The Helen Hayes Awards: why I’ve changed my mind

I attended the theatreWashington summit a few weeks ago. I read the recent Nelson Pressley article in The Washington Post on one of the topics addressed at the meeting, whether to split existing Helen Hayes categories so that smaller-budget theatres are not competing against larger-budget theatres. It was apparent at the meeting, and reported by Pressley, that the consensus among smaller-budget theatres was against a split. I would like to provide a minority report from one of the very few voices from the smaller theatre side of the room who is in favor of a split.

In fact, I would like to explain why I, having at one time been against it, have changed my mind.

Christopher Henley

Christopher Henley (Photo: Jay Hardee)

Where we were

It is an undeniable fact that the theatre scene in DC has undergone exponential growth since the inception of the awards. When once there were around 20 theatres doing Hayes-eligible work, there now are, what, 80 or so? I’ve witnessed some of the unintended consequences of this growth. It is much more difficult to leverage a positive review into full houses than it was in the 80s and 90s at theatres with limited marketing budgets.

Another consequence involves the Hayes awards themselves. Simply put, I believe that work at the same caliber as that which got HH love in the 80s and 90s has been squeezed out by the mere volume of other outstanding work. Of course, there never are “sure things” when it comes to awards. (Anyone who doubts that should YouTube the look on Lauren Bacall’s face when Juliette Binoche won her Oscar.) However, my experience and observations of the last 10 or 12 years of Hayes nominations has led me to believe that work that once would have had a reasonable expectation of acknowledgement may no longer receive it. This applies to work at theatres of all sizes and budgets. More importantly, this applies to work of astoundingly high artistic achievement.

It is not my intention to argue that the judges and the system “get it wrong” or are biased against small theatre or blinded by big budgets. It is to argue that the depth of remarkable and praiseworthy work is not reflected as comprehensively as it was when the pool of eligible work was more limited. A sensible way to address this development is to splinter some of the categories that have become overflowing with eligible work and remarkable accomplishment.

It should be remembered that we’ve lost the Theatre Lobby Mary Goldwater awards, a non-competitive yet extremely thoughtful awards system that focused on excellent work achieved against the odds. It didn’t make its selections in reaction to Hayes omissions, but it was a refreshing alternative that frequently highlighted beautiful work that had fallen through the Hayes cracks.

I used to be against any change that would tier theatres by size. I was nominated twice as an actor in the 1990s. It was overwhelming to think that the process looked at so many performances at so many companies, boiled things down to 6 or 7 finalists, and, wow, I was one of that small number, non-Equity, small company me. When a WSC set was nominated, costing a fraction of what bigger companies spent on sets, it was a triumph of artistic imagination over daunting resources. I admit that part of the thrill of a nomination was that it came with a sense of David against Goliath.

Where we are

However, at this point in time, I would trade that feeling of prevailing against better-funded and larger institutions in favor of a situation wherein more artists and companies who deserve recognition get it. I think it would be great if more actors, designers, and directors, at small theatres and big alike, feel that sense of appreciation that I did, and have the cachet and career-boosting exposure that comes with a nomination.

I think it would be awesome if more than the few smaller companies that currently get it receive attention which they can leverage into support from government, foundations, and individual donors, enabling them to become more stable and more likely to realize their potential and fulfill their missions. This upside to a split has, for me, become more important than the satisfying boost one feels when one of the smaller companies squeezes onto the slate with a nomination or even a win.

The awards structure, let’s remember, has evolved. It’s not as if the spirit of Thespis came down off the mountain and handed a tablet to Helen Hayes with the current category structure. Changes have been made. Some were in response to theatre community suggestions, such as the addition of categories for Sound Design and the Ensemble award. Regarding the former, Helen Hayes did that before the Tonys; regarding the latter, the Tonys still haven’t caught up with the Helens. Some changes were in response to the way the scene has evolved, for instance the fact of non-resident categories becoming less prominent as the indigenous scene exploded.

Suggestions

.  New categories for small theatres

A half-measure, short of a great divide that completely separates theatres of different sizes, might be to keep small theatres eligible for all awards, but adopt new categories dedicated to small theatre. The Oscars have special categories for foreign language and animated films, but those films remain eligible for the non-dedicated awards. Similarly, at the Independent Spirit awards, there is the Cassavetes award for a film with a budget under $100,000; its winner can compete for other awards.

Speaking of the Independent Spirit awards (for films that aren’t big budget studio movies), I wonder if part of the issue might be whatever pejorative sense surrounds the description “smaller.” I don’t get a sense watching Independent Spirit awards that the people there feel at all slighted because they aren’t competing against studio blockbusters. Many of our larger theatres are admirably adventuresome. But I’ve been told by certain directors, “No other theatre in town would let me take this chance.” Even if that’s not entirely true (and somewhat self-serving to report), it does speak to an ethos whereby some of the edgier endeavors by smaller groups might fare better in a size-tiered context.

The goal, in my mind, in supporting a change of this kind is that more of what is praiseworthy in town will get praised, as much as possible by the awards system. However, if there are smarter or better ways to tier the system, create a sense of greater inclusion, and restore what I perceive as a decrease in coverage, I could be convinced of a different fix than small vs large.

. Contemporary vs. classical

A structure might distinguish new plays or DC premieres as against revivals. (The Tonys have some categories dedicated only to revivals.) Perhaps segregating productions of contemporary plays vs productions of classics is worth considering. These changes wouldn’t address resource discrepancy, which is a concern behind some of the calls for size tiering. However, it would make me happy that more worthwhile work had greater chance of acknowledgment.

. Expanded list of high achievement

Here’s an idea (borrowed from DCTheatreScene.com Audience Choice process) that could increase recognition without adding categories: create one more threshold number, high enough that it is obvious that judges really admired the work, but lower than the 5-7 list of nominations, and release that before nomination announcements. Like Helen Hayes Recommends, it could provide some official validation to work that meets a high standard, but doesn’t make it onto the short list of nominees. More artists will feel included and invested, and the perception of high standards wouldn’t be obliterated.

. Bring back the spirit of the Goldwater Awards

Maybe the best answer is a successor to the Goldwater awards, or something analogous to the Independent Spirit awards. This has been talked about a lot, but nothing has come of it. Truth be told, it takes a lot of time and energy to create and administer something like that. But maybe it would be worth it. Maybe it’s unfair to expect Helen Hayes to be all things to all theatre.

. The work of all non-resident performers be considered

In case, however, dear reader, you think I’ve gone all fifth column for The Man, here is an unsolicited suggestion that the Big Boys definitely won’t like. Even more than the seeming consensus against splitting the awards was one against non-resident categories. What about shifting from classifying productions as non-resident to classifying artists as resident and non-resident? If someone, say, an actor, jobs in from out of town, that actor competes against Cate Blanchett and Fiona Shaw in the non-resident categories; the resident categories are for indigenous Washington theatre artists. (Perhaps that would incentivize some theatres to cast and hire locally a bit more than happens.)

. Create informal awards

I’ve dealt frequently over many years with a lot of people involved with the Helen Hayes awards. I can tell you that they work very, very hard to be fair, to be responsive, to educate judges, to be Caesar’s Wife. But this isn’t science, and no one is going to come on-stage at the Warner with a Petrie Dish proving a scientific basis to what basically is a subjective activity. Personally, an Obie model appeals to me more than a model based on competitive categories, but I understand that, in the real world, the organization needs to sell tickets to the event and that the horse race helps, I suppose.

Still, one can dream…

Comments

  1. Of interest, perhaps, this similarly-minded post from Kevin Finkelstein: http://www.suilebhan.com/2013/08/27/my-helen-hayes-awards-kevin-finkelstein/

  2. Fantastic insight, Christopher. Thank you for sharing!

  3. Randy Baker says:

    Thanks for wading into the treacherous waters of dissent Christopher. It’s gratifying to see some thoughtful and intelligent disagreement.

  4. Jesse Terrill says:

    I also agree on a split but was too afraid to voice an opinion. I enjoyed the read. Very insightful.

  5. As a former DC-area theatre artist now based in Boston, a comparison between the two cities’ awards systems could offer some perspective:

    There are two major theatre awards, the Independent Reviewers of New England Awards (IRNE, unofficially pronounced “Ernies”), and the Elliot Norton Awards.

    The IRNE committee is a consortium of 17 critics and theatre lovers who review as many productions as possible, centered primarily in metro Boston but occasionally including the Equity theatres of greater New England.

    They do have what Christopher and others have suggested, a tiered system of Small and Large Theatres. For the Best Play and Best Director category, they split it further into Small, Midsize and Large. Many awards are also divided into Play and Musical, and there are only a handful of awards for “Visiting” (i.e. touring and non-resident) productions. Although many quibble over the dividing line between small, midsize and large, I find it to be a surprisingly fair and equitable arrangement, allowing for “Fringe” productions (pretty much any small theatre with no full-time staff is designated “Fringe”) to be well represented by the nominations and competetive to win.

    Full Disclosure: I won an IRNE award this year, but was never nominated for a Helen Hayes, so one could understand my preference for the IRNE’s award system.

    The Eliot Norton Awards are a bit more lavish. The Nortons judges are also critics, but for major newspapers and media outlets, and are far fewer in number. Fringe companies have to lobby long and hard to get a Norton judge to attend. They also have a tiered small/large theatre system, but many believe that because so few Fringe shows are attended and consequently nominated, it’s not a fair representation of the Fringe community. That said, if you can get a Norton judge to come to your Fringe show, you stand a fair chance of being nominated.

    The purpose and legitimacy of theatre awards is a debate that I feel unqualified to comment upon, but I hope this comparison is beneficial to the discussion.

  6. Average Theater Goer says:

    I think HHA are overrated. I used to go each year but it basically has turned into crowning the prom king and queen, when in reality the only people WHO ACTUALLY care about the outcomes of the awards is the theaters that are eligible. Am I, the average theater goer who has a subscription to every major theater in town (and contributes financially to most of them as well), supposed to care who wins. I am not more likely or less likely to see a show because so and so is in it and they won the HHA last year. That does not matter to me. What matters to me is seeing good work with good actors.

    What the HHA does is irrelevant to me. What is relevant is that theaters keep up the good work and I agree about hiring local actors. There are 2 things that I, average theater goer, can not stand….

    1) When the principal cast is all NY based people who I’ve never heard of, or didn’t see their episode of Law and Order where they played junkie #2. and….

    2) When in a single season every show at a single theater has the same cast. If I wanted to see the same actors in every show in a season, I’d take a trip to the Catskills.

    I know these 2 things are very different (and almost contradictory) but there are is A LOT of local talent. I try to see every major show at the local universities, because that’s where the future of theater is, and it’s nice to see new faces.

    - Signed, An Average Theater Goer

    • John Geoffrion says:

      If you define an average theatre goer as someone who “has a subscription to every major theater in town (and contributes financially to most of them as well,” can you send a few such average theatre goers up to Boston?

      • Average Theater Goer says:

        True… I guess I’m not the “average” theater goer, since I have the financial means to have subscriptions and contribute, but my point is really, does your “average” (meaning non-theater person) actually care about the HHA. And I should also say that I in no way think they should disappear, I think they are very important, I’m just pointing out that us non-insiders don’t really care about who wins.

        And I take frequent business trips to Boston, I should spend more time checking out the theater scene there :)

  7. Average Theater Goer,

    It’s nice to hear from people who aren’t in the business and see so much work as you do. However, the snide comment about seeing the same people in every show means you have a misunderstanding of the process of theatre and the historical context in which organizations exist. Prior to the 1980s, when regional theaters starting to really become national destinations, almost every major theater operated under a company member system. This assured quality of product over multiple shows, gave a cohesion and chemistry to the acting ensemble that can be difficult to achieve, and also allowed these artists to play a multitude of varied roles showing off the talent of each individual, but maintain the style in which the theatre choose to produce. I appreciate your feeling of wanting to see new faces, but to compare it to the Catskills (I am trying to figure out the connection since the traditional acts their were stand ups, revues, and smaller shows) is a little eye brow raising.

    I assume you do not watch sporting events as you must be sick of seeing the same players each time they take the field. Theatre sometimes works in the same manner. You put your best players forward, together as a team, to tell a story the best way you can.

    • Average Theater Goer says:

      Yes, I understand the process of the theater, I understand the company system, but I will not single any particular theater out – but my intention was that some theaters use the same company of actors in a detrimental way. Of course some theaters in town use acting companies very effectively, so I apologize for my comment coming off with a broad stroke.

      And yes, I do watch sporting events, but each week those players are playing the same “role” – just as if I were to see the same show every night of the week. I know certain directors have their favorites (I know in Hollywood that is also the case), so I guess I’m just being nit picky.

      And my Catskills reference was an ill placed joke. Sorry :(

  8. Tom Holzman says:

    Christopher has done an excellent job of making the case for some sort of change in the HHA. I was at the summit, and could not help but be reminded of how much the theater scene here has changed, particularly the numbers, but also the ability of DC to retain so much of the fantastic talent that comes here to try to make it in theater. In a sense, it is DC’s success at this that makes the HHA judging task so difficult. The analogy that occurs to me is that winning an HHA (and even being nominated, to some extent) has become a crap shoot, sort of like getting into an Ivy League college these days. I see theater roughly 3-4 times per week. There are so many excellent productions/performances that it is very difficult for me to say that one is such a standout that it really deserves an HHA above all the others, or even that the nominations reliably capture what I consider to the best performances, etc. Plus, I might see something at the beginning of the year that really strikes me, but later in the year find myself unable to truly recall if it was better than a half dozen other performances/productions I have seen in the interim. Perhaps this is the curse of having such a vibrant theater scene, but I would hope that the theater community can recognize that the world has changed so substantially and give serious thought to changes in the HHA structure. Anyhow, that is my $0.02 as a devoted audience member.

  9. I agree with Mr. Henley. In addition, I’d like to see the removal of the Non Resident catagories. The resident DC Theatre community is large and active enough to stand on its own.

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