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D.C. theater’s answer to the Tonys, the Helen Hayes Awards, has been kind to teeny-tiny local troupes in recent years. Now, the big guys want a bigger bite.
Recently, the Washington Post’s Nelson Pressley broke the story that representatives of Signature Theatre, Ford’s Theatre, and Arena Stage had threatened to “rethink their future involvement” in the Hayes awards unless its organizers, the nonprofit group TheatreWashington, made some changes that would appease Big Theater—perhaps ones like splitting the awards into separate categories for big and small companies so large companies wouldn’t, well, keep losing to small ones.
Major companies might like that idea, but the smaller ones have rallied against a two-tier system, saying they don’t want any kind of second-class treatment. It’s not yet clear whether TheatreWashington plans to make any reforms to the awards. But as long as it’s got the suggestion box open, here are a few ideas to cram in.
Kill the Nonresident Categories! Big institutions may feel like they’re being shut out of the resident play and musical categories, but they also tend to dominate the nonresident categories, which inevitably reward the big-budget touring shows that roll through the Kennedy Center and Shakespeare Theatre. Do Cate Blanchett and Laurence Fishburne really need the recognition? If the Helen Hayes Awards aspire to be truly innovative, I recommend jettisoning the nonresident categories and focusing on local productions with a system that, like the Post suggests, distinguishes between outstanding work done on a shoestring and great shows with bigger budgets.—Sophie Gilbert, Washingtonian arts editor
Eliminate Bloat! Outstanding is outstanding, regardless of budget, and that’s what these awards are supposed to recognize. So I don’t favor further diluting the awards. I side with playwright Gwydion Suilebhan, who recently blogged about his vision for the Hayes Awards, which would revolve around a slim, highly competitive slate of five weighty categories. Imagine landing just one of five enormous awards, like the Hayes Prize for Performance, the Hayes Prize for Design, and similar awards for direction, writing, and “theatrical innovation.” High stakes and even higher competition? Oh yes. But taking home that big award will mean a whole lot more than getting a watered-down prize in a segregated category.—Ally Schweitzer
Change Nothing—and Tell Big Theater to Grow Up! Sending smaller companies like Imagination Stage, Synetic Theater, and Adventure Theatre down to lower ranks isn’t equitable. That Imagination Stage production of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe? It was my pick for best resident production of 2012, whether you call it a musical, a play, a ballet, a puppet show, or just plain good theater. Introducing a two-tier system would only make Washington’s larger theaters look less like Aslan and more like cowardly lions.—Rebecca J. Ritzel, theater critic
Reward Ambition! I’d like to see degree-of-difficulty factored into the distribution of nominations and awards. The 2013 nominees were long on Shakespeare and hit musicals and adaptations of venerable old novels. There’s wasn’t much new news. Indeed, outstanding new play or musical is its own category, indicating just how much of an anomaly it is for houses to gamble on work by living playwrights, or for those gambles to pay off.—Chris Klimek, theater critic
Get the Artists Drunker! Splitting the awards could lead to a fractured community rather than a more united one. But if the awards do split up and get even longer, structure them like the Golden Globes. Don’t put attendees into theater seats; give them tables for each company or show. That way, the eating, mingling, and partying can start earlier, and drunk theater artists = funny acceptance speeches.—Sophia Bushong, theater reporter and critic
Graphic by Jandos Rothstein