And the Winner Is...

Theatre awards abound—but do they promote professionalism or just inflate egos?

By Eliza Bent

Top row, from left: Brooke Adams, Cherry Jones, Tony Shalhoub and Karen MacDonald at the 28th Elliott Norton Awards in Boston (photo by Leo Gozbekian); an ariZoni Award (photo by Ron Nachtwey); Helen Hayes at her namesake awards, with her son James MacArthur (photo courtesy of the Helen Hayes Awards); middle row, from left: composer Michael Ogborn eats his Barrymore (photo by Hugh E. Dillon); Brad Erickson speaks at the 2010 Glickman Award ceremony in San Francisco (photo by Claire Rice); sound designer Lindsay Jones wins a Jeff, 2009 (photo by Johnny Knight); bottom row, from left: Stew at the Obies, 20008 (photo by Cary Conover); a promotional photo for the Iveys (courtesy of the Ivey Awards); Michael Matthews and Ken Werther celebrate at the Ovations (photo by Ryan Miller/Capture Imaging)

Every Friday afternoon in kindergarten my classmates and I gathered in a small amphitheatre called "the pit" that sat squat in the middle of my public school's open-classroom layout. Seated cross-legged on the red carpet, we'd watch clips from Free to Be...You and Me, sing songs and listen to Good News announcements. Good News, which had nothing to do with Jesus, was a weekly award bestowed upon two students who had demonstrated good citizenship. The award's host was our grandfatherly principal, whose arrival was accompanied by the sweet scent of pipe tobacco. It was an honor and an embarrassment when your name was called—and everyone was included, even children who misbehaved. I remember feeling perplexed when recognized for my "good penmanship"—certainly my performance as the Royal Penguin on the playground was more commendable!

What is it about our need to be recognized for good work? And what makes the theatre community so keen on publicly praising the members of its tribe? In my first months as an editorial assistant at this magazine, as I became familiar with the flow of theatrical information from every corner of the U.S. and beyond, I often thought of those Good News commendations from my kindergarten days. I was floored by the great number of awards (and long catalogs of winners), few of which I had ever heard of, touted in press releases and online communiqués. Why so many awards, I wondered? What could all these awards possibly mean? What's the point of acknowledging them in print when there are so darn many of them?

Theatre, of course, is not the only industry that seems to have a complex about artistic recognition. A case in point: the Academy Awards' recent decision to bump up the number of best-picture nominees from five to ten. Surely Hollywood doesn't need to boost its visibility as much as theatre (the perpetual artistic invalid) does—but what does our field stand to gain from giving out multitudinous prizes? American Theatre decided to examine a bevy of awards programs in cities and regions across the country in order to get a clearer idea of their goals and values—to the field at large as well as to the companies and individuals taking home the hurrahs.

Different cities, it turns out, have distinctively varied awards agendas and traditions. Who nominates? Who picks the winners? Are the ceremonies snooze-fests or booze-fests? Do prizes promote professionalism or merely inflate egos? Are these city-specific awards essential to individual and company success, or ultimately irrelevant on a national scale? These are the kinds of questions we posed to awards organizers, attendees and some lucky honorees in several parts of the country. If we didn't zero in on your region, you may, all the same, discover unexpected affinities with theatre communities half a continent away.

Minneapolis: Ivey Awards

  • 7 years old • 76 theatres take part • 250 productions • 125 evaluators
  • Named after: The Ivey, a historic restaurant in Minneapolis frequented by theatre folk
  • Admission: $25 if you're part of the theatre community, $35 if you're not; $125 for a VIP dinner, show and post-show party
  • Length of show: 90 minutes
  • Show format: Excerpts from plays and musicals
  • How many attend: 2,000

In Minneapolis, everyone's a winner. Well, that's not exactly true. The seven-year-old Ivey Awards were created through a series of focus groups that helped determine just what theatre artists working in the region wanted in an awards program. Scott Mayer, Ivey Awards project director, helmed the first focus groups in 2003. "Maybe it's the Scandinavian aspect of Minnesotans," Mayer ventures, "but we were concerned about competitiveness. Creativity is not a competition, and people made it very clear they didn't want the award to be competitive."

As a result, the Iveys don't have winners or losers, but honorees—people who are "recognized." Here, as in the other interviews I conducted for this article, I was struck by the importance of language people employed: Some communities have "voters," others have "judges," still more have "adjudicators." The Twin Cities, which use "evaluators," have awards categories that shift from year to year, so that two costume designers, three actresses and a lighting designer might receive recognition one year, but a different combination gets honored the next.

Mayer believes that Minneapolis is unique because of its evaluators' highly democratic methods. "In other cities, people might lament the fact that critics, professors and professionals serve on a judging panel. We believe theatre is designed to be presented to the public. That's why we have the public determine recognition," he reasons. The 125 evaluators, who apply for the position on a yearly basis, ultimately attend productions at 76 theatres, large and small, in the Twin Cities area.

Minneapolis's strong swath of children's theatre is assessed by a crew of junior evaluators, the youngest of whom is 12. The youths see five shows a year, four of which must be for young audiences. Adult evaluators see a smattering of children's theatre, but not as much as the kids. "Who better to judge children's theatre than children and adolescents?" reasons Mayer. And who better to support the theatre of the future?

And young people in Minneapolis get their own awards ceremony, complete with "Glee" karaoke and slushies. Once sugar-high, the kids make their way over to the adult event. "We organize a group of teens to be the paparazzi," Mayer explains, adding that real press and media pepper the Iveys' red carpet as well. "We want people to feel that they are valued—we like to stress that this is a community event to celebrate theatre," Mayer enthuses. "It's a fabulous night where you get a glimpse of the great work being done in the Twin Cities. Each year it gets a little more cool and hip."

Los Angeles: L.A. Ovation Awards

  • 22 years old • 29 categories • 175 nominations • 400 productions • 250-270 voters
  • Admission: Free for nominees, $35-150 for others (theatre companies can get a bulk discount)
  • Length of show: 3 hours in the past, but getting closer to 90 minutes
  • Show format: Slide show, PowerPoint visuals
  • How many attend: 1,000-1,400

Can the cool of Minneapolis compare to the sparkle of Tinseltown? When I catch up with Terence McFarland, executive director of the L.A. Stage Alliance, which oversees the L.A. Ovation Awards, he is quick to point out the city's star-studded status. "Usually we have a strong contingent of celebrities—from nominees to presenters," boasts McFarland, noting that Neil Patrick Harris hosted the Ovations for three years before he went on to the Tonys. Recent ceremonies have taken place at the spacious Orpheum Theatre, where "American Idol" was once taped for broadcast.

Unlike the Iveys, the Ovations have nominees and winners. Voters, who must apply to be part of the selection process, see 25 shows a year, 20 of which must be in a house of 99 seats or less (a percentage reflecting the city's abundance of small venues). Each production needs a minimum of 12 voters, and the scores are averaged online by a third-party tabulation firm.

Some of the categories, such as set and lighting design, are parsed out by venue size. Acting, however, is not. "I remember a season when Annette Bening was up against someone in a 75-seat house," McFarland recalls. (Bening's performance in Hedda Gabbler at the Geffen Playhouse lost in 1999 to Tracy Middendorf's turn in Summer and Smoke at the Fountain Theatre.) "We have to be careful in ceremony order," Douglas Clayton, L.A. Stage Alliance programs director, chimes in. "Since celeb nominees are often presenters, they have to present before they lose, in case that's going to happen." There are usually five to seven nominees per category, and if scores are close enough there can be multiple winners.

"The Ovations provide such a validation for artists," says McFarland. Despite Hollywood's palpable shadow, he feels the Ovations serve as an impetus for the commercial entertainment and theatre worlds to coalesce. "When you see the list of 175 productions that have been nominated, you realize how much amazing work is going on in this city's theatres." Even the announcement of nominees holds a certain cachet. According to McFarland, once nominations go public, "artists' phones start ringing off the hook, and they book a ton of gigs."

One such artist, who has yet to win an Ovation, is freelance sound designer Cricket S. Myers. The Susan Lucci of the Ovations, Myers has received a record 13 nominations since 2008. "When I was nominated for four Ovations in 2009, I thought I had to win," she says with a laugh. Her mom, who flew in from Michigan that year, was elated to walk the red carpet, but did not get to cheer for a Myers victory. For her part, the designer doesn't seem too bothered. "People joke that I'm competing against myself. But every year after the nominations are announced, I book about four months of work." Indeed, large L.A. theatres such as Center Theater Group, the Geffen Playhouse, Laguna Playhouse and Pasadena Playhouse dot her résumé, and her design for Rajiv Joseph's Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo currently can be seen on Broadway. It seems that bearing the cross of Susan Lucci hasn't slowed down this designer's career yet.

Phoenix: The ariZonis

  • 20 years old • 43 theatres participate • 100 adjudicators • 13 categories • 109 nominations • 160 productions
  • Admission: $23
  • Length of show: 2 hours
  • How many attend: 800
  • Show format: Children's events and an adult event, with musical numbers and slide show

Can too many awards be a bad thing? Over the past 10 years, the ariZonis have strived to strike a meaningful balance. Founded by a group of critics in 1991 to serve the Phoenix metropolitan area—currently the sixth most populous in the nation—the awards became as sprawling as the city they serve. With three tiers of prizes—for theatres that have contracts with Actors' Equity Association, theatres with no contracts, and youth theatre—the nominees and winners seemed endless. "At a certain point, there were 20 nominees with 8 winners per category. It was kind of a joke, because everyone had an ariZoni," chuckles Scott Withers, ariZoni Awards board vice president. Eventually, area critics departed the ariZonis to form the short-lived Greater Phoenix Theater Critics Circle. But the ariZonis were determined to turn public perception around. Like many communities faced with the task of revamping their prize systems, the ariZoni organizers sent out a survey.

"We learned from the professional theatres that it had to mean more to be nominated, that the ceremony was too long, and that children needed a separate ceremony," elaborates ariZoni president Eric Chapman. Non-contract theatres decided to stick with 10 nominees per category with 2 winners; the Equity group winnowed its nominees down to 5 with 1 winner.

Theatres must apply to be a part of the ariZonis, and eligibility includes having been in existence for three years and possessing 501(c)(3) status. Volunteer adjudicators go through a training that involves "Coffee Klatches" with Julie Holston, secretary of the board and rubrics committee chair. Scoring rubrics, or grading systems, along with written theatrical scenarios are handed out for adjudicators to mull over.

"At the beginning of the season, your vote might skew low," Chapman explains, because voters are inclined to leave room for other top-flight shows down the line.

Greater Boston Area: The Elliot Norton Awards

  • 28 years old • 18 categories • 11 critics
  • Named after: Longtime theatre critic Elliot Norton
  • Admission: $25
  • Length of show: A couple of hours
  • Show format: Musical numbers and PowerPoint slideshow

Not all cities use rubrics, decimal points or third-party accounting firms to calibrate artistic talent—take Boston's Elliot Norton Awards, named for a revered critic whose 48-year career encompassed the Golden Age of Broadway musicals. Originally the prize went to just one theatre artist for outstanding artistic achievement. The ceremony was a mere 15 minutes long. Terry Byrne, who writes for the Boston Globe and is a member of the Boston Theater Critics Association (which oversees the Nortons), explains that starting in 1992 the awards program began to expand until by 2001 it included 17 other categories.

"We have a pretty organic process," states Byrne, noting that the Norton selection committee consists of just 11 practicing critics. "We've looked at the model of the Jeff Awards in Chicago, the Helen Hayes in D.C. and the Carbonells in Florida. We may change in the future, but for now people just bring in their favorites."

Just which shows get seen is a source of some confusion—not unlike Beantown's traffic patterns. While Norton critics regularly see shows in Providence, R.I., they don't go to the Berkshires or out to Cape Cod. ("I would like to be the resident theatre critic on Martha's Vineyard," Byrne jokes.) Geography has its limits, even if the categories—which include fringe, small, midsize, large and visiting (touring) shows—are all-encompassing.

"Still, it's a great source of pride when a fringe company moves into the small-theatre category," Byrne points out. Company One has been nominated for Norton awards in the fringe category a number of times, but while artistic director Shawn LaCount believes the awards are the most meaningful ones in Boston, he wonders how well they are known outside the region. And though LaCount thinks it's great that the committee is composed of critics, he worries that the Boston Theater Critics Association may not be changing rapidly enough to accommodate new developments in print media. "We could always use more intelligent, young and diverse critics," he observes. "I'm not sure if the committee is changing to reflect that."

San Francisco: The Will Glickman Award

  • 27 years old • 1 category (best play) • 5 critics
  • Named after: American playwright Will Glickman
  • Admission: Free for winning artists
  • Show format: Private dinner ceremony

Critics are also the arbiters of the various theatrical awards in San Francisco, including the Will Glickman Award, which goes each year to the best new play to premiere in the Bay Area. The prize has gone to both local playwrights and those with a national presence. Brad Erickson, executive director of Theatre Bay Area, the organization that administers the Glickman, explains that five critics from prominent Bay Area newspapers meet over dinner once a year to determine the recipient. "I'm not even at the dinner," Erickson sighs. "They just send me a text once they've chosen." Subsequently another private dinner is held for the winner.

Sounds simple enough, right? But the Glickman's history has long been entangled with that of the Bay Area Critics Circle Awards, a far more broad-based awards program that serves many more theatres and categories. This has caused confusion over just what the various prizes mean. "To put it simply," says Erickson, "the major critics are not part of the larger Bay Area Critics Circle," though they do judge the Glickman. That has resulted, Erickson believes, in BACC awards going to lesser-known theatres outside San Francisco. "It just seems kind of wacky when a really small venue in the suburbs wins more awards than ACT," he argues, referring to the city's flagship American Conservatory Theater.

Erickson, who has headed Theatre Bay Area for eight years, hopes to one day work with the Critics Circle again so that papers with large circulations like the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Jose Mercury News—whose critics judge the Glickman—once again pool opinions with their critical brethren. He looks to the Jeff Awards in Chicago as a kind of role model. "The most impressive feature about the Jeffs is the way they serve as an excellent tool for marketing and engaging audiences," he allows. "Once the companies know they are Jeff-recommended, they run with it all over their publicity. And then the public has a stake in it too, and can root for their favorite productions."

Chicago: The Jeff Awards

  • 43 years old • 62 categories • 250 submitted shows • 160 shows get Jeff-recommended • 50 Jeff judges, 40 artistic and technical judges (who see just opening nights)
  • Admission: Free for nominees, non-Equity $35, Equity $75
  • Named after: Actor Joseph Jefferson (1829-1905)
  • Length of show: Less than 2 hours
  • How many attend: 800-1,200
  • Show format: Musical numbers and video footage

"Many of the awards programs around the country follow what we do," declares Jeff Marks, media chair of Chicago's Jeff Awards, at the start of our conversation. Being one of the oldest awards of its kind has helped the Jeffs hone its model over the past 43 years. Judges apply and go through a training process. They meet roughly six times a year and attend lectures from well-known local theatre artists (most recently, director David Cromer) about excellence in theatre. Marks estimates that if you're a judge for both the Equity and non-Equity wings of the Jeffs, you see about 150 shows a season, or three a week. Sean Graney, artistic director of Chicago's Hypocrites and a two-time Jeff winner, describes the Jeff committee as "a group of highly devoted individuals who love theatre and see more shows than any healthy person should."

Equity and non-Equity shows are separated into two large umbrella groups, and shows must have 18 performances in order to be eligible. If any aspect of a show gets enough immediate votes of "excellence," it becomes Jeff-recommended (and a mini-media-blitz commences, cluing the public in that the show could potentially win a Jeff).

Despite the elaborate sets of rubrics and categories, acting is acting—and there are distinct prizes for the ensemble work that Marks believes is so singularly Chicagoan.

"The party seems odd to me, but I felt awkward at my high school prom, too," Graney deadpans. "That said, I do go every year and stress about what to wear."

Washington, D.C.: The Helen Hayes Awards

  • 27 years old • 79 member theatres • 26 categories • 200 eligible productions • 60 judges
  • Named after: The actress a.k.a. the First Lady of the American theatre
  • Admission: $50 for theatre staff
  • Length of show: 2 hours
  • Show format: Musical numbers and PowerPoint slides
  • How many attend: 1,966 (sells out yearly)

The Helen Hayes Awards in D.C., not unlike the Jeffs, have something of a prom-like feel to them. (One awardgoer joked, "It helps to have a flask of whiskey on hand.") And if the Hayes are the prom, then Lindy Levy Grossman is the school principal. As president and CEO of the Hayes Awards, Grossman is quick to point out that her organization oversees a number of other projects and outreach initiatives. "In 2009, there were over two million audience members who attended 470 productions in the D.C. area, plus festivals—despite the recession," she boasts.

Unlike the Jeffs, the Hayes awards don't parse out Equity and non-Equity shows, but they do have their judges go through an application process. Eligible shows must be produced by companies with membership in the awards organization and have at least 16 performances. Eight judges see a show and use a zero-to-10 point grading scale, which a third-party auditing firm ultimately tabulates.

"We want everyone to own a part of the evening. It's a celebration of all Washington theatre—we're a world-class theatre town. We're the second most prolific generator of new work outside of New York City." (When I question the school principal on the accuracy of this last assertion, she sternly steers the conversation to an end.)

Philadelphia: The Barrymore Awards

  • 17 years old • 49 participating theatres • 65-70 voters • 150 productions
  • Named after: The distinguished family of actors
  • Admission: Free for nominees, $75 for artists and $150 for others
  • Length of show: Used to be 3-plus hours, now about 90 minutes
  • Show format: Video and slide projections, hosted by Fran Prisco
  • How many attend: 800

The fact that Philadelphia's venerable Barrymore Awards don't separate Equity and non-Equity productions make the awards mean more, believes Karen DiLossi, director of programs and services of the Theatre Alliance of Greater Philadelphia, which oversees the program. "If you're a small or mid-sized theatre winning a Barrymore, or even getting nominated, that means you've arrived as a theatre company," she declares.

DiLossi ventures that when the Azuka Theatre, for example, a company with a budget of $300,000, wins an award alongside a larger theatre like the Walnut Street or the Arden, with budget sizes in the millions, "it's a huge confidence-booster." Winning a Barrymore encourages theatres to pursue more funding opportunities. "It means, 'I can play with the big guys now, because my artistic output is meaningful and resonates with the community.'"

"The 'entertainment factor' was the problem," recalls DeLossi, who proudly points out that she and her team have streamlined the ceremony to a lean 90 minutes. "For a while we tried to do a Golden Globes-style dinner, but there were rabble-rousers in the back and problems with Equity about who could perform," she says. Nowadays, the show draws upon video and slide projections, and Fran Prisco, a beloved local actor, emcees the event. "He's got a Dean Martin Rat Pack thing going on," DiLossi remarks affectionately. The City of Brotherly Love event boasts a traditional red carpet, though it may not be as celebrity-centric as L.A.'s or as teen-studded as Minneapolis's. "But we try to make a splash," DiLossi concludes.

New York City: The Obie Awards

  • 56 years old • 4 guest judges, 2 Village Voice judges
  • Categories: Change yearly
  • Admissions: Free, by invitation
  • Length of show: 2 hours
  • Show format: Speeches and slide projections
  • How many attend: 700

New York City is "awards central" and comparisons—whether they admire the city's gravitational pull or scorn its cutthroat culture—creep into nearly every conversation. No prize in the theatrical universe is more sought-after than the Tony Award (which needs no explication here), but Big Apple artists also lust after Drama Desks, Lucille Lortels, Drama League Awards, Outer Circle Critics Awards, and even the more recently established Innovative Theatre Awards that honor independents and fringe work through online audience voting. For our purposes, the Obies offer the best comparison to regional awards in this survey.

Sponsored by the weekly Village Voice, the Obies were founded in 1956 by critic Jerry Tallmer (whose byline still occasionally pops up in Gotham publications), and over the years have utilized critics from the Voice and a committee of guest judges that changes yearly. "It's the only award where you can get a bad review in the Voice but still win an Obie," jokes publicist Gail Parenteau. The Obies are particularly meaningful, contends Michael Feingold, lead theatre critic at the Voice, "because they're made to salute excellence and not to sort artists into predetermined slots where they compete against each other."

Feingold, perennial head of the Obie committee, is most keen on recognizing excellence, whether it's a singular achievement, a sustained career or a production of particular merit. "New York is a place where despair and discouragement come very easily," he says. "There's a huge number of artists crowded together fighting for attention. The notion that there's a small group of people keeping an eye out for greatness is a very powerful sustaining force."

"We try to do our best without yelling and throwing things, but there have been times when matters have gotten fairly fraught," Feingold admits. The ceremonies, held in recent years at Webster Hall in Manhattan's East Village, can also be a bit of a free-for-all—the line that grows outside the venue on awards night might be mistaken for one full of rock concert patrons. Tickets are gratis and alcohol flows freely throughout the evening. Since there are no nominations, artists who get invited are apt to wonder if they'll be summoned to the podium. "I'd heard that if you were invited that meant you'd won, but when I asked our inviter she gave an emphatic no," recounts Rachel Chavkin, who won an Obie in 2010 for her direction of Three Pianos. "It was an amazing and joyous night—the Obies always seemed like the coolest award," she adds. "I love the fact that there are no categories and that awards go to anything the judges think is awesome."

You can't really quantify meaning. Awards can be characterized by lengthy descriptions of rubrics, voter application processes, theatre eligibility and score tabulations, but the issues that provoked the most heated and heartfelt responses were: What does the award mean in your community? Do awards further careers? And, inevitably: Are there too many theatre awards being handed out to too many people?

Feingold answers that last touchy question in the affirmative. "There are far too many nonmeaningful awards out there," he believes. Nevertheless, he prides himself on the one he oversees precisely because of its prestige: "I'm really happiest when I hear people say, 'The award that's meant the most to me, over all these years, is my Obie.'"

For others, the key importance of an awards program is advocacy for theatre arts. "Everything we do is about putting butts in seats," D.C.'s Grossman contends, citing evidence that prizes like the Helen Hayes Awards are critical to theatres when they try to leverage fundraising or apply for a grant. "There is an absolutely tangible ripple effect for award winners," she posits, "that raises visibility for them and the field."

Whether or not an award is "meaningful," it is hard to imagine an artist not including a win in his or her artistic biography. "What playwright doesn't want to put it down on paper that his or her play has won an award?" reasons San Francisco's Erickson. "Of course it helps get a second or third production" for honored plays, he argues. "And for an actor—awards get them noticed. It's good for their careers. Theatre companies can showcase that award in their next grant proposal."

But awards don't necessarily make or break a career. While Chicago's Sean Graney concedes that "winning a Jeff Award is an important step to the development of a Chicago company or individual artist," he cautions that "awards do not translate directly into larger houses or greater acceptance." Still, they do provide an excellent tool for promotion. Even the flask-carrying Helen Hayes attendee attests to that: "Awards are great for marketing and fundraising. We're in an industry so competitive we need all the help we can get," she says.

Perhaps it takes an award-winner to sum up the quixotic nature of being honored in the first place. "I'm unsure whether the Obies have helped my career," says Chavkin, noting that, nearly a year after pocketing her prize, she still does not have an agent. "But it feels pretty damned good to have 'Obie Award-winning director' at the top of my bio!"

As for this reporter, my Good News awards, which came in the form of buttons you could pin to a shirt, are tucked away in a box gathering dust. Over the years, my prize-worthy penmanship has devolved into chicken scratch. But I still remember with solemn pride the day I stood up in the pit to receive my Good News award.

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