How do they do it? We talk with Jerry Whiddon, Renee Calarco and Linda Levy Grossman
Every year, the Helen Hayes Awards show prompts some musing on tradition. Why is it that on this night above all others we gather together, much of DC’s theatre community under one roof, and put on a special show?
“There’s some fun song and dance,” says Jerry Whiddon, who directs this year’s 29th annual Awards, presented by theatreWashington. “But the main point of order is to celebrate the past year in DC-area theatre, and to acknowledge the artists who make it happen. That’s what it’s all about.”
Indeed, most of the evening (this year’s show goes up on Monday, April 8 at 8pm) is given to the business of presenting and accepting awards. But Whiddon, together with playwright Renee Calarco and working alongside a large host of arts colleagues, is responsible for the look, feel, and flow of the evening.
Awards are given in 26 categories, around which swirls about fifteen minutes of original live entertainment, typically a whimsical blend of singing, dancing, quick comedy bits, and diverse cameos by notable players from the DC arts scene and beyond.
“These are people who typically make theatre for a living,” says theatreWashington’s President and CEO Linda Levy Grossman, referring to the show’s creative team. “But this night is something different. This isn’t exactly theatre. We’re asking them to flex a very different muscle.”
The Helen Hayes Awards have featured a show ever since the event’s founding. In that first spring of the awards in 1985 (which honored the shows produced in 1984) the DC area boasted 14 professional theatres. This year, by theatreWashington’s count, there are 84.
Whiddon, like most, is aware of the evolving arts landscape, and fine-tuning the annual show to reflect these changes is part of the game. “There’s a constant struggle as a team, I think, between capturing and maintaining the aspects of the show that we really think work year after year, and pressing ourselves to always do it better, to forge ahead, to keep it dynamic,” he says.
“There is a pre-existing structure to the proceedings, so we are mindful of honoring that” says Calarco, who writes the evening’s script. “The show has to accomplish a number of things, the first of which of course is to honor the nominees. We want folks to know all about theatreWashington too. Each year there’s also a special tribute. So, we have to do all of these things in a respectful and also an entertaining way.”
The endeavor is practically year-round. Only a few weeks after the curtain comes down on the awards, the production team gathers again to talk about what worked, and what to do differently next time, while it’s all still fresh in their heads. By the fall, they’re rolling up their sleeves for the first production meeting, where they’ll begin to talk logistics. The rehearsals themselves usually begin about two weeks in advance of showtime.
Calarco and Whiddon’s first year on board was 2008. “I didn’t really know anybody involved at the time,” says Calarco. “But we had a lot of fun and we all worked really well together. I was honored to be brought in, and it turned out to be great.”
It’s not theatre-making, per se, but the show is definitely a creative endeavor, Calarco explains. “And every year there comes a point where I think: I don’t know what the hell I’m doing. I have some basic sense of which points we need to hit and where we need to eventually get. But there’s always a moment where you stare at your laptop in despair and think: Not another creative word is going to come out of me.”
It helps, she says, to track new thoughts along the way. “I always keep a file of ideas that has been coming to me over the course of the year. Plus ideas that I’d had for the show from the previous year that didn’t end up getting used. By the end of summer, I’m already starting to ramp up and get ready.”
Whiddon, like any conscientious artist, can feel overwhelmed at moments too. “Every year, in the middle of it all, I have this feeling like I’m brand new to this,” he says. “I feel like I’m always learning how little I know.”
Philosophically, though, Whiddon has decided this is just fine. In fact, it helps ensure that each year’s show feel a little different from the last. “We all change!” he says. “I know I’m different than I was last year. The whole city is. We all carry changes. We’re all a year older and we’ve had new experiences.”
This year marks Whiddon and Calarco’s fifth collaboration on the awards, and Grossman couldn’t be happier with the particular team assembled. “Jerry and Renee have a very natural, wonderful creative connection. Renee does a brilliant job of building the show from the skeleton up. And Jerry understands the rhythm of this occasion intimately.”
The group has shaken up the proceedings many time over the years. Sometimes the show has one host, sometimes two, sometimes none. And only over the past few years has the event featured a singing, dancing ensemble — a further opportunity for theatreWashington to showcase the area’s ever-deepening pool of talent.
What will be different this year? Most involved are tight-lipped. Why spoil the surprise?
“I will say that the show is more media-heavy this year than it’s been in the past,” concedes Calarco. “We’re relying on projections and short video in a way that we haven’t before. Those parts are completely new. It’ll be interesting to see how that works.” Rather than opening the show with a song parody, for example, Calarco has decided to lead with a video element, edited by James Gardiner.
The audience will recognize other elements. Past years’ shows have used video mainly to display production stills from the nominated shows, a practice that continues this year. Chris Youstra, who wrote and performed a humorous original song last year in tandem with music director Glen Pearson, is writing another new song this year. Another more recent idea, which has proved successful: projecting images and graphics for the shows to be produced throughout 2013, so that the audience is looking ahead as well as looking back.
The team has ample casting work to do as well. Selecting hosts, presenters, and performers can be a complex process. These are mostly group decisions, made around the table by Whiddon, Calarco, and company. All sorts of considerations go into making offers. Did this performer go on last year? Are there newcomers, or up-and-comers, who are due for a moment to shine? And, equally crucial: who all can be available for rehearsals at the same time?
Calarco writes the script in advance, but also sits in on rehearsals. “That’s when I find out if I’ve written a lyric that’s impossible for a singer to sing,” she explains. “There are plenty of small changes that need to be made once we have the performers in the room. It’s really instructive for me. If people need to sing these songs, the lyrics need to work.”
For Whiddon, too, it’s in rehearsal that time starts to really accelerate — especially since teaching performers the music, plus the choreography by Michael Bobbitt, takes most of the early part of that two weeks. By the weekend leading into the show, every piece of the puzzle has to be ready to lock into place.
“It’s a cumulative process,” says Whiddon, “and I have to make sure that each part of the show is running effectively. It’s only late in the game that we look at the material in the order it’s going to be presented. Then the question becomes, how do we get into and out of this or that piece? How does this song fit in-between other things? You don’t want to have ten awards in a row without something cute, or funny, or entertaining, or moving. We try to make sure that the show is balanced.”
Even through this period, the show has not once been run through in the actual theatre.
Then comes Monday. By 8pm the Warner Theatre will be packed with people. But earlier in the day, Whiddon is still working away. He incorporates the staging assistants, who hand out the awards onstage. He folds in the presenters, who stop by throughout the day to get oriented. He goes bit by bit through the whole show. He makes decisions about where each and every body on stage comes from, when, for how long, and where it’s off to after it leaves.
What if there’s a tie among nominees? What if there’s a different number of microphones at the podium than the presenters expect? What if certain people don’t enter on time?
“Who knows?” Whiddon seems unperturbed. “There could be ties. Someone may want to talk for a long time. Someone might not even show up. We just have to roll with it.”
“This whole thing is like a moving train,” he adds. “Once rehearsals start, the train is leaving the station. When we finally get into the theatre, it all has to fall together really quickly. You just have to focus on the parts you have some control over. Because even though problems can seem meddlesome, I think there’s a certain enjoyment in being able to face those problems and deal with them. It’s really important for us to just enjoy the process as we go.”
Calarco agrees. “Jerry and I get along great, and I think our senses of humor are really closely aligned. We know that we can throw ideas out there and play with them as we go.”
“I’m always very nervous,” she admits. “But it’s fun. I’m thrilled.”
Here’s what we already know:
This year, the Helen Hayes Awards will be hosted by Bob Madigan from WTOP and Rebecca Sheir, from WAMU.
The company Dizzy Miss Lizzie’s Roadside Revue will receive the John Aniello Award.
Capital Fringe will receive the Washington Post Award for Innovative Leadership
For the rest? We’ll have to wait for Awards night.
For the first time in the history of the Helen Hayes Awards, audiences beyond the Warner Theatre will be able to catch moments from the evening starting with the red carpet arrivals, videos and projections from the show, exclusive backstage peeks and interviews with the recipients moments after receiving their awards.
It all happens Monday, April 8, starting at 6:30 as the guests enter the Warner Theatre, and on to the show itself, starting at 8pm.
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