Laura Giannarelli has been to each Helen Hayes Awards ceremony since the inception of the awards. As this is the 33rd annual, she’s heard “and the award goes to” many, many times.
As it was very clear that many of the young artists bounding onto the stage Monday night haven’t been attending the HHA’s that long (hell, many haven’t been alive that long), I wanted to get her perspective, which she generously shared.
“I was so pleased to see that last night’s Helen Hayes Awards ceremony had such a sunny, positive tone. It seemed to mark a return to the joyous roots of the Awards. Having attended every single ceremony from the very first year, I vividly recall the pride and joy the whole community felt that first year: We had a mechanism by which to celebrate WASHINGTON THEATRE. We felt invincible! The party that first year was at the National Press Club. I know that — being young at the time, and ecstatic at this celebration of OUR city’s theatrical output — I stayed until the bitter end….about 3 or 4 AM, if I am not mistaken! And we knocked back a fair amount of champagne, if memory serves. Don’t stay out that late these days, but oh, what wonderful memories.
“In those first years, the ceremony was graced by Miss Hayes herself, usually accompanied by her devoted son James MacArthur. At the second Helen Hayes Awards, the lady herself got out of her limo and walked RIGHT PAST ME, SO CLOSE I COULD HAVE REACHED OUT to touch her, had I dared, which of course I didn’t!! Walked on air for the rest of the night.
“In some of the subsequent years, we took detours away from a celebration of our homegrown Art. There were many “star-studded” years that felt a bit perfunctory — with guest hosts who had perhaps played DC once or twice at the National or the Kennedy Center, and musical numbers that stretched the evening to an unwieldy length, as the producers tried to fold entertainment in between the distribution of the awards. But I think most people understood that the stars’ presence was meant to sell the expensive tickets to the donors and general public, to bring in the cash that made the awards possible. And the lavish after-party, usually held at the Marriott, was always scrumptious and worth waiting for. Lots of room to spread out — and a separate ballroom for the loud band and the dancing, so the talkers could congregate around the coffee and dessert tables, or around the food tables in the main hall. The Kennedy Center years were fun, too! Out on the balcony overlooking the Potomac…although when the show ran long, the KenCen would turn on the lights and boot everyone out long before folks were done partying! I think “best party venue” has to be the Marriott.
“In recent years, there was a troubling trend of utilitarian speed and a sense of “let’s get the awards over with so we can party”. There was an accompanying lack of joy that developed. Then, that one year at the Building Museum when the party happened simultaneously with the distribution of awards, I couldn’t hear any of the acceptance speeches at all from where I was. It ceased being fun. Then 2015, when the ceremony lasted barely an hour, people who may have waited years to win an award were robbed of the chance to savor the moment as they were rushed off the stage — given only 30 seconds to speak their thanks.
“So, it was so very satisfying to see a return to joy last night. Recipients given an opportunity to express their thanks graciously. I also loved the use of presenters from our real, actual community — Rebecca and Hugo Medrano, Bill Largess, Deb Gottesman and Buzz Mauro from Theatre Lab! Even including theatre patron Carl Nash! That was so nice to see.
“RBG presenting Ted with the Helen Hayes Tribute was grand, and all in all it gave me hope that the Awards will continue to grace our city for a long time to come. For a while there, I thought they were a goner…
“My only negative comment is that throughout the whole evening, the audience never shut up. Chatter, chatter, chatter, even during In Memoriam. THAT was especially disrespectful. I had personal friends among the dead being honored — Richard Mancini, Tricia McCauley. Do these attendees, presumably theatre professionals who know what is expected of an audience, really not know how to show respect? Apparently not. I hope that will change in future. But for the rest, I think the Awards made a comeback last night. Congratulations to Amy Austin and her peeps. Well done.”