New days for Helen Hayes Awards

Peter Marks
Theater critic September 20, 2013

In the daily wrestling match with myself over how I feel about the piece of theater I’m seeing, the amount of money that’s been spent to create it rarely if ever enters my consciousness. I don’t measure the quality of a performance against an Actors’ Equity pay scale. Nor do I find my enjoyment is ever predicated on the number of rivets in a set, or fixtures in the lighting grid.

Oh, believe me, sometimes you can’t help gazing in awe at what’s parading in the footlights, wondering about the money wasted! But some of the most original work I’ve seen on Washington stages over the years, in fact, is done on a dime. Any number of classics reinterpreted by the movement-based Synetic Theater; the devised audience-participation pieces by Dog and Pony DC; the rock-and-roll music hall of Dizzy Miss Lizzie’s Roadside Revue, the inspirational ensemble work on a bare-bones, large-canvas piece such as Solas Nua’s “Scenes From the Big Picture” have been as thrilling in their way as any of the deeper-pocketed productions put on at bigger theaters.

Peter Marks joined the Washington Post as its chief theater critic in 2002. Prior to that he worked for nine years at the New York Times, on the culture, metropolitan and national desks, and spent about four years as its off-Broadway drama critic. View Archive

These thoughts sprang to mind last week, as the implications sank in of the new two-class approach to recognizing excellence that is being instituted by the Helen Hayes Awards, the nearly 30-year-old vehicle for celebrating Washington theater. What’s been announced by the awards, an arm of the trade group TheatreWashington, is that starting in 2014, the productions of companies whose performers are chiefly nonunion will be judged in a separate category from those at better-financed companies, operating under union contracts.

Though the new plan was prompted by protests from some of the larger theaters around town, it is an instructive acknowledgment of the diversity and vibrancy of theater in the nation’s capital, as well as of the extreme complexity of developing an equitable, manageable system of identifying the absolute best of the art form. And in creating a set of criteria for what it means to be a “professional” theater — by means of clear-cut, minimum salary thresholds for actors, directors, designers and choreographers — the people administering the awards are making a valuable statement. They are saying Washington theater is a maturing organism, one that has grown into such a vital aspect of the culture of the region that it desires its practitioners not only be honored, but also, to some demonstrable degree, rewarded with a meaningful paycheck.

All of this is good. The Helen Hayes Awards are the only significant platform for linking the theater companies in the region, and this may be their most important function. Because as a marketing tool, they are relatively ineffective. Unlike the Oscars or on most occasions, the Tonys, the Helen Hayes Awards are bestowed on artistic ventures that no longer exist; they’re doled out to plays and musicals from the previous calendar year. They’re past-tense prizes. I defy you to find anyone in Washington who can say, “I’m seeing a Helen Hayes-winning play tonight!” (TheatreWashington has tried to rectify this by designating some shows during their runs as “Helen Hayes Recommended,” but what exactly that means remains a bit, well, Hayes-y.)

This is just the reality of a theater ecosystem that operates on a here-for-a-month, gone-tomorrow schedule. It is also why the awards tend to be far more meaningful for a community of theater-makers than the majority of ticket buyers. And also why their role as a unifying force is crucial to their mission. So, when the awards in essence split the community into upper and lower divisions — varsity and junior varsity? — with sets of mirror-image trophies for each, you wonder what message is being sent to those upstarts in the newly designated minor league, the one without the Woolly Mammoths and the Signatures, about financial vs. aesthetic standards.

Let’s concede here that prize-giving is a flawed and often divisive enterprise, engendering more hurt feelings than happy ones. And certainly, prize-judging is an inherently subjective undertaking. Just as my reviews and the reviews of colleagues no doubt cause a lot of head-scratching, I’ve been floored at times by what the cadres of Helen Hayes judges have ranked most highly on their scorecards. (And admittedly at other times, gratified.)

But let’s also note that in this reorganized, Byzantine system for handing out even more statuettes, something might be lost. I present to you, for instance, the case of Irina Tsikurishvili, the prolific and gifted choreographer of Synetic Theater, honored by the Helen Hayes Awards so often over the past decade that the shelves of her study must be creaking under the weight of the laurels.

Synetic, by virtue of its large casts of young actors, few if any of them members of Actor’s Equity, will probably be lumped into what is being called the “Helen” group — the assortment of shows by younger, less fiscally robust troupes. And, as a result, the context for evaluating the work of one of the region’s premier choreographers will be some far narrower subset of local productions. Is this really a step in a clarifying direction?

You might say that Tsikurishvili is an exception — but isn’t it the exceptional who awards are all about? It makes complete sense to build an awards structure that affirms local talent and bolsters the confidence of an artistic class that deserves far more support than it gets. And who knows, perhaps on the night the (myriad) winners are announced, it will be enough for a recipient on any rung of the ladder that attention has been paid. We’ll just have to wait and see what the newly minted envelopes bring.

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