Helen Hayes Awards will split nominees into two groups based on Equity involvement

Washington theater’s Helen Hayes Awards unveiled a major makeover Tuesday night, restructuring the judging process and nearly doubling the number of prizes that could be handed out.

The expansion comes as TheatreWashington, the group that administers the awards, abandons the one-size-fits-all approach that has characterized the prizes since they began 29 years ago. Traditionally, a theater company with no money (and perhaps not paying its talent) competed on an equal footing with such goliaths as Arena Stage and the Shakespeare Theatre Company.

The Helen Hayes Awards’ two new divisions

The Helen Hayes Awards’ two new divisions

Shows will be nominated in categories based on Equity representation among the cast.

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Recent results have sometimes dropped jaws; the most striking example was the Kennedy Center production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Follies” that did better at Broadway’s Tony Awards than it did with Hayes voters. With Tuesday’s changes, approved last week unanimously by the board of directors after a long study by an internal task force, TheatreWashington addressed the credibility of an awards process that sometimes put very different shows in the same categories.

Starting next year, productions will be categorized into two diplomatically named but different sets: the Helen Group and the Hayes Group. The Helen Group is for non-Equity productions, although they can use up to three Equity performers (or have Equity actors make up less than 51 percent of the cast) in a given show. The Hayes Group is for productions employing more Equity talent than that.

“This is a huge step,” Signature Theatre Artistic Director Eric Schaeffer said after the announcement (followed by an entirely non-controversial question-and-answer session) Tuesday evening at the Washington Post building. “It’s the biggest change they’ve ever done.”

The most significant change involves new muscle behind the word “professional,” which has been used loosely in Washington theater. Currently, to be considered professional, all that’s required are good intentions and 16 performances. Union contracts and salaries for actors have never been mandatory.

Beginning next year — and thus applying to awards to be handed out in 2015 — everybody will have to ante up salary-wise to be eligible. The new rules establish weekly payments for actors, directors, choreographers and designers. TheatreWashington declined to go into specific figures Tuesday.

Keegan Theater Artistic Director Mark A. Rhea generally endorsed the changes, though he — like Schaeffer — is curious to see where the minimum compensation levels will be set. Signature Theatre’s shows will be firmly in the Hayes category; productions at Keegan, a non-Equity troupe that often produces large shows (and sometimes uses Equity actors), will be in the Helen category.

Linda Levy, president and chief executive of TheatreWashington, said earlier this week, “It’s only right that we advocate not just for the brand of Washington theater but for those who make it.”

As it became clear this year that changes were likely, many leaders of D.C.’s smaller troupes worried about being thought of as “less than” if the awards split into some version of big and small. TheatreWashington is trying to avoid that kind of sharp split by applying the Helen and Hayes tags not to theater companies but individual shows.

Contractual habits will lodge most companies firmly in either the Helen or Hayes categories, but Levy suggested several troupes that might go back and forth, depending on the production. With awards in both play and musical categories for Helen and Hayes productions, as many as 47 trophies could be bestowed.

“We’re telling people to bring their jammies,” Levy said when asked what this means for an annual gala that already runs 21 / 2 hours. Joking aside, the ceremony’s format will be revisited, she said: “I don’t think anybody wants to sit through four hours of awards.”

The other big revision has to do with judging.

Out: the pool of 50 to 60 judges sent randomly to shows, only eight to any given production (of the 201 shows that were eligible last year), and voting only once, with their morning-after tabulations determining winners sometimes 15 months later.

In: smaller judging panels with distinct jobs. Both the Helen and Hayes groups will have separate judging panels for plays and for musicals.

The busiest judges are likely to be those on the panel for Hayes plays, for which nine judges (plus three alternates) will need to evaluate 57 shows, based on 2012 totals. Five judges and two alternates will look at roughly 18 musicals in the Helen Group.

The goal is a manageable load for judges, and it will mean fewer judges overall — only 38, plus seven more to look specifically at new plays and/or musicals regardless of Helen/Hayes classification. The judges will also get a “second look” — a chance to vote again after the nominees are announced, something that hasn’t happened for years.

“We test-drove this with a cross-section of theater leaders,” Levy said of the changes, which include an increased role for those leaders in choosing judges. (Administratively, the new rules will create more work for TheatreWashington, too.) “Everybody we spoke to contributed to what this has become.”

Earlier this week, TheatreWashington also announced that Victor Shargai is stepping down. Shargai, who has been chairman since 1998, will be replaced by Kurt Crowl, who has been with the organization since 2001.

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