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Indecision reigned at last night’s Helen Hayes Awards, the annual celebration of excellence in the region’s professional theater community—the fastest growing in the country, as hosts Felicia Curry and Rick Hammerly would note throughout the evening. Judges in six awards categories failed to settle on a single winner, resulting in a surfeit of ties at an event that already had plenty, including a Washington City Paper reporter’s navy-blue waffle-knit.
But when it came to which theaters produced the most winners, the results were clear: Arena Stage took home seven silver trophies, including four for the top-tapping classic Cole Porter musical Anything Goes. Next in the running with five awards was 1st Stage, a suburban theater who made a case for schlepping out to Tyson’s Corner for a show, not just to go Father’s Day shopping at L.L. Bean.
Since 2015, the Helen Hayes Awards have been divided into two categories: The Helens (mostly for small, non-Equity theaters) and the Hayes (for the big-guns like Shakespeare Theatre and Arena Stage). Thankfully, theatergoers of all stripes (pin stripes, sequined stripes, pink hair stripes, etc.) fit comfortably inside The Anthem, the striking concert venue at the Wharf that hosted the ceremony for the second year in a row. Most attendees didn’t make it through all 2.5 hours of awards, and could be found partying in the lobbies long before the after-party officially started. Inside the theater, speeches were mostly impassioned and mostly rather sober.
As tradition at City Paperdemands, (or we hope it demands), theater critics Chris Klimek and Rebecca J. Ritzel have thoughts about last night. And so, people who make Washington such a great theater town, here are the 2019 Helen Hayes Awards Awards.
Outstanding Power Move By Mother Nature: The rain stopped and the sun came out just in time for guests to take selfies on the Anthem’s balcony.
Outstanding Tragedy: Five minutes before the show was scheduled to begin, an actress stood outside the theater loudly complaining, “They won’t let me coat-check the leftovers from my delicious dinner!”
Outstanding Vintage Fashion Modeling: Sabrina Mandell, who attended the ceremony dressed as film star and “First Lady of Washington Theater” Helen Hayes, and her Happenstance Theater collaborator Sarah Olmstead Thomas, who braved the chill with her great-grandmother’s mink stole.
Outstanding Entrance by a Host: Curry, who strolled down the center aisle waving like a pageant queen in an iridescent sequined bodycon dress. “She’s an Angela Bassett look-alike with impossible curves and shapely legs,” crooned her co-host Hammerly, adding “I would’ve worn that dress myself if I could fit into it.”
Outstanding Reference to Theater Research: Hammerly and Curry proudly cited the 2017-2018 Actors’ Equity Regional Theatre Report, which hailed Baltimore/Washington as the best place in the country for actors to work outside of New York. For the first time, the average actor in D.C. worked more than 20 weeks each year. (“New York? Who cares about New York?” Hammerly said.)
Outstanding Score Settling: Director/playwright/professor/actor Jennifer L. Nelson, who upon receiving the Helen Hayes Tribute, deviated from her prepared comments to make an impassioned call for diversity in every aspect of the profession, calling out several artistic directors in the room for not hiring her: “I’m a really good director,” the 45-year veteran said, “and you never invited me to come work at your theaters.”
Outstanding Lowbrow Conclusion to a Highbrow Acceptance Speech: Nelson, who concluded her lengthy autobiographical speech by wishing her collaborators and her audience love, humor, friendship, creative fulfillment “and once in a while—and I’ve said this before—a really good fart.”
Outstanding Quotation from a Current Blockbuster Film: Emily Lotz, who upon accepting her Set Design Hayes for Imagination Stage’s The Princess and the Pauper — A Bollywood Tale, told the audience, “I love you three thousand,” echoing two members of the Stark family in Avengers: Endgame.
Outstanding Legitimate No-Shows: Ephraim Sykes (Outstanding Performer in a Visiting Production) and Corbin Bleu (Outstanding Actor in a Musical—Hayes). Both awards were well deserved and both actors are now performing on Broadway in Tony-nominated musicals.
Outstanding Illegitimate No-Shows: Kip Fagan and Eric Rosen, who tied for the Outstanding Director of a Play Hayes but did not attend the ceremony. Props to ALL the other nominees—Paige Hernandez, Marti Lyons, David Muse, and Alan Paul—for being in the building.
Outstanding Future Book by a Triple Threat: Box Theory by Natsu Onoda Power. Power adapted, directed, and designed The Lathe of Heaven, a co-production between Spooky Action Theatre and Georgetown University, and she won awards in two categories. “People say all of my shows basically consist of people moving boxes around onstage,” Power said, “So I’m going to write a book. Box Theory! Coming soon!”
Outstanding John Travolta Moment: The presenters who butchered Power’s name. Twice. When the design nominees were read, she was Natsu Ono. When she won, she was Natuso Onado.
Outstanding Delayed Arrival: Tuyet Thi Pham, who found her way onstage to collect her Supporting Actress in a Play Helen for Spooky Action’s The Small Room at the Top of Stairs just as presenters were about to accept the award on her behalf. “I just came from work,” she began, going on to dedicate the award to her father.
Outstanding Segue: Playwright and presenter Karen Zacarias, who shared that she crossed the U.S.–Mexico border as a fifth-grader and praised D.C. theater for being a “well-mixed stew” that welcomes immigrants. Her co-presenter, actor John Lescault, then quipped “That’s why we’re here to give the awards for visiting productions.”
Outstanding All-In-The-Family Moments (Tie): Synetic Theater costume designer Erik Teague, who brought his wife onstage because “she was my draper on this crazy show” (The Trial), and Keegan Theatre actress Debora Crabbe (Outstanding Actress in a Musical Helen for As You Like It), who brought her sister to the podium and dedicated the honor to her because “she let me sleep on her couch.”
Outstanding Social Media Campaign: Studio Theatre associate literary manager Lauren Halvorsen, who lobbied on Twitter for a dramaturg to join the ranks of presenters because “we’re really good readers.” TheatreWashington took notice, and asked her to present herself.
Outstanding Fist Pump by an Ensemble: The cast of Studio Theatre’s girls soccer drama The Wolves, who wrapped up their remarks (“Thanks to Sarah DeLappe for writing a play about teenage girls. Take them seriously!”) by doing their “We are The Wolves!” pregame chant from the show.
Outstanding Aphorism: “Your art is your best lover,” proclaimed Caroline Wolfson, accepting her Outstanding Supporting Actress in Musical Helen for her performance in Fly by Night at 1st Stage.
Outstanding Parental Ambush: The parents of Maria Rizzo, who took home a Lead Actress in a Musical Helen for Keegan’s Chicago and a Supporting Actress in a Musical Hayes for Arena’s Anything Goes. “My parents just showed up to surprise [me] in the lobby and it was the coolest thing ever,” she said from the stage.
Outstanding Filibuster: Ally Theatre Artistic Director Ty Hallmark, who when the orchestra began gently attempting to play her off as she and her collaborators accepted the John Aniello Award for Outstanding Emerging Theatre Company, turned and said, “I like jazz, so you can just keep on playing.”
Outstanding Award Sharers: (deep breath)
Britt Bonney and Jake Null, who tied in the Musical Direction—Helen category for Signature’s Girlfriend and Keegan’s Chicago, respectively.
Fagan and Rosen, who tied in the Direction in a Play—Hayes category for Woolly Mammoth’s Gloria and Arena’sIndecent, respectively.
Kara Harmon and Alejo Vietti, who tied in Costume Design—Hayes for The Wiz at Ford’s Theatre, and Anything Goes at Arena, respectively.
Mary Myers and Pham, Supporting Actress in a Play—Helen winners for NextStop’s 45 Plays for 45 Presidents and Spooky Action’s The Small Room at the Top of the Stairs, respectively.
Crabbe of Keegan’s As You Like It and Rizzo of Keegan’s Chicago, both awarded Helens for Lead Actress in a Musical.
Robert Prosky Award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Play — Helen winners Josh Adams, honored for Theater Alliance’s The Events, and Mathew R. Wilson, honored for 1st Stage’s Swimming with Whales.
A suggestion to TheatreWashington: If the voting procedures can’t be amended to prevent so many toss-ups, maybe add a sudden-death tiebreaking performance round to allow a winner to be chosen in real time, on stage, at next year’s ceremony. Just a thought.