Sure, Kathleen Akerley loves getting all dolled up every May, heading to the Kennedy Center and applauding her peers who nab Helen Hayes Awards. And, yes, she’ll again be joining the throngs of thespians attending the big to-do next week. But she doesn’t understand why the grandest night for Washington theater has to be the only grand night for Washington theater.
“I’m not critical of the Helen Hayes Awards,” says Akerley, 38, with the careful diplomacy of a woman who worked as a lawyer before entering the theater world. “It just occurred to me that it might be necessary to create a system where the work that’s done at a certain economic level is judged with different things in mind.”
So Akerley, an actress and director who founded the District’s Longacre Lea Productions four years ago, recently decided to launch her own alternative awards to honor some of the area’s non-Actors’ Equity companies. She’s already banded together with a handful of fellow artistic directors—including Chris Henley of the Washington Shakespeare Company, Chris Griffin of Glamonstrosity, and Mark Rhea of the Keegan Theatre—to flesh out plans for her (soon-to-be-renamed) Boozer Stooge Awards.
Not surprisingly, Akerley’s idea was spurred by what wasn’t on the Helen Hayes nomination list: After being blown away by Project Y’s production of Terra Nova earlier in the year, Akerley was discouraged to see the show passed over. She got to talking with other small-theater-company friends and discovered that a lot of their favorites had been overlooked, too. That’s when she decided to find a way to recognize some of the smaller shows that her segment of the theater community was buzzing about. She drew up a proposal in March, e-mailed it to the 26 area non-Equity companies, and waited.
Akerley envisioned her awards being determined by pure peer review; shows would be voted on by everyone—actors, directors, designers, and so on—who had worked at the companies over the past season. Hers would be a celebration without all the pomp and circumstance of ceremonies such as the Helen Hayes: Instead of the Kennedy Center, her function would be held at the Black Cat; winners would be forced to appoint others to make their acceptance speeches, to cut down on the ego factor; and award categories would recognize such unconventional honors as Most Effective Use of Nudity. “I’m taking it seriously,” she says. “I’m not proposing a complete drunken Halloween escapade, but I thought this also allowed us to keep our tongue in our cheek.”
Naturally, some of these ideas were unpopular with her fellow theater directors. Aside from the many responses urging a reworking of the categories and a universal disdain for the idea of having to accept accolades by proxy, those who opposed the idea most strongly worried that these awards would end up dividing the smaller-budget non-Equity houses from mainstream theater—and opted out because they feared these would be viewed as lesser awards with lower standards, or honors created by and doled out to theaters that couldn’t take home the big prizes they really wanted.
Jack Marshall, artistic director of the American Century Theater in Arlington (which received four Helen Hayes nominations this year), responded that the non-Equity theaters need more than just awards to become unified; he was willing, however, to help fine-tune Akerley’s idea as a component of a larger consortium that would investigate ways for small theater companies to help each other.
“Smaller theaters need to share inspiration, talent, resources, and information,” Marshall says. “They should collaborate on storage space and costume and prop libraries. They should coordinate seasons, share info on personnel, form insurance groups. They should encourage joint productions, band together for theater festivals, share ideas that work. The list is endless.”
For now, Akerley has decided to try to set up this consortium to increase the odds that her awards idea will become a reality (ideally, by next spring); she’s already put together a small committee to help figure out how to jump-start the whole thing. But she realizes that she may have gotten a little more than she bargained for when she first began her crusade. “It’s like discovering you’re drinking at the same bar as Captain Ahab and you’re just drunkenly saying, ‘Oh, let’s go kill a whale!’ You have no idea who you’re provoking at the next table,” she says. “People really have views about this and have tried before, and it hasn’t happened. It may be difficult, but I’m willing to try.” —Aimee Agresti