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.
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.