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.
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.)