30th Annual Helen Hayes Awards sees show in a stage of flux

True to the spirit of the Helen Hayes Awards, the event to honor theater on area stages didn’t just tell us how different this year’s festivities would be. The ceremony put it into song.

“Much more streamlined this year!” local performers Sam Ludwig, Rachel Zampelli and Ashleigh King belted out during the opening number, as attendees milled about Monday night in the event’s new venue: the National Building Museum. “If you want production numbers, you had better watch the Tonys.”

TheatreWashington’s 30th annual awards gala got the party started earlier than usual this year. Guests who were dressed in “creative black tie” mingled in the atrium as the honors were being presented — a format that had benefits and drawbacks.

In previous years, guests endured a lengthy seated ceremony at the Warner Theatre before heading off to a “cast party.” This year, guests were happy to stand and eat and drink through the presentations, which consisted of a three-act show with two intermissions — though the awards seemed to take a back seat to the open-bar shindig. Upon taking the stage to accept their awards, most honorees struggled to be heard over the raucous cocktail party before them.

Not that the attendees were complaining. Except for the long bar lines, they seemed to like the new interactive format. (Overheard: “We should probably get in the [bar] line again before Act 3.”)

In the opening number, TheatreWashington made it clear that it was programming according to audience wishes: “You wanted more party / now it’s five hours long,” sang Ludwig, Zampelli and King.

In a rarity in the world of drama, TheatreWashington encouraged folks to turn on their cellphones. Although the devices can be the bane of an actor’s existence, here guests were told to tweet and Instagram those selfies, as well as pics of the popular macaroni-and-cheese bar. Such images were projected on the museum’s giant screens.

How else to make the crowd more comfortable? Try the shoe check. Women could ditch their high heels in a cubby and purchase $5 slippers to dance in. “I have about five more minutes in these shoes, and then these tootsies are going into Helen Hayes slippers,” said Linda Levy, TheatreWashington’s president and chief executive.

In the interest of time, a 30-second acceptance-speech limit was strictly enforced — as that same trio of Ludwig, Zampelli and King did double duty by singing winners off the stage when they’d hit their limit. When Dawn Ursula won — for best supporting actress in Woolly Mammoth Theatre’s “The Convert” — she maximized her time by singing her thank-yous, before being sung off the stage herself to the strains of “So Long, Farewell” from “The Sound of Music.”

No one performer or production dominated this year’s awards. Tying for the most awards — with three each — were Round House Theatre’s “Glengarry Glen Ross,” the Kennedy Center’s “The Book of Mormon” and “Hello, Dolly!,” which was presented by Ford’s Theatre and Signature Theatre.

The most-nominated production, Woolly Mammoth’s “Stupid F---ing Bird,” received two of the night’s biggest awards — outstanding resident play and outstanding new play or musical — out of its eight nods. The award for outstanding resident musical was a tie between Olney’s “A Chorus Line” and “Hello, Dolly!” “The Book of Mormon” took honors for best visiting production.

Some theater pros traveled a familiar path to the Hayes podium. Longtime D.C. actor Ted van Griethuysen received his seventh Hayes award for his supporting role as Uncle Benjamin in “The Apple Family Plays.” And Synetic Theater’s Irina Tsikurishvili shared her ninth award for outstanding movement in a resident play with Ben Cunis. Previously, Tsikurishvili’s work had been included in the choreography category, but Helen Hayes judges created the movement category to differentiate from the work of those who choreograph dance for musicals. (Unlike the Tonys, the Hayes judging period ends with each calendar year, so no current productions are ever up for an award.)

Some awards were announced before Monday’s presentation, such as the John Aniello Award for Outstanding Emerging Theatre Company, which went to the scrappy and inventive puppeteers of Pointless Theatre Company.

The Washington Post, in partnership with the Helen Hayes Awards, presented the award for Innovative Leadership in the Theatre Community to Adele Robey and Julia Robey Christian, co-founders of the Anacostia Playhouse. And Victor Shargai, the longtime board chairman of TheatreWashington, received the Helen Hayes Tribute, a lifetime achievement award that puts him in company with such figures as James Earl Jones and Kevin Spacey. Shargai — who stepped down as chairman in October — received a video tribute, in which Angela Lansbury called him “an absolute original.”

Shargai dedicated his award to “you who make the theater, you who sit in the audiences. . . . I thank Helen with all of my heart for doing this.”

Next year’s Helen Hayes ceremony will bring more changes. In September, TheatreWashington announced that it would restructure the awards into two groups, based on whether a production employs a majority of actors that are members of Actors’ Equity, the theater union — thereby doubling the number of honors.

TheatreWashington has not addressed how all those awards will be presented without drastically increasing the run time of the show — but this year’s early-opening bars seem like a good start, even if the format didn’t please everyone.

“It’s not my place to judge what works,” said Bobby Smith, who won for best supporting actor in a resident musical for Signature Theatre’s “Spin,” when noting all the audience noise during the acceptance speeches. “I just wish everyone would be quiet.” Still, he said the clamor wasn’t the crowd’s fault: TheatreWashington “set it up like a party.”

Maura Judkis covers culture, food, and the arts for the Weekend section and Going Out Guide.
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