Three words — affordability, inclusion, engagement — are the watchwords for this year’s Helen Hayes Awards ceremony.
As most readers will know, last year, as it celebrated turning 30, the Helen Hayes Awards (HHA) switched things up. For 29 years, the event consisted of a sit-down awards ceremony held at Warner Theatre, National Theatre, or Kennedy Center, followed by an after-party at a nearby hotel or on the terrace level of Kennedy Center.
Last year, the event moved to the National Building Museum, and the party wasn’t really “after,” it was more like “during.”
So, what’s going to happen this year, theatre folk around town have been wondering? Now, less than a month before the April 6th event, theatreWashington (tW), the support organization that administers the awards, has announced some details about the fast-approaching ceremony. Chiefly, we learned that we will be heading this year to a different part of town: the awards ceremony will take place at Lincoln Theatre, the after-party at the Howard Theatre.
Mara Walker is on the Board of tW. I met her several weeks ago at a tW event, and she has, since then, been a helpful point of contact regarding tW. She offered to chat with me, for the record, about where things stand right now: what’s been decided (and a bit of why) and what is still being worked out.
Her message was: come ready to celebrate the depth and breadth of theatre in DC, but don’t necessarily come with any expectations based on previous HHAs. This year, things aren’t reverting to the status quo set at the Building Museum. This year, there are “different priorities” and a smaller budget.
To begin with, tickets are, believe it or not, cheaper than before. The specially-priced tickets for theatre professionals can be had for $50, and the tickets for supporters (and other civilians) will be only $100.
The trade-off is that the after-party (which they used to refer to as the biggest cast party in town) may be a little shorter, and your ticket will get you a couple of free drinks, but there won’t be an open bar all night, as at past parties. After two drinks, you’ll have to pay for them. There will still be a complimentary food spread — “savories and sweets,” Walker told me. (She wasn’t sure if soft drinks will need to be purchased after two, or if the cash bar will apply only to alcoholic drinks.)
Helen Hayes Awards Ceremony
April 6, 2015
The Lincoln Theatre
1215 U Street, NW
Immediately following the awards ceremony until 12:30 am
The Howard Theatre
620 T Street, NW
“We want it to be accessible to everyone in the greatest way possible. It’s so exciting,” Walker said about a strategy aimed at keeping the event as affordable as possible. She further stressed that anyone who can’t manage even this decreased ticket price can catch the webcast. Walker described the entire enterprise as a “fun way to recognize the community — a chance to celebrate great theatre.”
Of course, this is also the first HHA since the awards were tiered into two sections: Helens will go to smaller theaters, while the bigger companies are eligible for Hayes awards. This year, there will be 47 competitive categories. How long do they expect the dispersal ceremony to take?
“Our expectation is that the event will take about two hours and fifteen minutes,” Walker told me. Last year, they test-flew a strictly-policed limit for acceptance remarks by awardees. Something similar will need to be enforced this year if there is any hope of sticking to that length goal. And the strategy seemed to work. Last year, my husband and I hung-out for awhile after the end of the presentations and still were home to relieve our nanny at a surprisingly early hour.
Walker thought the party would run till around midnight, but she wasn’t entirely sure about that timing. “The hope is that the after-party will be celebrating U Street as well,” and that anyone who wants to keep socializing after things wind down at Howard Theatre will have plenty of opportunity in a part of town that is hopping at night, with plentiful options available. (Lincoln Theatre is on U Street between 12th and 13th; Howard Theatre is at 7th and T.) “We are so fortunate, we have not only one of the best theatre communities in the country, but we also have wonderful corridors of culture,” Walker said, referencing the neighborhood in which this year’s festivities will occur.
Last year’s experiment with the format got mixed reviews, as Walker acknowledged. “It was a great party last year. The only thing negative I heard was that some people had difficulty hearing because the Building Museum is such a vast hall.” With the party happening while awards were being distributed, it was noisy, and not everyone gave their complete attention to the ceremony. “Some people liked that freedom, the flexibility to be able to hang out with friends. Some people would have preferred a quieter opportunity to watch. But, for the most part, people enjoyed it. It was a more expensive, bigger production than we’re going to do this year.” All of the details are not firmed up right now, but tW wants to make sure folks know where things will happen.
Tickets to the Helen Hayes Awards
Ticket sales will also be different this year; they will be “code-driven,” Walker told me. “My understanding is that an invitation went out yesterday with the right code. Theaters will be able to use that code for their people.” Invitations will then go out to the folks who will buy the $100 tickets. “Seating is done by section, and within the section the seating is general admission, so friends can sit with friends. How you get assigned to a section is determined by the ticket type. That said, nominees and their guests will be in the orchestra area together.”
Walker underlined that people should “not be expecting the past. I think what’s really important is that it will not be the same as the year before. We’ll be back in a theatre, and that’s really great. It will be focused on the awards, on recognizing our peers. The after-party will be more of a low-key thing. That’s where we are now. It will be a great program with the resources we have. This is an incredible theatre community and we are fortunate to be a part of it. We want people to go and have a great time, but not to come with preconceived expectations.”
Next for theatreWashington
Since Walker mentioned more than once that budget considerations were playing a part in decision-making, I asked about the financial situation of the organization. She told me that tW has created “a great new strategic plan. We’ve been talking with everyone and sharing the plan for the future of the organization, of all we can do to advance and to recognize the community here. We’re gearing up for increased resources, but we haven’t focused so much on that the past few months.”
As anyone who has dealt with tW knows, in the months and weeks leading up to the ceremony, there is little bandwidth for them to concentrate on much else. Once this year’s event is history, attention will move not only to implementing the strategic plan, but also to the contemplated awards eligibility changes based on compensation levels. tW floated its new plan concerning that earlier this year, and, after the awards have happened, they will “really spend time on that,” Walker told me. “The discussions about it have been so great, and we’ll come back to that.” She directed me to the comments that Brad Watkins, tW’s Director of Theatre Services, made in an interview for Nelson Pressley’s Washington Post blog, since he “said it so well”:
“There has to be another level of discussions. After great uproar and reaction from the community, which was not unanticipated, but was certainly larger than I expected, the sense is that we are back at the table talking about how we move forward together, not splintered in different directions.”
Walker concluded our chat by saying that “it is so exciting to announce the location and what’s happening, but there is so much more that is coming as every detail gets ironed out.”
Meanwhile, the theatre community should touch base with the companies folks have worked with over the last year to hook up with the ticket code so that everyone who wants to be a part of April 6th on U Street can be there.
Inclusion! Engagement! Affordability!