What’s it going to be like this year? That was a question in the minds of many in the theatre community as last night’s Helen Hayes Awards ceremony approached.
For nearly 30 years, the template for the event had been pretty stable: the ceremony would take place at the National Theatre or the Warner Theatre, with the party close by at the Marriott. For awhile, it occurred in one of the Kennedy Center spaces, with the party upstairs on its Terrace level.
Two years ago, theatreWashington (tW), the organization that administrates the awards, mixed it up and moved the event to the National Building Museum. The party and the awards distribution occurred simultaneously. It ended up being easier to hear the event remotely on the web-cast than from a seat near the stage.
The following year, the awards structure was tiered, so that companies with tiny budgets, but who are eligible as professional companies, wouldn’t be competing against companies who have much greater resources. Concern that the nearly-doubled number of categories would take all night to get through resulted in a rushed event that ended up concluding too quickly — after walking from the Lincoln Theatre over to the Howard Theatre, where the after party was to happen, crowds stood in line outside for almost 45 minutes.
Then there was a leadership change. Longtime President and CEO of tW Linda Levy announced her departure after last year’s awards ceremony; her successor Amy Austin took the reins only a few months ago. Staff size at the organization shrank. (I can’t tell you how many people have spoken to me in awe at how much has ended up on the plate of Theatre Services Manager Michael Kyrioglou.)
There was grousing also about access to the ceremony. Nominees and judges who, in years past, were given two complimentary tickets now had to pay to bring a plus-one. Theatre coordinators (the folks at theatre companies who schedule judges) weren’t comped this year as before, and nominees in Ensemble categories had to buy into the event.
So, after a lot of flux, and so soon after a major transition, returning again to the Lincoln Theatre for the ceremony (party at the 9:30 Club), this year’s awards was bound to be — well, anyone’s guess.
It turned out to be a return to form. For the first time since the ’14 ceremony, it felt as if it were the event we had come to expect each year, at least as far as the ceremony is concerned. (Many people appreciate that piece less than the after-party, which is a wonderful chance to see friends you tend not to run into otherwise.)
Music returned as hosts Lawrence Redmond and E. Faye Butler opened the show with “The Best Is Yet To Come”; Butler sang it to a close with “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.”
One reason last year seemed so rushed was that, for each category, it was only nominee names that were read before the result was announced. This year, thankfully, they returned to the traditional model of including the name of the production and of the company associated with each nomination.
In order to keep speeches to 45 seconds, nominees were given an opportunity (an opportunity that not all recipients availed themselves of) to submit a list of people they wanted to acknowledge to be projected on a screen.. Unfortunately, the screen was so small that it was difficult (at least from Row X) to read it when there were a lot of names.
There was discussion about audience noise. Is it louder now, or does it only seem so because some of us are older? Austin, in her lovely remarks mid-ceremony, spoke about the old days, when the folks who work in the trenches would sit in the balcony of the National and stomp and whoop-it-up for colleagues. Whether or not it was more raucous last night, I do think there was, once the general din of a cheer had died down, more interruption of remarks by individual shout-outs and cat-calls.
There isn’t anything anymore for lifetime achievement. (It’s had a few name changes over the years.) Presenters were all locals. The days of rubbing elbows with international names like Liza and Sir Derek are over for the moment, which I suppose might make the event less attractive to supporters and civilians interested in star-flocking.
I have to say that I miss the programs of year’s past, which included pictures of the work of each nominee. I remember what an ordeal it was for tW staff to compile those, but they were tiny treasures. I love still to look through older ones from the 80s and 90s as Streisand croons “The Way We Were” in my mind.
I’m not a big fan of competitive artistic systems. All good intentions aside, the integrity of “judging” systems notwithstanding, there is something inherently silly about the whole activity.
One of the casualties is language. Presumably embarrassed by the contest aspect of the enterprise, the organization proscribes words such as “winner” and “best,” replacing them with words such as “outstanding,” which are meant to blunt the inherently competitive nature of the ranking which occurs.
So it was funny that, when each result was revealed, the screen said, “The recipient is…” while the presenter said, “And the Helen Hayes Award goes to…” Am I the only one put off at these Orwellian verbal acrobatics? I wonder.
Also, acceptance speeches frequently feel inauthentic and self-serving. Last night, though, there were many graceful moments, a few of which I’d like to share, for those of you who weren’t able to be there…and in the context that if any recipient is not included below, that does not mean I felt their remarks were not graceful or were worthless, any more than the work of the many wonderful artists who were not acknowledged last night with an award or a nomination by the Helen Hayes system implies that that their work is not worthy of recognition.
(Note that Helen categories are the smaller theaters, Hayes the larger.)
Maggie Wilder (Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Play — Hayes Production, Rapture, Blister, Burn at Round House Theatre) took time during her speech to thank her Costume Designer Deb Sivigny for her part in her transformation into her character.
Most if not all out-of-towner winners praise the vitality of DC theatre, but, last night, several of them seemed particularly heartfelt. David Ives (Outstanding Original Play or Musical Adaptation, The Metromaniacs, Shakespeare Theatre Company) said that Washington has a scene other cities only dream of, and he called Michael Kahn’s the most perfect production of a play he has ever had.
I don’t know who accepted for Imagination Stage’s win for its show Wiley and the Hairy Man (Outstanding Production, Theatre for Young Audiences), but I loved that she called it a play that nobody saw — maybe ten people. One of the valuable things about the awards is that they can catch work that otherwise might fall through the cracks, if it wasn’t particularly commercial or well-reviewed.
It was great that Happenstance Theater received so much recognition for IMPOSSIBLE! A Happenstance Circus, not least because each acceptance of each award was a lovely reminder of the uniqueness and grace of their work. Sabrina Mandell (Outstanding Costume Design — Helen Production) told us she’s been dressing “like a freak” since she was four years-old. When the cast came up to accept Outstanding Ensemble in a Play — Helen Production, all in top hat and tails, they began speaking in a cacophony, then stopped and sang in harmony. Mark Jaster (Robert Prosky Award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Play — Helen Production) pretended to trip, told us that he was first nominated for a Hayes Award in 1986, and then simply said, “Thank You.”
Constellation Theatre Company is turning ten this year and had a big night. (Seven awards for Avenue Q.) The company made a point of acknowledging the folks for whom categories don’t exist, beginning with Emily Zickler (Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Musical —Helen Production) who read the names of the stage management team, and continuing through the win for Outstanding Musical — Helen Production, when the company’s leadership (Allison Arkell Stockman and A.J. Guban, nominated for their direction and design, respectively) designated Cheryl Ann Gnerlich, the company’s Production Manager, to accept that award. (Stockman, winning earlier as Outstanding Director of a Musical — Helen Production, also made a point of acknowledging her Assistant Director Matthew McGee.)
A particular moment of grace came when Katy Carkuff (Outstanding Lead Actress in a Musical — Helen Production) was unable to attend (she is a new Mother — very new) and she designated another actor in the category (Felicia Curry, nominated for Oliver! at Adventure Theatre MTC) to accept for her.
(One overall quibble — since they have that screen in the back, why couldn’t the names of the members of each winning — or even nominated — Ensemble be shown? It was weird and confusing to have speeches from actors who haven’t been named or introduced.)
Martyna Majok, who took The Charles MacArthur Award for Outstanding Original New Play or Musical for Ironbound at Round House Theatre, was another out-of-towner whose remarks were particularly moving, as she described her Mother (upon whose experience the play is based) coming down to Bethesda to watch the play. She described that as the greatest moment of her life.
Playwright Caleen Sinnette Jennings was nominated in two categories (Outstanding Original Play or Musical Adaptation for Darius & Twig at The Kennedy Center; The Charles MacArthur Award for Outstanding Original New Play or Musical for Queens Girl in the World at Theater J), both of which awards went to others, but she didn’t have to settle for the heartfelt shout-out from Dawn Ursula (Outstanding Lead Actress in a Play — Hayes Production), the single performer in Queens Girl in the World. She was up on-stage when the playwrights’ collective The Welders took The John Aniello Award for Outstanding Emerging Theatre Company. (This was a competitive award this year, as opposed to the prior designation of years past.)
Outstanding Lead Actor in a Musical — Hayes Production was Anthony Warlow for Man of La Mancha at Shakespeare Theatre Company. Beginning “Thank you, I’m Australian,” he said that his third run at the part of Don Quixote had been the most beautiful thing he’d had in his life. He implied that he’d come from Down Under just for this occasion. (I hope his plus-one didn’t have to pay for a seat last night!)
Two (Salomé at Shakespeare Theatre Company and Yerma at GALA Hispanic Theatre) of the most-honored productions featured international artists.
Many of the Yerma team were present (from Spain). One was not (Mariano Marin, Outstanding Sound Design — Helen Production), creating an awkward moment as the show was moving on while GALA Artistic Director Hugo Medrano was making his way to the stage. Presenter Roz White graciously stopped the show to let him accept on Marin’s behalf. It was really moving when all the Yerma team spoke with reverence and love for their playwright, Federico García Lorca. Medrano, accepting Outstanding Play — Helen Production, thanked the organization for bestowing the award to a play presented in Spanish. As he then described the play as one which he loves very much, his voice broke with emotion, the band prepared to play him off, and audience members rebelled: “Let him talk!”
Most of the Salomé team was absent, so Michael Kahn was on-stage a lot. Accepting for Ramzi Choukair (Robert Prosky Award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Play — Hayes Production), he told the story of an audience member with the same surname discovering that Choukair and she were cousins. (They connected after the realization.) Kahn (Artistic Director of STC) repeatedly praised the play’s director and devisor, Yaël Farber (who had taken Outstanding Director of a Play — Hayes Production). Kahn described her charmingly as never having seen a union law in which she believed. He continued by saying that by bringing artists of her magnitude to town, artists that will shake the place up, that maybe it is “okay that I’ve stayed this long.”
Before exiting the stage (no one tried to play him off), Kahn thanked all who had participated in last year’s Women’s Voices Theater Festival. Noting that the vitality of the theatre scene in DC is not as widely-known as it should be, he concluded that, thanks to that event, “It ain’t no secret anymore.”