Last night, the Helen Hayes awards took place at the National Building Museum, a new venue for the annual ceremony, now in its 30th year. The format was also quite different, but one thing was the same. There were categories, there were nominees, and there were awards doled out to a number of people and productions.
Generally, what gets awards at HH are productions that played in the previous calendar year and have closed. It is therefore unusual that two of the four outstanding productions are things that audiences will have a chance to see. The Book of Mormon, which swept the visiting production categories (there’s only four and it got three) is coming back sometime soon to The Kennedy Center.
And Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company will revive Stupid Fucking Bird this summer, starting July 28th. It took the award as outstanding resident play as well as the Charles MacArthur award for outstanding new play or musical. Playwright Aaron Posner, accepting the MacArthur award, described the play’s director Howard Shalwitz as a visionary and an iconoclast. Shalwitz, Woolly’s artistic director, spoke of “the fullest, richest, deepest collaboration” and gave a shout out to the “amazing list of shows” that were also nominated for outstanding resident play as he accepted that, the evening’s final award.
Though Stupid Fucking Bird took the outstanding production title, another resident play ended up with more awards as Round House Theatre got three for its production of Glengarry Glen Ross. Its director Mitchell Hébert accepted outstanding director, resident play, and spoke of the “ferocious, focused work” of his cast, who took the prize as outstanding ensemble, resident play. That award was accepted by actor Jeff Allin, joined on-stage by many of his cast-mates, including Rick Foucheux, who would later claim another Helen (to add to his many) as he took outstanding lead actor, resident play. That award is now named after Robert Prosky, who, funnily enough, created the Foucheux role of Shelly Levene when the play debuted on Broadway. (It’s also funny that while Foucheux was considered the lead actor in the play, Prosky’s Tony nomination for the role was as a supporting actor.)
Another three Helen show was Hello, Dolly!, which was one of two productions that tied for outstanding resident musical. Hello, Dolly! was a co-production of Ford’s Theatre and Signature Theatre. Accepting were the leaders of those two organizations. Ford’s Paul R. Tetreault said that he would do the talking, saying of Signature’s Eric Schaeffer that “Eric’s won a lot of these.” For his part, Schaeffer said that the co-production was “an example of what Washington does great: work together.” The show’s choreographer Karma Camp took outstanding choreography, resident musical, and its cast was deemed outstanding ensemble, resident musical. Camp concurred that the ensemble was outstanding and ticked off each of their names.
The show that tied with Hello, Dolly! for outstanding resident musical was Olney Theatre Center’s A Chorus Line, and that award was accepted by the play’s director Stephen Nachamie and Olney’s artistic director Jason Loewith. They spoke before it was revealed which show had tied with them, so Loewith ended by saying, “I can’t wait to see who else won!”
A Chorus Line was involved in the evening’s other tie, when that show’s Jessica Vaccaro shared outstanding lead actress, resident musical with Diana Huey, who was in Miss Saigon at Signature Theatre. Huey expressed appreciation that Signature had “taken a risk on a girl from YouTube.”
The six nominations for outstanding production, theatre for young audiences, were divided evenly between Adventure Theatre MTC and Imagination Stage, whose Anime Momotaro came out on top. Kathryn Chase Bryer, Associate Artistic Director of Imagination Stage, accepted the prize. (This year, there wasn’t a physical program, so it wasn’t always easy to keep track of what was coming next or who was accepting for what. A nearby table that was making a lot of noise for the Imagination Stage nominees identified Bryer for me.)
Woolly’s Shalwitz was on the podium more than once. “I’m not Clint,” he said as he accepted Clint Ramos’ award for outstanding set design, resident production for Appropriate at Woolly. Shalwitz invited the audience to check out a display of Ramos’ costume designs, which is now in the Kennedy Center lobby. He also graciously acknowledged Ramos’ other nomination in the same category for another play at a different theatre (The Mountaintop at Arena Stage).
Outstanding lighting design, resident production went to Andrew F. Griffin for Henry V at Folger Theatre. Griffin (who, like Ramos, was nominated twice in his category) wasn’t present because he’s in school right now up at Yale. Outstanding sound design was given to Eric Shimelonis for Never the Sinner at 1st Stage.
That was the only award that went to work at one of the smaller or newer theaters in town. Shimelonis gave a shout out to his intended, Rebecca Sheir of WAMU’s Metro Connection, and the camera found her in the audience and projected her delighted response on the two big screens that stood behind and above the stage.
Men took almost all of the awards in the director and designer categories, but there was one designing woman: Merrily Murray-Walsh, honored for Mary T. & Lizzy K. at Arena Stage. It was not always easy to hear whomever was speaking on-stage over the party that began before the ceremony and continued throughout, and I didn’t catch a word she said in acceptance.
One of the evening’s presenters, actor and multiple HH recipient Ed Gero, had a great line about the noise dynamic when he said that he now knows what it must be like to speak before a political convention. (Nailed it.)
Shakespeare Theatre Company associate director Alan Paul was the outstanding director, resident musical for the STC production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Paul thanked his “hero and mentor”, STC artistic director Michael Kahn.
There were many faces familiar from HH awards past. Outstanding supporting actor, resident play went to Ted van Griethuysen for The Apple Family Plays, which he did at The Studio Theatre.
That gives him about as many HH awards as Jon Kalbfleisch, whose work on Gypsy at Signature Theatre brought him outstanding music direction, resident production. This year, the choreography category was divided into two, separating musical choreography from movement in a resident play.
Irina Tsikurishvili, she who has been honored frequently for her work at Synetic Theater, shared this latter honor with Ben Cunis for Synetic’s The Three Musketeers.
Absent awardees included James Gardiner, outstanding lead actor, resident musical for The Last Five Years at Signature Theatre who, we were told, was taken ill. Broadway leading lady Rachel York was chosen outstanding lead actress, visiting production for Anything Goes at The Kennedy Center. A family emergency kept her away, we were told.
Joaquina Kalukango was awarded outstanding lead actress, resident play for her part in the two-hander The Mountaintop at Arena Stage. She couldn’t come to the ceremony as she is working on the new musical involving Tupac Shakur called Holler If Ya Hear Me.
As I said, the blockbuster The Book of Mormon at The Kennedy Center swept the visiting production categories, taking outstanding visiting production, outstanding supporting performer, visiting production (Samantha Marie Ware), and outstanding lead actor, visiting production (Christopher John O’Neill, who admitted “I suck at speeches”).
The award for most brisk speech goes to Bobby Smith, who wasted no time when he accepted for outstanding supporting actor, resident musical for his work in Spin at Signature Theatre.
The award for all in the family goes to Erin Weaver, whose acceptance of outstanding supporting actress, resident musical for her work on Company at Signature Theatre began with a thank you to her family, just as her husband Aaron Posner had done when he accepted the MacArthur award earlier.
Pointless Theatre Company received the 2014 John Aniello Award for outstanding emerging theatre company. Co-artistic directors Patti Kalil and Matt Reckeweg accepted, mentioned their appreciation that the choice of Pointless put a spotlight on puppetry, thanked Flashpoint DC, whose Mead Theatre Lab provides the company its venue, and proclaimed themselves “pointless and proud.”
Anacostia Playhouse co-founders Adele Robey and Julia Robey Christian were presented with The Washington Post Award for Innovative Leadership. The recently opened space demonstrates, Christian noted, “the power of theatre to change lives.” To quell fears that the playhouse’s location in a part of town off the beaten theatre track will be an obstacle to success, she added, “We’re going to make it.”
The Helen Hayes Tribute was given to Victor Shargai, the out-going board chairman of theatreWashington (tW), the organization that presents the awards. The tribute always included a taped segment. That began with Angela Lansbury in London, who called Shargai an absolute original. Several local theatre folks were also interviewed. Joy Zinoman likened Shargai to The Godfather, although her image was kind of a reverse of the famous scene from the film — she said that Shargai keeps the horse heads out of the beds. Speaking of Shargai’s tireless support of the DC theatre scene, Eric Schaeffer said that Shargai has “made the family bigger.” Pictures from his life were shared, but stories about Shargai’s past were, sadly, difficult to hear, though nonetheless interesting and impressive. (Imagine spending a week with Bertolt Brecht!) In his acceptance remarks, Shargai spoke warmly of the award namesake and all of the people involved with tW, most particularly President and CEO Linda Levy. He made a point of the importance of board members to the vitality of the scene and he spoke movingly about how his work at tW had rekindled his love for theatre.
The evening was divided into three “acts” and each had its pair of presenters. Gero was joined in the first act by Donna Migliaccio. The two got a brief assist from Gero’s Henry IV co-star Stacy Keach, who pronounced DC “the best theatre town in America.” The second act hosts were Felicia Curry and Maboud Ebrahimzadeh and, for the third act, Will Gartshore and E. Faye Butler. The trio of Ashleigh King, Sam Ludwig, and Rachel Zampelli opened the evening with a novelty number and were kept around to “sing off” anyone whose remarks went north of the 30 second mark.
That trio, though, met their match in Dawn Ursula after she came up to take outstanding supporting actress, resident play for The Convert at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, who thanked her families at Woolly and Everyman (where she’s starring in By the Way, Meet Vera Stark.) Her speech was the most fun of the night and ended with her threatening to sing right back at the time-keepers.
Later, I saw a post she made on Facebook, which I would like to share, as it so generously makes the point that the best aspect of the Helen Hayes awards is and always has been not the competition or the recognition of individual achievement so much as the celebration of the vast, varied, wonderful spectrum of DC theatre, including the many remarkable achievements that aren’t acknowledged by the nominations and the results:
“Turning in now after a lovely evening celebrating DC theatre. Honored to have been a recipient but also remembering the many years I was not. DC/MD/VA theatre is full of stellar artists. Cheers to all of us! Much love y’all. Good night.”