In June, many small theaters made a vocal case against dividing the prizes during a “summit” run by TheatreWashington, the umbrella organization that manages the Hayes Awards. Heads of larger D.C. theaters were scarce at that meeting.
Two months earlier, seven large companies quietly made it clear to TheatreWashington that reforms were necessary, or they might have to “rethink their future involvement,” according to TheatreWashington President and CEO Linda Levy Grossman. Heads of three theaters — Eric Schaeffer of Signature Theatre, Paul Tetreault of Ford’s Theatre, and Molly Smith of Arena Stage — met with Grossman, Abel Lopez, Brad Watkins and Glen Howard of TheatreWashington.
An announcement on changes (or not) to the awards is expected next month.
“I would absolutely not characterize it as demands,” Grossman says of the larger theaters’ message. “I think it would be more accurate to say they felt some of their recommendations would be for the better of the entire the community. There was no demand that you must make the changes we say you must.”
The companies signing on with Signature, Ford’s and Arena were the Shakespeare Theatre Company, Studio Theatre, Round House Theatre and the Kennedy Center, Grossman says. Schaeffer, speaking for Tetreault and Smith, declined to comment for this article.
The larger theaters sent TheatreWashington a letter that included the possibility of “rethinking” their participation in the awards.
“That could mean anything,” says Grossman, declining to characterize it as a threat to withdraw.
The letter has not been made public. “That was never meant to be shared,” Grossman says, “and we have not shared it.”
Hard to judge
Even so, knowledge of it rattled Janet Stanford, artistic director of Bethesda’s Imagination Stage. She responded with an e-mail blast urging people to stand against dividing the awards and potentially disqualifying theater for young audiences (TYA) at the June 24 summit.
“One of many ideas up for discussion is to exclude TYA theatres from consideration alongside the region’s adult theatres,” Stanford wrote.
The Helen Hayes Awards have often come under fire for eccentric results pegged to its all-inclusive process. Ever since the awards debuted 30 years ago, cash-poor troupes have been weighed alongside multimillion-dollar Goliaths. Money, goes the HHA reasoning, does not necessarily buy quality.
But the difficulties of judging have deepened over the past several years as the city’s artistry has expanded.
Synetic Theatre, a movement-based troupe unlike any other company in the region, has sometimes dominated the awards with its singular productions. (A whopping seven actors were nominated from its 2011 production of “King Lear.”) And the area’s burgeoning corps of youth-oriented theaters has only made award-giving more complex.