Confessions of a one time Helen Hayes judge

When I first moved to Washington, DC to accept a position as the Director of Marketing and Communications at Americans for the Arts, I applied to be a Helen Hayes Judge to help learn about my new home city and to remain connected to the theater world.  I served as a judge for two years—one in the new play category and one in the musical category—starting in 2006.

When I left Americans for the Arts to join Arena Stage, I resigned as a judge in part because I felt that my new position provided for a perceived conflict of interest, but also because I felt that I couldn’t perform my duties as a judge as they were given to me.

“Do you swear to evaluate fairly without bias to reputation or consideration of budget, so help you Bard?” © Joe Brack

I will say that prior to my first assignment,  I received an ample amount of training and guidance from Helen Hayes Awards staff, the rules committee and from other judges. I knew exactly what was expected of me, and I took assignments very seriously, approaching each in an ethical and professional manner. However, when I evaluated myself against what I was being asked to do, I couldn’t help but admit that I was flawed, and barring a change in the rules or evaluation system, I could not adequately meet my responsibilities as a judge.

Below are just a few areas in which I struggled:

Money doesn’t matter, evaluate excellence.

Judges are expected to recognize outstanding contributions across disciplines without regard to the amount of resources available to the various companies we were dispatched to. On paper, it sounds noble. We were told money can’t buy excellence. However, in practice, I soon found that this request was difficult to execute. Early in my second year, I was sent to the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts as a judge to see a musical in the Eisenhower Theater (operating budget of $164 million). Just a few days later, I took an assignment at the D.C. Arts Center, which has a 49 seat theater, and I would guess the production probably had a budget of less than $1,000.

My challenge was to render an opinion on excellence in scenic design. We were instructed not to evaluate productions against others, but without clear guidance on how to evaluate productions with such a wide disparity in terms of production budgets, I did the best I could.

Obviously I wasn’t the only one struggling with this dilemma.  In the past decade, twelve productions were recognized with the Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding Set Design, and not one was from a theater with an operating budget of less than $1 million. I agree that money cannot buy excellence, but it looks like it is a prerequisite to be recognized in the set design category.

David vs. Goliath.

In his excellent article “Helen Hayes Could Use a Two-Tiered Approach to Washington Theater” in the Washington Post, Nelson Pressley rightly identifies a common oddity in the acting categories, asking why the same actor can receive multiple nominations at small theaters only to be routinely shut out at larger companies.

In looking at the lead actor and actress categories in resident productions, it’s pretty clear that the larger an organization’s budget, the less likely actors will be recognized for their work. In the past ten years, productions at the Kennedy Center received two awards, which seems odd as they have given us tremendous productions of Follies, Ragtime and Sweeny Todd to name a few. Following them, Arena Stage came in with three, Shakespeare Theatre followed with seven, and Signature and Studio Theatre each had eleven, however many of Studio’s awards came from its 2nd Stage.

Interestingly, in the last decade, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company has never been recognized for excellence in either the lead actor or actress categories for resident play or musical, however Woolly was recognized twice with Outstanding Resident Play for Clybourne Park in 2011 and The Clean House in 2006.

As Americans, we love to champion the underdog. And we love unlikely triumphs. It reminds us that anything is possible. So it doesn’t surprise me that the same actor can be the belle of the ball at a small theater only to be routinely overlooked at a larger venue.

Early in, Early Out.

As I previously mentioned, judges were instructed never to evaluate one production in comparison to another, but early in the season, without any precedents to draw from, assigning scores was a somewhat arbitrary proposition. By giving a numerical score in the top 25th percentile early in the season, judges feared that other productions more deserving of recognition would come later, however a judge wouldn’t have room in the scoring system to acknowledge that. Therefore, I always believed that productions in the first third of the season were numerically at a disadvantage.

This isn’t unique to the Helen Hayes Awards. In his article “How Broadway Games the Tonys” in the New York Times, Patrick Healy discusses why half of the season’s Broadway productions open in March and April prior to the April 26h deadline.

When the Helen Hayes Awards nominations were announced this year, I couldn’t believe that Anna Deavere Smith’s Let Me Down Easy or Mary Zimmerman’s The Arabian Nights went completely unnoticed. And then I remembered that they were produced in the first couple months of the season, just like Lydia Diamond’s Stick Fly, which also went unrecognized but later transferred to Broadway.

After leaving my post as a judge, I brought my concerns to the Helen Hayes Awards, and I learned that I wasn’t the only one who had serious issues with the current system. In fact, just a year or two before my departure, several artistic directors had requested that the Helen Hayes Awards split recognition into two separate categories based on budget size. As I understand it, after significant consideration, the rules committee denied the request, in part because representatives from smaller companies did not want to be considered in separate categories.

I would like to lend my voice to support a renewed interest in reevaluating the system. If individual pleas aren’t enough to persuade another look, consider a few statistics from the past decade. In using Mr. Pressley’s suggested annual operating budget of $1 million as a dividing line between “large” and “small” theaters, then…

– Of the 25 productions recognized in the Outstanding Resident Play or Musical categories, not a single one was produced by a theater with less than a $1 million operating budget*

– Not one of the 12 productions recognized in the Outstanding Set Design, Resident Production category came from a small theater

– In the Outstanding Costume Design, Resident Production category, of the ten recognized productions, only two were from small theaters (Constellation Theatre Company in 2012 and Theater of the First Amendment in 2003).

– Of the 25 recognized productions in the Outstanding Director of a Resident Play or Musical categories, only one has gone to a small non-profit theater (Rep Stage in 2004).

– Across all four categories of lead actors and actresses in either resident plays or musicals, small theaters were recognized only 17% of the time.

For those looking to take home a Helen Hayes Award, you might find it interesting that in the past decade…

– Half of the recipients for Outstanding Resident Play were works of William Shakespeare

– Of the 25 recipients of the Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding Set, Lighting and Sound Design, not a single recipient was a woman. Of the 13 awards for Outstanding Director of a Resident Play, only two were women–Joy Zinoman and  Kasi Campbell  (perhaps theaters are hiring statistically fewer females a la The Guthrie Theater’s recent dust up).

– If you would like to receive a Helen Hayes Award for set design, you’d better snag a gig at Woolly Mammoth, Shakespeare Theatre or Round House as they were responsible for all the awards in the past decade.

– If you are angling for a Helen Hayes Award for Director of a Resident Play, look to the classics as 77% went to classical productions. And hope you aren’t up against Paata Tsikurishvili, who has been recognized in four out of the last ten years.

– Actors –Gentlemen: Lead Actor Awards in a Resident Play went to either Shakespeare or Studio 70% of the time and Lead Actor Awards in a Resident Musical to Signature 50% of the time. Ladies: head over to Studio because 45% of the Lead Actress Awards in a Resident Play featured work on their stages.

*It is possible that Synetic Theater had an operating budget under $1 million in 2003 when they were recognized for Hamlet.

Editor’s Note: When compiling statistics, Toby’s Dinner Theater and Theater J were both considered in the “large” category. Toby’s Dinner Theater is a for-profit corporation and therefore we do not have access to IRS 990 filings. Theater J is under the umbrella of the DCJCC. An attempt was made to fact check statistics with theaterWashington, but we had not received a response by the time of publication.


  1. I was a nominator under the old HH system. Where I get stuck when this conversation starts is that I saw plenty of productions as a nominator (and since then) where the budget had nothing to do with the quality of the show. To generalize: The big theatres hit and miss at about the same rate the small ones do in every category. It doesn’t do you any good to have a lot of money to put into an uninspired set, and it does happen. Conversely, a design that’s “right” for a particular show in a particular space is “right,” even if it is made out of scavenged bits and pieces. (And of course, there is such a thing as a perfect big budget set and a poorly designed small one.)
    The same holds true for other categories. The trick is to see what’s actually there in a production, and not what you think will/should be there based on what company is doing the show. Easier said than done, but it CAN be done.
    Do we need a two tiered system to compensate for the “budget effect,” in which everything looks better in a name theatre? Maybe. I’m not arguing against that. I’m just arguing that it IS true that money isn’t what makes a show. I saw Wallace Acton absolutely own a show that somebody did in the basement of a Catholic School in Columbia Heights 20 years ago. He was really good, even when no one had heard of him yet. And we’ve all sat through some deadly theater that had everything but a soul. Money can’t buy that. I could list a lot of examples in acting, design and directing.

  2. Ed Kelty says:

    My wife and I are sort of semi-professional volunteer ushers. For over 20 years we have been seeing Washington area plays, and currently are regular ushers at five theaters in Washington, two in Maryland, and one in Virginia — in addition to subbing at others.

    It may be a good time to formalize this discussion with washingtonTheater. Any organization needs periodic examination and fine tuning. From this discussion, it is apparent that various aspects of the evaluations need reexamination. The obvious approach would be a meeting of interested and involved parties. However, the mechanics could be formidable in view of the multiple opinions which would be expressed. My suggestion is that washingtonTheater hold an open internet forum in which everyone (patrons, professionals, theater staffs, reporters, etc.) would be invited to comment on a set of questions such as those presented above. These could be combined into a topic-organized document presented to our publics. After that, an open, public meeting could be held with representatives of each constituency working to develop a consensus document as guidance for the HH awards.

    My own new award suggestion is to recognize the show that you realize had the greatest impact a year later. Many plays are enjoyable at the time, just like many familiar symphonies, but a year later you cannot recall what they were about. It would be fun to recognize those that go into your personal memory chest. This could be a contest for public participation which might help increase audience identification with theater.  

  3. PS I do want to say that DC has such gracious, enthusiastic, and generous cheerleaders in theatreWashington.  Linda L-G and Victor S and their posse, are wonderful!  I continue to be interested and enthused to see how tW’s new publicity efforts and enhanced staffing, will lead to more recognition of the quality of DC theater and more theater attendance. 

  4. Steve, what is the beneficial purpose of the awards in your eyes?  Of course nothing in the world is perfectible, but in what way do we make the world better by tinkering with the HH’s?  I’m genuinely curious, because as you can tell I have my views on the relevance of the awards, and in my eyes they don’t become either more or less relevant by dividing into big and small categories.  Sorry it wasn’t clear that that was the thrust of my comments.

  5. Steve Beal says:

    Sure, it’s a perennial topic; and sure it’s probably tedious sometimes, and sure, perfection is unattainable.
    But there’s a difference between the awards being perfectly objective (the unattainable perfection) and the awards being arbitrary or in some ways in appropriate for the current reality of DC theatre.
    If the perennial, tedious and – maybe – futile conversations about how to do better are abandoned just because perfection is unattainable, then the awards will simply degenerate into irrelevance.
    That, in my opinion, would be a loss to the theatre community.
    So I’ll keep bringing it up and responding to others who do. Perennially. Tediously.
    Thanks, Chad, for what I think is a constructive re-introduction of the topic that offers good insights.

    Just one woman’s opinion, but I am tired of seeing this argument raised every few years without, to my eye, any attempt to actually contribute to whatever it is the awards are supposed to be doing.  They will never, ever scientifically prove the merit of the “best” performance, lighting design, etc. — there is no way to prove this.  So I really question the value of debating how to somehow better calculate the best each year.
    While Chad’s points are well-reasoned, I think people should question to what end we’re trying to perfect a system of competitive theater arts awards.  Here’s what I like about the HH Awards:  It provides an amazing sense of community around the night of “Drama Prom”, which many of my friends at both large and small theater companies genuinely enjoy and look forward to.  Yay theatreWashington for providing that wonderful affirmation of our community!  I think that argues in favor of keeping the awards together and not splitting them up, everybody there is in it together.
    Here’s what I don’t like about the HH Awards (and all similar creative-arts awards):  It engenders a deeply false sense of competition in a fundamentally collaborative field.  How does dividing the awards into two size categories fix that problem?  It’s impossible.
    Here’s an area where all of us could do better: increasing the public knowledge both locally and nationally about the exceptional quality of the performing arts in DC, particularly the theatre arts (in this biased observer’s opinion).  I do not feel that the HH awards does a good enough of job that, in terms of either increasing the size of the audience year over year or increasing the stature of our artists either locally or nationally (an HH award has no cachet anywhere outside the greater DC area).  I feel sure that greater recognition of our theater community is a goal of the HH awards, and I believe it’s the single most important mission improvement they could pursue.  Therefore if splitting up the categories would somehow contribute materially to HH’s ability to get more people to go to theater in DC and raise the cachet of the award, then I’m all for it.  But I don’t see why that would be the outcome, and so I think it’s just tinkering at the margins of a fundamentally flawed awards concept.
    i miss the old Mary Goldwater Awards for Excellence.  Each year they held a small and under-attended affair where the organization’s membership recognized a handful of artists for their achievement in the last year.  A lovely speech was read that highlighted the artist’s accomplishments and limned the promise that each artist had for future great work.  No competition, just accolades.  And a modest cash prize accompanied each award!  I mourn the loss of that sort of award in DC, as I think it better reflects the great spirit of the artists, and the community that supports them, here in DC.  I don’t think the HH Awards should become that ceremony, but I do think the interested parties should explore more meaningful options than trying to perfect an inherently un-perfect-able system.

  7. Kevin Finkelstein says:


    I had the same concerns at first (about creating classism). But, quite frankly, that classism already exists. When non-theatre theatre audiences (that is, those audiences that aren’t involved with theatre, but are just patrons of the arts) see that nomination list every year, it’s just validation that their STC/Synetic/Studio season passes are worth the money. 

    Talking with folks in Chicago, who already use a tiered system, doesn’t reveal any sort of widespread bias by their theatre audiences. It’s not ideal, but a two-tiered system would allow for more exposure of theatreWashington, which can ONLY be a good thing. Isn’t that why they continue to award non-resident productions? It’s not to celebrate those productions coming to DC; it’s about exposing the Helen Hayes (and now theatreWashington) brand outside of DC. The problem is those outside productions almost never seem to care about the HH awards: I can’t remember the last time more than one winner for non-resident even showed up at the Awards.

    So my suggestion to tW would be to either:

    a) ditch the non-resident productions and replace them with a second tier of awards
    b) create a second tier of awards and give them their own awards show 

  8. Kevin Finkelstein says:


    tW emailed a survey out, gosh, maybe a year and a half ago? Someone else on this thread might know more specifically when. They did ask, and I know that survey was sent to all tW members (and plenty in the community, as well).

    re: goals of the HHA awards, I’d simply say that theatreWashington is a voluntary membership group. No one forces any company in DC to join or be affiliated with them. If you aren’t satisfied, then you need to do what’s best for your company, no doubt. For us, it makes more sense to work with the existing tW infrastructure and try to change that, then to say “well, we can’t get our way with the nationalized group, so we’re going to make our own.” 

  9. Karey,

    Both costume design and best actress in a play winners came from small theatres this year.

  10. Steve Beall says:

    OK. We’ll have to agree to disagree. I just don’t see the HHA or theatreWashington you’re describing.

    The HHA’s goal appears to be absolute power over which D.C. area theatres are going to be recognized.  It’s always the same old same old, year after year.  The small non-Equity companies are only ever thrown an occasional bone in order to shut them up … temporarily.  When and how often has a small professional non-Equity company won a MAJOR HH award (not Best Emerging Theatre or Best Ensemble … a MAJOR award for Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, and Best Designer)?   And who elected The HHA / tW to be the sole “voice” of D.C. area theatres?  In fact, I don’t even recall an election ever being held.  

  12. Steve Beall says:

    Personally, I think starting a new organization and a new award would be a size 14 solution to a size 9 problem – if it’s a “problem” at all.
    Helen Hayes has already demonstrated a willingness and an ability to change incrementally (the creation of the ensemble award, the emerging theatre company award, etc.) and to make larger changes (the creation of theatreWashington) signal an awareness that the organization has to evolve.
    Mr.Pressley’s article, Mr. Bauman’s, and plenty of other “signs” suggest that change is in the offing. I just went over to check at The Post and saw that Mr. Pressley’s article has all of four comments. Maybe if he put his articles in the sport section, there’d be more evidence of the support his ideas clearly have – at least here at DCTS.
    But a conversation has, indeed, begun. There’s no reason to think the awards and the organization won’t be able to join in and continue to take the lead in promoting theatre in our region.

    Obviously I’m a day late in seeing this article and perhaps things have quieted down somewhat, but Mr. Bauman’s article couldn’t have appeared at a better time.

    There’s a growing unrest and dissatisfaction with the way that small professional non-Equity companies, their actors (often EXCEEDING the quality found in the larger Equity houses), directors,  and designers are being continually being ignored and shut out from current award nominations and recognition, and as such, being denied the opportunity to grow their companies and careers.

    As a result, there’s also a growing interest in establishing a new awards organization to recognize the work and achievements of smaller professional companies and the artists who work for them … including the interest of at least one critic. 

    If anyone is interested in active involvement by establishing and promoting a potential / prospective new award and being on the board of directors for a new organization, please contact

  14.   … after significant consideration, the rules committee denied the request, in part because representatives from smaller companies did not want to be considered in separate categories.”

    Really?  Interesting.  I’d LOVE to know which small companies were contacted about this — and WHEN — by tW / The HHA, and then told them that they did not wish to be considered for a nomination or award in separate categories.  The Heritage-O’Neill Theatre was NEVER contacted and we’ve been in operation since 2003. 

    How about others out there reading this — TACT, Keegan, etc.  Were any of you contacted by tW / The HHA and then you turned down the opportunity to grow your companies by being recognized with a nomination or an award in a separate category?   

  15. As the Helen Hayes theater coordinator for Woolly I think we rarely win the lead actor or actress category because most of our shows have ensemble casts, I’ve rarely been able to nominate leads and supporting actors. 

  16. I’ve heard the two-tier argument before, and I’ve never understood (until now) what problem it’s attempting to solve.

    I’m more persuaded than I ever have been, though I do still have concerns about creating a kind of classism I’d rather avoid.

    On the other hand, I think there are significantly greater concerns about the awards and the way in which they fail to live up to the promise of supporting and promoting DC theater.

    I love the Helen Hayes, and I believe in theatreWashington, but I’m convinced that until they find the will to stop rewarding non-resident productions (or to reduce the attention paid to those productions to a single Best Non-Resident Production award), they will continue to miss the mark.

  17. Steve Beall says:

    … and of course, by “Chris” I mean “Chad” …

  18. Steve Beall says:

    @Kevin –
    Yup. I don’t dispute a bit of what Chris is saying here. If anything, I’m just wondering about – maybe bemused by – and trying to understand the statement from HH that the small companies’ “representatives” don’t want a tiered system.
    I’m still intrigued by it.

  19. Kevin Finkelstein says:

    @Steve – Heck, I’m an Artistic Director of a “smaller” company, and Chad hits the problem on the head with:

    “We were instructed not to evaluate productions against others, but without clear guidance on how to evaluate productions with such a wide disparity in terms of production budgets, I did the best I could.”

    I want a tiered system. I want judges who are solely focused on theatres with smaller operating budgets. When you don’t have your own permanent home (even companies like Constellation, Forum and Taffety Punk don’t own their spaces), requirements, needs and vision can’t be thought of in the same way that companies with larger operating budgets would. If theatreWashington wants to be inclusive of ALL theatre in the district, and not just the same seven companies that operate on multi-million dollar budgets, then a tiered system would be the way to go. 

  20. Steve Beall says:

    @hmmmm – I’m inclined to agree with you, particularly about the awards as a marketing tool. But I’m still intrigued by the report that “representatives” (AD’s? Board members? …) of the small theatres didn’t want a tiered system. It’d be interesting to see some details of that or to see those same “representatives” comment here.
    As for how donors and audiences respond – Who knows until it’s been tried? Hey … I’ve always preferred minor league ball myself …

  21. @Steve. Hasnt seemed to diminsh the theatres and artists in Chicago, or Philly, or the Ovations in L.A. We are also missing the point about the awards. They are a marketing tool or they are supposed to be. If the HH Awards bills itself as a celebration of the theatre community, the awards as is, cannot do that in the current system. I really believe that the same theatres that do not want a split, when faced with being nominated or winning one, will react as any company would. They will splash it on their website, posters, etc. It would be a great fundraising tool. Most donors and audiences won’t look at the award and think, “Wait a minute…you won in the smaller (intimate, non-equity, what have you) category so, ew, no thanks”

  22. Steve Beall says:

    ” … after significant consideration, the rules committee denied the request, in part because representatives from smaller companies did not want to be considered in separate categories.”
    Great article. The above quote is worth noting. It’s likely that many in the arts community consider themselves “professionals” as well as “artists” and while it’s probably not possible to draw to clear a distinction there, the concerns may be different between the two groups.
    Is it possible that some who are building careers may fear that their HH award will be regarded as a “minor league” or “junior” award if there is a tiered system?
    Are they concerned that “small theatre” may not be a way they want to be categorized, because they actually may want to grow, and would not want to establish an identity that could be limiting in terms of perceptions?

  23. And co-productions are concern as well. If a show rehearses and then opens at the Goodman Theatre for 8 weeks, then opens in DC, how is that a show meant for DC audiences (which is a rule of eligability)? The fact a production doesn’t orginate in DC should be taken into consideration as well. I am guessing the larger theatres get around this by hiring different actors and thus fall in the safe zone.

  24. I second the notice regarding “non-resident” or revival productions. I vaguely remember a few years ago Arena did “Crowns” which (rightfully so) won some awards. They remounted the production a few years later and won some more awards. I also have the same gripe about the Emmys when they  award a guest actor emmy to someone who has returned to a role or went from being a regular to a guest.

  25. Agree with most of this article and the stats are very telling. Chad,  I was wondering, going all with Brett’s comment, if you felt the training prepared you to judge the design disciplines? The judges that arent part for the profession are called “educated theatre-goers”. Is someone who has not even taken a simple tech class in college in regards to lights, sets and costumes, really going to be able to truly judge if a lighting design with 100 lights is better than one that uses only 25? Are they trained to be able to judge that a design helped tell the story even if it isnt as flashy or noticeable as a larger design?

    And one final thought along these lines. As impressive and worthy Synetic’s productions are, how does one determine what is the direction or choreography in their shows? I guess its good to say that they meld seamlessly, but how do you judge them seperately?

  26. Anonymous says:

    FYI – Synetic Theater did not break the $1M mark until late in the decade excluding in-kind donations.

  27. Brett Abelman says:

    It seems like awarding “excellence” in set design would be part of the problem?  A multi-thousand-dollar gorgeous multi-level architectural set will always look more “excellent” in and of itself than a cheap yet creative/atmospheric one, but it may not serve the play itself, or bring the play to life, as spot-on as that cheaper one.  Perhaps “precision” would be a better word?

  28. Jesse Terrill says:

    While it is nice to see women represented in design opportunities in D.C. theatre, I don’t think we have to try to give a lighting, sound or set design to a woman simply to fill a quota.  What about gays in those design fields?  Blacks?  Asians?  No quotas, please.  Ever.  Just nominate the best work.

  29. Having left DC for Boston, I have to admit that Boston’s annual awards (Independent Reviewers of New England, or IRNE Awards – pronounced “Ernie”) are set much much more equitably.  They hand out a small handful of awards recognizing touring productions (“non-resident,” as you call ’em), but there are two sets of nominees for each award, one for Small Theatre and one for Large Theatre.  Best Play and Best Director are even divided into three: Small/Fringe, Medium and Large.  I am unaware what the dividing line between the levels are, but at the end of the day, a Fringe/Underground/Emerging company can still be recognized.



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