On Monday night, as the Helen Hayes Awards ceremony reached its climax with the announcement of the top two prizes, there seemed to be one thing missing: drama.

Oklahoma!, Arena Stage’s lavish and widely praised revival of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic, and Candide, Shakespeare Theatre Company’s inventive and widely praised revival of the Leonard Bernstein classic, tied for outstanding resident musical. Clybourne Park, Woolly Mammoth’s staging of Bruce Norris’ recent Pulitzer winner, and Hamlet, Folger’s production of the ubiquitous Shakespeare tragedy, tied for outstanding resident play.

There were three other ties: Five total, out of 27 categories. This isn’t unusual: There were three ties last year, and five in both 2008 and 2009.

We’re not going to get too worked up over a silly awards ceremony. But for us, it was nevertheless kind of a bummer. Had there been just one tie, it would have spoken to the strength of that category’s winners. Five ties felt a little too much like an attempt to push everyone out the door with a smile on their faces.

So why is everyone a winner at the Helen Hayes Awards?

For starters, it’s because it’s not about winning at all. “Nowhere in our language, nowhere in our philosophy is the word ‘best,'” says Linda Levy Grossman, the Helen Hayes organization’s president and CEO. The awards’ superlative of choice is instead “outstanding.”

Not that ties are the goal. According to rules posted on the Helen Hayes website, the statistical models the awards use are “standardized and widely accepted.” Says Grossman: “There are so many ties because the ties could not statistically be broken in a valid way.”

Of course, another way of looking at it is that the Helen Hayes Awards have settled on a statistical regime that produces lots of ties, and are quite comfortable with it.

This is how it works, and it’s a bit more complicated than the process described on the Helen Hayes site: Eight judges, which include both theater professionals and theatergoers in a pool totaling 60, attend each local theater production that’s eligible for the awards. They score plays in various categories on a numbered scale. The top five vote-getters (or more, if there are ties) in each category are then nominees.

Those results are then shipped off to an auditing firm—the Klemm Analysis Group—which applies a host of statistical overlays, which include (but are not limited to, Grossman says):

  • The raw scores
  • The “middle six,” meaning the raw scores minus the lowest- and highest-scoring ballots
  • The number of 10s each nominee received.

The auditing firm also evaluates the judges, weighing how many times each voted in the category and blindly studying their voting behavior. From there they determine a winner. Grossman went into great detail about the judging process but wouldn’t break down an individual category from this year for me. It could be the ties are a result of the small number of judges evaluating each play, or perhaps a reflection of judges’ overall enthusiasm (lots of high scores). What’s clear is that the model, no matter how widely accepted it is, yields numerous ties year after year.

In fact, until 2003, when the awards switched judging models, ties were a rarity. The awards used to have a bicameral system, in which theaters provided nominators, and final determinations were made by a judging panel whose members saw a large numbers of plays produced in the region. (The system was abandoned, Grossman says, because the nominators didn’t always meet criteria laid out by the organization, and it was also difficult for a few judges to see so many plays in one year.)

By our count, from 1985 (the first year of the awards) to 2002, the ceremony had only four ties. Since it switched to its current system (which has evolved since) in 2003, the awards have seen 30 ties.

“I like ties,” Grossman says. The Helen Hayes Awards, she says, aren’t meant to be competitive, but to bring together the area’s theater scene. “The Washington theater community is not New York and it’s not Philadelphia and it’s not Chicago and it’s not L.A.” It has its own character.

And it has its own way of running an awards program. The voting system used by the Tony Awards is remarkably complicated. Each category has a nominating committee of 15 to 30 judges who meet in a room for two hours to discuss the entire theater season as a whole, and then vote in secret on the nominees. (Thirty New York theater professionals sequestered in a room for two hours? It sounds like a great one-act.) The nominees are then announced, and the entire Tony Awards voting community (made up of members of various professional groups) votes on every category.

Due to the large voting pool, ties are rare for the Tony Awards—there have only been nine since 1947.

In Chicago, whose theater scene is smaller than New York’s but bigger than D.C.’s, the Jeff Awards has its own system. Judges are randomly assigned to see different shows in the Chicago area, and choose to either nominate or not nominate each show. The five most-recommended shows in each category become the nominees. The 50 members of the Jeff Awards Committee (made up of selected Chicago theater professionals) then vote on the nominees. As with D.C., ties are only awarded if statistically unavoidable. There were zero ties last year.

This is the point where we’d offer some suggestions for reducing the number of ties at the Helen Hayes Awards, but what we want—a competitive awards show with unambiguous winners—clearly isn’t what they want. Then again, we’ve also never been fans of feel-good theater.