Last night’s thirty-first annual Helen Hayes Award ceremony was also the first annual Helen Awards ceremony. With so many more companies, so many more productions, so much more theatre in town now than when the awards were created three decades ago, theatreWashington (the support organization that administers the awards) split eligible productions by size and, for all intents and purposes, roughly doubled the number of categories. Shows with less than half the cast represented by the union Actors’ Equity are eligible in the Helen categories.
A lot of people wondered how it would be possible to cram everything into one evening. No one need have worried. As well as being the HHA with the most categories to get through, last night’s ceremony was, believe it or not, the briefest I’ve ever experienced. It began promptly at eight and was over before 9:15. So brisk were the proceedings that, I’m told, one recipient who was not present when his name was announced was still at a pre-show dinner when he got the call that he had received an award.
You never know what would have happened this year if the old system were still in effect. However, it seems clear that the split accomplished at least one goal, which was to celebrate work at a more diverse array of theaters. The ceremony and those whose work was acknowledged represented not only the big companies with large budgets, but also younger and scrappier troupes whose work, many felt, was too often overlooked at ceremonies past.
If there was a nice spread among honored groups, there was one company that dominated the Helen side of the evening, and that was Theater Alliance. It took Outstanding Production of a Play (The Wonderful World of Dissocia) as well as Outstanding Production of a Musical (Black Nativity). Artistic Director Colin Hovde (who shared the Director of a Play trophy with Nathaniel Mendez, the co-director of The Wonderful World of Dissocia) made reference to the company’s difficult journey.
Just a few years ago, they had to reduce the season. Losing its H Street Playhouse base, the group also took a chance and relocated to the new Anacostia Playhouse. Last night’s recognition was a testament to perseverance and risk-taking as Theater Alliance was recognized in more categories than any company of any size, Helen or Hayes. In addition to sweeping both Outstanding Production awards, the company saw its Black Nativity take Outstanding Ensemble in a Musical and Outstanding Musical Direction (e’Marcus Harper-Short). Its The Wonderful World of Dissocia took design awards for Lighting (John Burkland) and Sound (Matthew M. Nielson and Christopher Baine).
Nanna Ingvarsson, who was Outstanding Actress in a Musical in the early nineties for The Rocky Horror Show at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, was back on the stage as Outstanding Lead Actress in a Play. She was nominated twice in that category; the award was for a one-person play, The Amish Project at Factory 449. Outstanding Lead Actor was Doug Wilder in One Man, Two Guvnors at 1st Stage in the role that won a Tony a few years ago for James Corden.
Director of a Musical was Steven Royal for a different 1st Stage production (Bat Boy: The Musical). Actor in a Musical went to Alan Naylor who was in the Creative Cauldron’s Jacques Brel is Alive and Well & Living in Paris. The thirty-second limit for acceptance remarks kept anyone from becoming too loquacious, but Naylor found time to give a shout-out to uber-fan David Tannous. Miranda Medugno, named Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Musical for playing Helen Keller in Visible Language at WSC Avant Bard, was accompanied by an interpreter.
Studio Theatre straddled the Helen/Hayes split — though it took Outstanding Production on the Hayes side, it was represented on the Helen side by Actress in a Musical (Barbara Walsh in Carrie: The Musical). Dan Conway, a veteran designer and past winner who works at theaters of all sizes, took Outstanding Set for Tiny Tim’s Christmas Carol at Adventure Theatre MTC.
Synetic Theater had a big night. Its cast of Twelfth Night was Outstanding Ensemble in a Play, while Irina Tsikurishvili and Ben Cunis took Outstanding Choreography in a Play for the same show. Kendra Rai (nominated three times in the category) got the Outstanding Costume Design award for Synetic’s The Island of Dr. Moreau.
Toby’s Dinner Theatre took two trophies for its Spamalot: David Jennings (Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Musical) and Mark Minnick (Outstanding Choreography in a Musical).
Further spreading things around to the younger groups, Supporting Actor in a Play went to Wayne Bennett for Seven Guitars at No Rules Theatre Company and Supporting Actress in a Play to Maggie Erwin, who was in Failure: A Love Story at The Hub Theatre.
The John Aniello Award for Outstanding Emerging Theatre Company had been previously announced as going to Flying V. Jason Schlafstein, the company’s Producing Artistic Director, thanked supporters for getting in on the “ground floor” of the new theatre and repeated the company’s catchphrase, “Be Awesome.”
So swift did the proceedings go that Howard Theatre, venue for the after-party, wasn’t ready to receive the throng that had moved east along U Street, so a lot of the visiting and networking happened on the sidewalk outside. Inside, it felt a bit like being at a club in the 80s. It was loud, crowded, and full of energy.
The Helen Hayes Awards has proven that it can handle the forty-some awards in one evening. It also proved that it can thwart expectations and mix things up. Last night was quite different from what Hayes-goers had become used to. I wonder what next year will bring.