Earlier this month, Pallas Theatre Collective issued a response to the new Helen Hayes Awards eligibility requirements. You can read it here. DC Theatre Scene reached out to us and asked us to expand on our response for their series.
“The theater is the only institution in the world which has been dying for four thousand years and has never succumbed. It requires tough and devoted people to keep it alive.”
– John Steinbeck, Once There Was a War
We cannot recall such a turbulent month for the D.C. theatre community. Before our very eyes, in what essentially amounted to one week, the landscape of D.C. theatre shifted. From the news of Signature Theatre’s bailout, to the announcement of Artisphere’s closing, to Ari Roth’s recent termination, and, of course, the new Helen Hayes Award eligibility requirements. Many of us had trouble keeping up with and reacting to the news; a new bombshell was seemingly dropped every day.
But even as our community debates and discusses these issues, D.C. theatres continue to thrive and flourish, as they always do. Grain of Sand Theatre just closed the popular You Can’t Get a Decent Margarita at the North Pole, Forum Theatre released the third episode of its exciting podcast Walking the City of Silence and Stone and the laughter from 1st Stage’s hilarious One Man, Two Guvnors lingers long after the lights go up. D.C. is an amazingly diverse theatrical community made up of passionate artists and scholars that fight and work for one another. Believe it or not, we are all on the same team. We all have a passion for our art and our artistic community.
[editor’s note: The bold text is emphasis placed by the authors]
We, Ty Hallmark, Tracey Elaine Chessum, and Caroline Brent, can only speak for Pallas Theatre Collective, obviously, but when the new Helen Hayes Award eligibility requirements were distributed, there was a certain amount of shock. Like many of our colleagues, we had no prior knowledge that these financial benchmarks were coming, and our first reaction was one of confusion. Over Prosecco and Chinese food—a combination we highly recommend—the three of us sat down on Friday to talk about what these new requirements meant for Pallas and our future. Here’s what we came up with:
Above all, Pallas believes in the right to fair pay for individual theatre artists, and always will. In considering our mission (and Tracey’s work as a theatre professor), it would be utterly hypocritical for us to not support these minimums with full force. Pallas has been privileged to be a springboard for actors, designers, playwrights, and musical theatre creators for four years, and we are elated to be a home for many young artists as they seek to establish themselves in the artistic community; no matter what happens, we will keep oiling our springs and continue to work hard to secure funding so we may be able to pay them as much as we can. We recognize that Pallas is in a unique position in that its budget projections should meet these guidelines in a few years.
However, these new eligibility requirements may call into question the status of many smaller theatres that do not self-identify as community theatres but may also no longer be considered professional theatres in the eyes of the Helen Hayes Awards.
We believe there is a dramatic difference between the community theatre and the professional artistic incubator. There are professional theatre artists at the helm of many of our fellow small theatres (artists who have long professional careers in D.C., participate in Helen and Hayes Award-eligible productions, and teach in our universities), and their theatres showcase professional artistic products necessary to the artistic development of our artists and audiences. Further, many of these theatres have missions that seek to incubate specific styles, genres, forms, methods, and/or artists themselves. We may not be a professional theatre, but we certainly are a group of theatre professionals working together for the next generation of theatre professionals. Our theatres are the continuation of the historical “Little Theatre” and Avant-garde movements that formed the bedrock of the American Theatre today – those movements arose when professional theatres were unable to change quickly enough to encapsulate the mood, ideas, and art of a nation redefining itself. And, what a redefinition we are witnessing today! As we look around at a nation struggling to find common ground, we ask everyone to consider American theatrical history when deciding the worth or professional nature of these types of organizations.
We recognize that the best way forward in this discussion is through collaboration with theatreWashington and the rest of the theatre community. If we truly are on the same page, we believe that it is in everyone’s best interest to discuss our ideas, problems, and (dare we say) feelings openly. In our leadership conversations earlier this month, we identified three possibilities we hope the Helen Hayes Award changes may bring to our community if we collaborate openly and honestly:
First, we hope this fosters a community of transparency when it comes to finances and nonprofit management. We challenge all our fellow companies to fully release their annual financial documents. Pallas will continue to release its annual budget at the end of our fiscal year (12/31), and we hope other theatres will do the same. Read it. Ask us about it. As a nonprofit, we are required to do this, but as far as we can tell, only our board reads it. We, as a community, need fiscal accountability.
Second, we hope this encourages existing small incubator theaters to band together to strengthen their chances of full recognition within the Helen Hayes Award system, and discourages others from forming new companies before they have explored working with already existing companies. So, come work with us – produce in our season, produce outside our season. Collaborate with us. Collaborate with another company. The more collaboration, the better we will be able to manage our theatres. Many of our fellow theatres have well-trained arts administrators, fundraisers, marketing teams, graphic designers, web designers, treasurers, directors, historians, puppeteers, choreographers, etc. By collaborating with one another, we could decrease our expenses but continue to offer the same amount of opportunities for artists. Think of what could happen if we set our egos aside, merged our audiences, and banded together with others of similar mission, while still being able to do the work that was so important to all of us.
Third, and most importantly to this discussion, we are invested in exploring a new way to recognize the work of professional artistic incubators, as recognition helps us secure the funding to continue work and pay artists a living wage. We hope that theatreWashington will create, along with this HH award restructuring, a place for us within its ranks. After all, it was theatreWashington who, through committee, accepted Pallas into the fold as a professional theatre in the first place – we hardly think that it will turn its back on us now. We are incredibly interested to see how theatreWashington will reach out to the number of member theatres that are now ineligible for Helen Hayes Awards, and we look forward to attending the discussions scheduled for early next year. We hope we see your company there.
What is already clear, but worth repeating over and over again, is that small theatres are vital to a vibrant culture. While we may no longer be considered a professional theatre organization according to the Helen Hayes Awards compensation guidelines, we are still a theatre made up of professionals, providing opportunities for the next generation of artists. Without us, the real-world, professional training—that every actor in D.C. experiences, and that Pallas provides for its new musical/work creators—would be eliminated. We are those who continue a long historical tradition, providing the groundwork for the American Theatre of tomorrow.
We look forward to finding a way to work together—small professional theatres, theatreWashington, and the greater D.C. community that we love—so that D.C. remains a front-runner for professional theatre in the United States.
Ty Hallmark, Artistic Director
Tracey Elaine Chessum, Founder, Associate Artistic Director
Caroline Brent, Managing Director