn’t remain quiet in private. Signature Theatre, Studio Theatre, Arena Stage, Round House, Ford’s Theatre, the Shakespeare Theatre, and the Kennedy Center reportedly sent a confidential joint letter to theatreWashington—the organization that runs the Helen Hayes awards—expressing their views about the potential split. The letter included the not-so-gentle admonition that if theatreWashington didn’t make the major changes the big theaters wanted, those theaters would have to “rethink their future involvement” in the Helen Hayes program. Presumably, the large theaters want to split the awards into small and large tiers based on budget or Equity status, but I have no idea what is in the letter… which is what concerns me. Though theatreWashington declined to characterize the letter as a threat, I see a walking, quacking bird and I’m ready to declare: “It’s a duck.”
Let’s briefly back up to provide context.
Every year, the DC theater community comes out in droves to attend the Helen Hayes Awards. Many of us affectionately refer to the ceremony as “Drama Prom.” We all have a great night dressing up, dancing, indulging in finger foods, and overindulging at the open bar. One of the things we all love about the Helen Hayes Awards is that it’s a big night to celebrate theater being made in DC. And the night has always celebrated all of that theater. In recent years, theatreWashington has been very welcoming to the nascent indie theater community in the city, and you can tell how excited the smaller theater companies are by listening to the hooting and cheering when we see pictures of our shows and our logos on the slideshow during the ceremony. It’s a source of pride.
Though theatreWashington has embraced the full spectrum of professional theater companies in the area, apparently Big Theater doesn’t want us at the party. I have to question why: literally, because their letter was a secret. Which raises another question: if what Big Theater had to say in that letter was for the genuine good of the entire theater community, why did it need to be a secret?
Frankly, it smells anti-competitive. In the business world, when a coalition of companies in the same field bands together to change the game and make it harder for other companies to compete, they get called out. This situation seems to me to be no different. If the letter is well-intended and is intended to be for the good of the whole community, as Linda Levy Grossman suggests in the article, why don’t we get a chance to see it? We’re capable of judging what’s good for us by ourselves, Big Theater. Heck, we might even like your ideas… if we knew what they were.
Why do awards matter to indie theaters? They matter to us for the same reason they matter to Big Theater. Awards bring attention to great work. The opportunities for small theaters to get that attention are few and far between as it is. Nobody’s saying that the awards ought to be an undeserved crutch. We’re asking to compete with the best that DC has to offer, not to be given our own separate category in which it would presumably be easier for us to win. Mixing with Big Theater makes us try harder, try to be more creative, and aspire to do more with less. We don’t need an additional hurdle to cross just to be considered worthy of the top tier.
The Post article goes on to quote the theatreWashington representative as saying that she understands why Big Theater “wasn’t there at the summit to make their case to a reluctant corps of small theaters: ‘Who wants to show up if you’re going to be tarred and feathered?’” That is hardly a good reason; it just means you don’t think your argument can stand the light of day.
Since Big Theater chose not to communicate with us, indie theaters are left to assume that the changes the Big Theater asked for must be self-serving. We assume Big Theater is saying: “We have all the money, and can throw our weight around at theatreWashington. We have our own, beautiful buildings that you cannot afford to rent. We get the lion’s share of DC audiences. Now we would like the only awards in town, prestigious name included. You can have a new prize that even fewer folks in town have heard of—have fun building on that.” If that isn’t what is written in the letter, then it might behoove Big Theater to show us what is written there.
Representatives of the indie theaters at the summit generally agreed that if the awards got carved up, you would only widen the gap between the major theaters and the indie/lower budget/wandering companies. We are all making art; I don’t see why the theaters who wrote that letter are so concerned with mixing with the rest of us. The folks at theatreWashington got a lot of other input in from the companies who showed up for the summit, too. It would have been nice to discuss that input with Big Theater. For example:
- What do does Big Theater think about the oft-maligned non-resident awards, which are met with near silence at the ceremony? Those awards were quite unpopular at the event. Do they dismiss that unpopularity because it doesn’t directly affect them?
- How about the yearly Aniello award? Mandatory or optional?
- How about the judging criteria? An overhaul of the judging system seems like a fine place to start with changes, as splitting up awards means splitting tiers of judges, who are stretched pretty thin as it is. Do the judges need to be paid rather than volunteering? Perhaps there could be additional training.
These questions were all part of the discussions we had, and many people had great ideas for solutions. But now we’re worried that our input is meaningless, since we don’t have the financial power to scare theatreWashington into accepting our demands. What’s the point of a summit if what we say is less important than some secret letter?
In closing, I want to issue an invitation to Big Theater: publish your letter, and let’s talk about it. Engage with the community. After all, most of your organizations started small—the founding artistic director’s basement, a garage, a former burlesque house, a roving school theater program. You’d do well to remember that your founders had to build their establishments, too. The next generation is opening the doors of its own garages and coming up from its own basements. Please: welcome us to the party.
The ideas expressed above are a contribution to the ongoing intellectual discourse about theater. Though I’m honored to share them, they represent the thinking of their author, not necessarily my own. If you’d like to make a contribution, too, just let me know. Provocative, smart, and even dangerous discourse is always welcome.