TheatreWashington, the nonprofit entity which conducts the Helen Hayes Awards, Washington’s annual celebration of theater excellence, last night announced that it would henceforth be giving two awards in most categories, based on the number and percentage of Equity actors in each production.
The announcement, which theatreWashington made in the Washington Post’s 15th Street Conference Center, comes against a background of controversy over the current system of giving awards. The current system pits small, non-Equity theaters against companies with multi-million dollar budgets for the Helen Hayes prizes. Perhaps surprisingly, it is the larger theaters which objected most vociferously to the current arrangement.
The new system, announced by theatreWashington Board member Glen Howard (who headed the task force which devised the system), will create two categories of awards – the “Helens”, for which productions in non-Equity houses in which less than 51% of the cast and no more than three actors are working under an Equity contract are eligible; and the “Hayes”, for which productions in houses working under an Equity agreement, and productions in which 51% or more of the cast or four or more actors are working under Equity contracts, are eligible.
There will be awards for outstanding work in Helen productions and Hayes productions for most categories, resulting in forty-seven awards in all. The distinction between a Helen production and a Hayes production will be “internal and administrative only” according to theatreWashington President and CEO Linda Levy; all awards given will be Helen Hayes Awards, regardless of the category of the production.
The new categorization of production, which goes into effect next January 1, 2014, goes hand-in-glove with significant reforms in the judging process, Howard announced. Henceforth, separate panels of judges will see all the productions in a given category, and will evaluate no other productions. This will assure that all productions in a given category are seen by the same judges, Howard said, thus eliminating the randomizing influence of any judge’s individual aesthetic.
In addition to the four panels of judges seeing Helen plays, Hayes plays, Helen musicals and Hayes musicals, there will be a fifth panel of judges which sees only new plays. Those judges will evaluate the script only, for purposes of giving the Charles MacArthur Award for best new play. The new play panel will see productions these new plays in addition to a panel of judges who will evaluate the production’s other artistic merits.
The evaluative process will also be changed, Howard announced. Although the Helen Hayes Awards organization will continue to determine nominees on the basis of numerical scores given each production, once nominations are done, each panel will meet and discuss productions and performances, and then (individually) rank each nominee in each category.
Howard also said that the selection criteria for judges would become more demanding. Starting in 2014, judges will not only have to be theater experts but widely recognized as such. Howard identified theater professionals (present and retired), theater academics, and longstanding audience members as the three sources of judges the organization would use. The judges would be nominated, vetted and selected by the Artistic Directors of Helen Hayes member companies, subject to a final interview by theatreWashington.
In addition to doubling the number of awards in most categories, Helen Hayes Awards would be adding a new category for Outstanding Choreography, Howard announced. In the future, there will be separate categories for choreography in a musical and choreography in a play (including, but not limited to, fight choreography). Dance choreography in a play would still be considered play choreography. “If there’s a minuet in Midsummer Night’s Dream, it’s still choreography in a play,” Howard said. The move means that there will be four awards for choreography – two each in the Helen and Hayes categories.
While the number of awards in most categories is being increased, the number of awards in one category – nonresident productions – will be reduced to two. From 2014 onward, Howard said, there would only be awards for outstanding nonresident production and outstanding nonresident performance.
There will continue to be only one Charles MacArthur Award for outstanding new work and one John Aniello Award for emerging theater company.
Howard admitted that some issues remain for the theatreWashington board to resolve. The nonprofit has resolved that no award will be given in a category unless a “critical mass” of approval has been achieved by at least one production, but the Board has not determined what would constitute critical mass. And Howard admitted that a Helen Hayes Awards ceremony which gave out forty-seven awards would be unworkable from an artistic and financial standpoint, but that the Board has not worked out a resolution. TheatreWashington has some time to solve that problem; the first awards night under the new system will not be until Spring of 2015.
Howard said that the changes were motivated by five goals: making sure that theaters were meeting agreed-upon professional standards, promoting quality, consistency and credibility of judging, increasing the value of the awards as a marketing tool, making the system more manageable, understandable and transparent, and maintaining a sense of community among theater professionals. He said that his task force rejected any proposed change which didn’t advance one or more of those goals.
According to Howard, the task force and theatreWashington Board chose number and percentage of Equity cast to distinguish among productions because it was an “industry-relevant criteria” which was a “reasonable proxy”, unlike, he said, budget or size of theater company.
The task force chair also revealed that the Board would be looking at what it means to be a professional production for purposes of the Helen Hayes Awards. To this point, any production which pays its artists, however little, is a professional production. TheatreWashington’s Board will be considering the establishment of minimum pay amounts to determine whether a production is “professional” or not, for purposes of the awards. If the Board decides to do so, Howard said, companies would be given a two-year transition period; and if the Board determined that one of a company’s productions was not a professional production that would not affect the status of the company’s other productions.
CEO Levy added that even if a production was not deemed a professional one for purposes of eligibility for a Helen Hayes Awards, the company and the production would still receive the other benefits theatreWashington provides its member companies.
Reaction among the hundred or so people who attended the theatreWashington announcement seemed to reflect cautious approval – and perhaps some relief. “You guys used a lot of brain juice to come up with these changes,” said Venus Theatre Artistic Director Deb Randall. “I know you’ve come a really long way.”
WCSC Avant Bard Emeritus Artistic Director Christopher Henley, whose gave a detailed critique of various proposals to change the awards in this article, pronounced himself pleased. “I was on record hoping for more categories, so I was very glad to see that presented last night. Also, I…was happy to see the ‘second look’ feature returned to the judging process.”
He expressed misgivings, however, about future plans to qualify theaters based on compensation levels. “I have concerns about the effect that compensation levels might have on the eligibility of excellent work,” he said, “and also on artistic choices (such as cast sizes and budget allocations) that companies might make to remain eligible.” He remained optimistic that further dialogue would result in a workable solution: “I am anxious to engage, as invited, in a conversation about how to institute those eligibility requirements with the least amount of collateral damage or unintended consequences. Everyone in the community should understand the importance of engaging with theatreWashington. They listen and a good argument can affect decisions.”
MetroStage Artistic Director Carolyn Griffith gave a nuanced response: “I have tremendous respect for everyone involved in theatreWashington and the level of commitment they have for promoting Washington theater,” she said. “They have tackled a complicated problem and come up with a very interesting plan. There are still a lot of details to work out.”