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Flying V Artistic Director Jason Schlafstein

Making an impression from the podium at the Helen Hayes Awards last April was no small feat. At the first ceremony after TheatreWashington—the organization that recognizes excellence in the D.C.-area theater community—had implemented a new policy of giving two awards in most categories to help non-Equity companies compete, presenters handed out a whopping 70 trophies—and winners got a mere 30 seconds for their acceptance speeches. The recipients’ sprints to the stage of the Lincoln Theatre to rip through their thank-yous turned the 2015 iteration of Washington’s 30-year-old “theater prom” into a bizarre athletic event.

Still, Jason Schlafstein and Jonathan Ezra Rubin found a way to stand out in the chaos. Accepting theJohn Aniello Award for Outstanding Emerging Theatre Company, the producing artistic director and managing director, respectively, of Flying V Theatre performed a carefully rehearsed blast of banter before tearing open their shirts Clark Kent-style to reveal matching tees with the Flying V emblem on their chests. “Be awesome!” they urged their brethren.

“I think a lot in terms of pro wrestling,” Schlafstein says. “You’ve got the curtain jerkers, the mid-card, and the main event. In D.C., you have the Fringe companies doing one show a year on a super-small budget. You have companies that have been around for five to 15 years, operating on a mid-size budget. And then you have the Equity houses that have been around for maybe 30-plus. The John Aniello Award was the moment the community decided that we’ve moved into that mid-card tier. We’re firmly established, and we’re sticking around.”

First presented in 2008, the award is named for John Laurentzen Aniello Jr., who with his longtime partner, Victor Shargai,was a patron of D.C. performing arts organizations for 40 years. Aniello died in 2006 at the age of 77. Shargai was an actor in New York when he and Aniello met in the early 1960s. Aniello moved to D.C. in the middle of that decade and Shargai joined him here a year later. “Washington was kind of deadly for theater” at the time, Shargai recalls. “It had the National, which had major pre-Broadway performances but little else. Arena was working. Folger existed. It was something that blossomed as we lived here, and [Aniello] really believed in the good of theater for the city.”

Shargai says that establishing an award in Aniello’s name after his death was then-TheatreWashington President Linda Levy’s idea, but it was one he endorsed wholeheartedly. Shargai chaired TheatreWashington’s board from 1998 until 2013, and he continues to run its seven-member Emerging Theatres Committee, which sees productions by Aniello-eligible companies and selects the winner.

Current and emeritus committee members say their goal is to recognize companies that’ve demonstrated a combination of artistic merit, professionalism, and staying power, but haven’t yet matured to the point where they’re contenders for the regular Helen Hayes Awards. Briefly, to be HHA-eligible, companies must pay their artists a minimum wage established by TheatreWashington, and productions must have a minimum of 16 public performances. Like the other Haysies, the Aniello is purely a honorific—there’s no monetary component.

So what does winning an Aniello get you? A promotional peg, a nod of approval, and perhaps a leg up on the other companies begging for funding from largely the same pool of public and private sources. Companies’ “names resonate more once they receive the award,” says TheatreWashington President Amy Austin (who, full disclosure, was publisher of Washington City Paper for 30 years before taking that job last September, and now serves as publisher emeritus).

Schlafstein has experienced that resonance firsthand. One of the Aniello’s immediate effects on Flying V was that other organizations came to them with offers of partnership, resulting in 2015 coproductions with Hillwood Museum and The Rockville JCC. And Flying V’s show from last fall, the world premiere of Bekah Brunstetter’s The Oregon Trail, was the biggest hit in the company’s history. But before those quantifiable successes, there was the placebo effect of winning. “It re-inspired our artists,” Schlafstein says. “We suddenly had a rallying point.”

Schlafstein knows for certain the imprimatur of the Aniello helped his company secure a $5,000 grant from Montgomery County, because he attended the committee meeting in which it was awarded. And Constellation Theatre Company, which has continued to flourish artistically in the seven years since it received the Aniello (as anyone who has seen its current production of Equus could tell you), still displays the award’s seal on the homepage of its website.

The general idea, according to Michael Kyrioglou, TheatreWashington’s theater services manager, is that once companies snag an Aniello, they “graduate” into contention for HHAs in the regular categories—acting, writing, direction, design, and so on.

Previous Aniello winners fared well in this year’s 2016 HHA nominations, announced Monday night: Constellation earned a whopping 16, all but two of them for the R-rated puppet musical Avenue Q, the most-nominated show of the year. 2010 Aniello Award winner 1st Stage got a half-dozen nominations, 2011 winner No Rules got 3, and 2014 winner Pointless Theatre and Flying V each got their first two; A Faction of Fools, which won the Aniello in 2012, snagged one.

The three nominees for the Aniello this year were drawn from a larger-than-usual pool of 10 companies performing on stages from Alexandria to Columbia, Md. To be eligible, a company must have applied to join TheatreWashington—which levies no dues on its member organizations but requires them to certify that they have obtained the rights to the material they perform—and must have staged productions of not less than nine performances in two consecutive calendar years. In prior years, the Aniello Award recipient was simply announced; this is the first time the finalists among the eligible companies have been presented as nominees.

They are: Arts on the Horizon, an Alexandria-based company devoted to programming for children up to age six; Pallas Theatre Collective, a company that focuses on new musicals and performs primarily at the Anacostia Arts Center; and The Welders—a group of already established playwrights and other artists who’ve pledged to turn over the leadership positions of their company to a new regime every three years. They’ve already named their second class, which will start in August.

Current and former members of the Emerging Theatres Committee are adamant that the Aniello recognizes a company’s ability to sustain quality over multiple productions rather than the likelihood that it remain viable financially in the long term. But they still hold out hope that a winner could become the next Taffety Punk or Constellation in 10 years—or in 20, the next Studio or Woolly Mammoth.

But things don’t always work out that way. No Rules, one of 2011’s two winners, was founded in 2009 by a trio of University of North Carolina School of the Arts graduates: Anne Kohn, Joshua Morgan, and Brian Sutow. The company scored a hit with its inaugural production, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and followed that up with work by major contemporary playwrights like Neil LaBute and Sarah Ruhl. When Holly Twyford, one of the most respected actors in D.C., wanted to get into directing, she did her first show—a 2011 production of Diana Son’s Stop / Kiss—for No Rules. They even got something that eludes most new troupes for years: a fixed address, at Shirlington’s Signature Theatre.

“Our growth was difficult to manage,” Morgan says. “Our budget quadrupled in two years.” Sutow moved to Indiana, and Kohn left for a position with the Shakespeare Theatre Company. By the summer of 2013, Morgan was running No Rules alone, at the same time his career as an actor was taking off. “I was the primary fundraiser,” he says, pointing out that keeping No Rules afloat was a 60-hour-a-week job—an unpaid one, after a time—on top of all his acting gigs.

In 2015, the board voted to dissolve No Rules. Morgan says he cast the sole “nay” vote, because he didn’t think the company should shut down while it still owed people money. But something happened to cushion the blow: He got a part in the first Broadway show for which he’d ever auditioned, the current revival of Les Misérables. He’s been performing the role of Claquesous and others in eight shows per week at the 1,400-seat Imperial Theatre since October.

“I gave up my house, my car, and my partner of three years” to become an actor in New York, Morgan says.

2013 Aniello winner Dizzie Miss Lizzie’s Roadside Revue is still around, but founders Debra Buonaccorsi and Steve McWilliams moved to Nashville last year, where they are now writing and performing music as The Hummingbyrds. “We are seeking out opportunities here to continue the work of DMLRR,” they say via Facebook message.

At least the more recent crop of Aniello Award winners are staying put. A Faction Fools will open its next production, an update of Molière’s The Miser, in June. Pointless is remounting its 2011 Capital Fringe show, Hugo Ball: A Super Spectacular Dada Adventure, in April. And next week, Flying V will open a revised and expanded version of You, Or Whatever I Can Get, a musical comedy that had a sold-out workshop run in the 2014 Fringe Festival. Written by its four-person cast, the show is about dating, friendship, and, above all, the terrifying passage from late youth to early middle age.

Or as Schlafstein would have it, from curtain-jerker to mid-card.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery

Correction: Due to a reporting error, this article originally stated that Flying V partnered with the Hillyer Museum and Theater J. The company, in fact, partnered with the Hillwood Museum and The Rockville JCC.