New Hayes Awards could spur diverse theater

Washington vetoed the idea of splitting the Helen Hayes Awards in two, creating separate categories for large and small theaters. In 2009, the Hayes Awards sent out surveys, created focus groups, talked with constituents. Nothing changed. Here are two reasons to consider bringing the issue back for another vote. (Full disclosure: I was a Hayes judge for three years, and as a critic I have broached this notion before.)

First of all, distinguishing between large and small companies would broadcast a more accurate, more sophisticated picture of Washington area theater.

Chicago has distinguished between Equity and non-Equity productions since 1973. Not coincidentally, Actors’ Equity had a hand in creating the city’s Jefferson Awards back in the 1960s.

The message that sends about Chicago — fabled Chicago, blazer of theatrical trails — is that it’s a big, busy, broad city with layers of work to celebrate. The Equity and non-Equity Jeffs even hold distinct ceremonies at different times of the year, which means twice the publicity. And publicity is the avowed business of most regional theater awards, which is why the Hayes Awards recently metamorphosed into Theatre­Washington, a promotional and service arm for area stages.

Washington, on the other hand, makes a populist virtue of putting all its artists (except those in “non-resident” or touring shows) on the same playing field. Naturally, that creates friction, and sometimes excitement, when lavish and raw productions get thrust cheek by jowl. But it also sends a diminished message, suggesting theater here hasn’t grown substantially in the 27 years since the awards began. In fact, the scene has exploded — and it’s not just about all the fancy new facilities.

Secondly, new Hayes Awards could shine a particularly bright light on smaller troupes.

The fear around town is that the smaller theaters would be viewed as “less than,” and that they would be deprived of the opportunity to rub elbows with the local and out-of-town big shots at the gala ceremony each year.

Yet breaking out a whole new set of awards could play a crucial role in focusing national and local attention on the area’s smaller-budget companies, which often do the riskiest material, new or old. Where these artists need validation is not actually at the Hayes Awards. It’s at the box office.

The goal is to raise awareness and get people into the venues that intriguing troupes such as Forum Theatre, Rorschach Theatre, Constellation and Solas Nua occupy: the Source Theatre and Flashpoint downtown, the Atlas Performing Arts Center and the H Street Playhouse in Northeast Washington, Artisphere in Rosslyn and more. A community of companies already exists — Taffety Punk, MetroStage, WSC Avant Bard, Keegan, Washington Stage Guild, No Rules and more, to say nothing of the burgeoning suburban troupes — and it’s rangier and more robust than when Chicago started its non-Equity wing with just five theaters.

But it lacks collective heat. Dedicated awards could do as much as any single gesture to create a public identity.

How to draw a dividing line? The Jeffs go by Equity standing, but theater budget may make more sense here. There are ways to retrofit the awards if Washington theater sees enough self-
 interest to make a change.

Is there a will?

Nelson Pressley has been writing about theater and other arts – but mostly theater – for the Post since 1999.
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