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When the Helen Hayes Awards were first presented in 1985, Washington had a small but active theater community, and the intimate ceremony gave everyone an opportunity to salute each other. Twenty-eight years later, D.C.’s theater scene is massive: 2.2 million tickets are sold annually and the gala to celebrate those shows now stretches past three hours. A new system nearly doubles the number of awards, giving honors to both big-budgeted theaters and smaller-scale playhouses. Organizers hope to spread the acclaim between the flashy productions that import stars from out of town and the little experimental shows that are just as affecting.
The changes began in April, with a letter sent to TheatreWashington, the organization that administers the awards, from the heads of Washington’s biggest theaters (Round House Theatre, Studio Theatre, Shakespeare Theatre Company, Arena Stage, Ford’s Theatre, Signature Theatre, and the Kennedy Center) stating that without an overhaul of the judging system, they would have to reconsider their involvement in the awards. At first, the tactic seemed like classic hardball: Give us more awards or we’ll walk away. But big local productions were getting more fanfare and Tony nominations after transferring to New York than they did here; it became clear something needed to change.
The new plan separates productions into “Helens” or “Hayes” categories based, more or less, on the number of Actors’ Equity members appearing in the show. Because each award in the acting, directing, and design categories could have a Helen and a Hayes winner, the number of potential awards jumps from 27 to 47. While the plan provides more opportunities for more theaters to win awards, it also necessarily extends the award ceremony. TheatreWashington has yet to figure out an appropriate response to this excess without holding separate events for each type of production.
On paper, the plan seems to accommodate the needs of theater companies large and small. It still allows upstarts like MetroStage and Synetic Theater to take on the old dogs but gives all professional theater companies a greater chance to win. Everyone involved seems pleased, at least for now. The only losers? Attendees who might have to sit through five hours of acceptance speeches and production numbers.