Ah, the annual Helen Hayes Awards announcement ceremony. A room full of hope and tension; the hush as the names are read, broken by the occasional gasp or cheer; the surprising results mixed with the predictable ones; the wide smiles on the faces of the anointed and the quick exit of some of the disappointed.
Last year was the first in a long time that I didn’t attend. No longer Artistic Director of WSC Avant Bard, I wasn’t obligated to go. Not that I hadn’t enjoyed going all those years. Especially back in the days when it was held at the Canadian Embassy and included an impressive spread (and a full open bar), it was a night that, in fact, I looked forward to. (The last several years, it’s been held in the Helen Hayes lobby at the the National Theatre. It’s a much smaller room, allowing for fewer trays, and drinkers are now offered only wine.) And as the weather began to look more and more iffy, I remembered my disappointment once in the 90s when inclement weather caused cancellation.
But I must also admit to some relief when I didn’t have to go last year. I imagined that my feelings were like those Hillary Rodham Clinton felt when, as the newly retired Secretary of State, she didn’t have to attend the State of the Union address for the first time in decades: “Have fun, folks. I’m watching it from home and glad of it!”
This year promised to be special, though. It’s the first since theatreWashington tiered the awards, separating productions based roughly on the size of the producing company. The theatre scene in DC had grown so much since the inception of the awards thirty-plus years ago that, many people felt, work which earlier would almost surely have been nominated was getting passed over because of the sheer volume of impressive artistic achievement. But how would this change play out? Would the slate of nominees reflect a broader and more inclusive spectrum of the DC scene? Would it create a different and unexpected bundle of disappointments? Would some who argued against a change feel differently when the implications were better understood, or would those who championed a new system regret the change?
One of the consequences of the splintering of the awards is that now there are almost as many categories (47) as there are women who have accused Bill Cosby: 47 x 6 (the routine number of nominees in each category) will, even after factoring out production nominees, result in a low three-figure total of nominated artists (and probably in mid three-figures if you include members of nominated ensemble casts).
Yet for every nominee, there are others with dashed hopes, people who have been told by an enthusiastic colleague or an audience member, “You deserve a Helen Hayes nomination for this!” Even more will have looked in the mirror and thought, “I could have a chance!” Granted, some of these people might be as delusional as the studio that bought “For Your Consideration” ads in the hope that Brandon Fraser might be nominated for an Oscar for The Mummy. But most are reflections of genuine appreciation of work that has moved someone who experienced it, and, more broadly, reflections of how wonderfully deep and varied are the artistic achievements in this city.
You go into the event, if you run a company as I did, with hopes and even expectations, usually focused on a few particularly wonderful accomplishments at your theatre that year. If those are not among the mentioned names, it causes you pain. Occasionally it is work that wasn’t on your radar that gets acknowledged. (I remember being near Eric Schaeffer many years ago and seeing him exchange a shocked glance with a colleague after an unexpected nomination for a Signature actor.) Sometimes the disappointment that an actor was passed over in a supporting category is quickly countered with the news that the actor was nominated in the leading category. Most folks know that the nominee names are read alphabetically, and you see heads bob and whispers exchanged among listeners when we’ve reached the part of the alphabet that follows the name of a hopeful: “They’ve passed ‘B’…nothing for Billy Bob!”
This year, I went again. Tom Prewitt, my successor, was busy working on the upcoming WSC production of Othello, which he is directing. He asked me to show the flag. (Our Board President Marc Okrand was, as usual, there for us as well.) Then, as it turned out, I was asked to be among those who read out the announcement of the nominations.
Traditionally, it is Linda Levy, President and CEO of theatreWashington, who does that. She is recovering from back surgery and wasn’t able to do it this year, so they tried something new. As a result, although present, I was preoccupied enough with anxiety over pronunciations that I wasn’t paying as much attention as I usually would to everything that was going on. (I’m embarrassed to have stumbled so much over the names. Maybe I was too concerned about making the Fashion Police’s Best Dressed list — shout-out to my husband and stylist Jay Hardee.)
I did notice that one recent trend has continued, and that is that the artistic leaders of the large companies, who were generally in attendance at the Canadian Embassy, don’t come to the National, though you do see the leaders of small-to-medium sized groups. I saw Bill Largess, Mark Rhea, Colin Hovde, Kathleen Akerley, Michael Dove, Robert McNamara, Carolyn Griffin, Rick Hammerly, and Jason Schlafstein of Flying V, which was named this year to receive The John Aniello Award for Outstanding Emerging Theatre Company.
And the results? Do more categories make everyone happy? Well, yes and no. Anyone who has worked with Colin Hovde is thrilled that he and the production of The Wonderful World of Dissocia at Theater Alliance got so much attention, which it may not have under the previous system.
It was wonderful to see Nanna Ingvarsson nominated twice for Lead Actress, and you couldn’t help but wonder whether, if the two Outstanding Actress categories had been combined, and half of those wonderful performances had been omitted, both of her performances would have been included.
It was great to see Keegan Theatre’s wonderful production of Hair get so much notice, including for Outstanding Ensemble and Outstanding Musical, but puzzling that the directors of the show (Mark Rhea and Susan Marie Rhea) weren’t nominated. Earlier in the day, Lee Liebeskind, so wonderful in WSC’s Nero/Pseudo, had posted on my Facebook wall his hope that his colleague Gillian Shelly would get a nod; his satisfaction at being nominated (along with his cast-mate Bradley Foster Smith) will be tempered by his disappointment that Shelly was not.
Chris is asking whose achievements make your Best Of list from 2014 (in the comments below)
As a quick reminder, here is the theatreWashington’s recap of 2014, produced by Giant Productions
If I had taken bets, one would have been for Round House Theatre’s Two Trains Running to have received an Outstanding Ensemble nom; only Michael Anthony Williams, among that wonderful cast, was noticed with a supporting actor nod. Another bet would have been for the stunning costume design by Debra Kim Sivigny for Rorschach Theatre’s She Kills Monsters to have been recognized. Rorschach was among the companies shut out this year, along with Washington Stage Guild, MetroStage and there was only one nomination for Constellation Theatre. It will perplex the many admirers of shows such as Pol Pot & Associates, LLP at Longacre Lea and Orlando at WSC Avant Bard that they were overlooked.
Overall, though, it was refreshing to have more diversity than usual among the companies and artists honored with nominations. It is the elemental flaw of awards systems that they are never entirely just. We live in a world where Garbo and O’Toole and Stanwyck and Monty Clift never won Oscars while Ernest Borgnine and Lee Marvin did.
Back when Jane Horwitz wrote the Backstage column for The Post, she used to follow up the HHA announcements with a column in which she would catalog what in her mind were the glaring and seemingly inexplicable omissions. Of course, that was back when it was possible for one person to have actually caught most of the (to use Julie Andrews’ delightful term) “egregiously overlooked.”
Absent that, it’s up to us. Helen Hayes, God rest her soul, could never include in her accolades all of the work that will stay in our memories because it was impressive, moving, distinct, daring…outstanding. I’ve mentioned a few things I think were overlooked.
Please join me! I’d love it if the comments section below this article caught in the widest net possible the accomplishments of all of the deserving artists in this city, not to second-guess the HHA or to imply that those nominated are not deserving, but to make us all aware of those whose work had such an impact on us.