Helen Hayes Awards could use a two-tiered approach to Washington theater

Aticklish question: How to critique the Helen Hayes Awards process on the eve of the ceremony without smearing the accomplishments of the 153 nominees?

It may not require such finesse. The issue is not with the artists who will be celebrated during Monday night’s gala at the Warner Theatre. In fact, the suggestion here — as a few months ago — is not for fewer awards, but more.

The current system creates a bit of discomfort, though, because it isn’t rigorous about comparing like with like. Kids shows and non-Equity efforts can fall in the same category as a locally grown, nationally newsworthy Broadway revival.

That and a nagging intangible about the judging process will be worth thinking about after the gala’s hoopla dies down.

Washington theater was akin to a new colony when the Hayes Awards were created 28 years ago. Now it’s a sophisticated metropolis. It’s no longer accurate to project an image of a city in which theaters of all sizes, abilities and budgets have to compete for the same honors. Bestowing awards at different levels is common in other cities. Why not Washington?

Holly Twyford as Anna, right, and Tracy Lynn Middendorf as Kate in 'Old Times' at the Shakespeare Theatre Company. (Astrid Riecken/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

Nearly 30 years ago, Chicago divided its awards between Equity and non-Equity productions. That might work here, though Washington’s small theaters often use Equity actors in a variety of circumstances. It may be more reflective of this scene to align by budget.

Consider a $1 million annual budget dividing line (and the Hayes organizers examined this and other options several years ago, but ended up standing pat). Setting aside family troupes, that creates pools of about a dozen “big” theaters offering roughly 65 productions. The small theater pool: nearly three dozen companies creating upward of 90 shows.

For 2011, the year being celebrated Monday night, those “big” theaters piled up almost 100 nominations. The smaller troupes got about a dozen. Family productions alone got more than that — 18.

The argument you hear against dividing the awards is that the smaller theaters will be left out or set aside. But as it is, the triumphs of small theaters are already being marginalized. There is more than enough quality in those 90 shows to make the acting-directing-design categories competitive and to spread recognition, which is the avowed Hayes mission. MetroStage’s ripping “Savage in Limbo” and WSC Avant Bard’s intelligent “Happy Days” would be among many from DC’s tough-minded small theater scene worthy of year-end glory. A split system would deliver that.

The bigger theaters would be better off, as well. Shoestring troupes besting big boys has long been part of the Hayes ethos, supposedly validating the ideal that money can’t buy quality. Of course that’s true, but an offshoot of that stance appears to be a mind-set that discounts degree of difficulty.

You can see a pattern of heavyweights taken for granted. The Shakespeare Theatre Company has weirdly bad luck for leading performers: The current 13 lead actor and actress nominees include none from its shows. That happens all the time, and STC actors are better recognized when they play the city’s smaller stages.

This year that peculiar pattern even played out in reverse. Holly Twyford is a Hayes staple: The actress has been nominated 14 times in less than 20 years. She’s won four Hayes Awards. Two years ago, she was nominated three times in the leading actress category, and she won — didn’t even split her own vote.

Delia Taylor in WSC Avant Bard's production of ‘Happy Days.’ (Dru Sefton)

Last summer, Twyford made her STC debut in Michael Kahn’s production of Harold Pinter’s “Old Times.” You could have booked it: Twyford is not among tomorrow night’s nominees.

For more on the degree of difficulty problem, see the fiendishly daunting “Follies,” among Stephen Sondheim’s most challenging musicals, yet impressively assembled at the Kennedy Center by longtime Signature Theatre Artistic Director Eric Schaeffer. The champagne cast was led by Bernadette Peters, and the show moved to Broadway and opens in L.A. next month.

The production could take the top musical prize tomorrow night, but Peters is not nominated, nor are Schaeffer, choreographer Warren Carlyle or actor Danny Burstein, who was breathtaking as Peters’s husband. Among resident musicals, a field-leading nine nominations went to Adventure Theatre’s “A Year With Frog and Toad,” an hour-long show for audiences 4 and up.

Full disclosure: I did not see “A Year With Frog and Toad.” But a Broadway production was Tony-nominated as best musical in 2003. The New York Times critic wrote that “it is gratifying to find a musical that knows exactly what it’s doing and that, on its own terms, works perfectly.” He added, “Would I recommend it to grown-ups unaccompanied by children? Honestly, no.”

A stepped-up effort to compare like with like is overdue, and it may extend to Synetic Theater, the acclaimed action-driven troupe that has practically patented its own lively brand of wordless Shakespeare productions. Synetic’s style is demanding, and the movement-based company is unique — but more accurately fits the description of dance, in some views. (A Twitter discussion to this effect flared up recently among local actors.) Synetic’s “King Lear” is running roughshod through the acting categories; a whopping seven “Lear” actors are nominated for performances that are utterly unlike what’s on the rest of D.C. stages.

Hayes is the annual face of Washington theater, so the portrait it paints is no small matter. Would a bifurcated awards system really be such bad news for artists working under modest budgets? Could different groupings and a shift in thinking create more copacetic bundles of like and like? Just a few notions to kick around a couple mornings from now, after the well-deserved party for the actors, writers, designers and directors who make this town go ’round.

TheatreWeek events

Theatre Washington is presenting an inaugural week of programs dedicated to garnering more attention to the Washington-area theater community. Here’s a list of some of the events:

The 28th Annual Helen Hayes Awards

Monday, 8 p.m.
The Warner Theatre
513 13th St. NW

“Show Tunes & Cocktails 2.0”

Wednesday, 7 p.m.
Napoleon’s Bistro and Lounge
1847 Columbia Rd. NW

“The Critics: It’s Only Their Opinion”

Thursday, 7:00 p.m.
Location TBD

“In Rehearsal”by Gary Sloan

Book reading and signing
Friday, 5 p.m.
Busboys & Poets
2021 14th St. NW

Play Time”

A day of theater classes, tours, and workshops for the pint-size thespian
Saturday, All day
Various locations. Check the theatreWeek Web site for activities and locations:
www.theatrewashington.org/theatreweek-events

The National Society of Arts and Letters Ninth Annual Award
for Excellence in the Arts Ceremony

April 29, 2 p.m.
Kennedy Center Terrace Theater
2700 F Street NW

— Erin Williams

The 28th Annual Helen Hayes Awards

Monday 8 pm, Warner Theatre. Info at www.theatrewashington.org

First Post byline, 1992; covering theater for the Post since 1999. His book "American Playwriting and the Anti-Political Prejudice" will be published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2014.
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