At Hayes pre-show, Ellen Burstyn displays classic cool

April 8, 2013

“Spend the night with Helen!” implores TheatreWashington’s announcement for the 29th Helen Hayes Awards, held Monday night at the Warner Theatre.

Now, if I took out a billboard inviting this entire metropolis to spend the night with me, someone might tell me to tone it down a little. But this is the thee-ya-tah! Attention must be paid.

At the bustling Washington Post pre-show reception, it’s sparkles and lace for the ladies. The boys have busted out their bow ties.

“I tied this on my seventh try,” says Aaron Posner, a nominee for his direction of “The Taming of the Shrew” at Folger Theatre, gesturing to what he claims is the first bow tie he has ever worn. “I tied it in my improvisational way,” he explains. “I couldn’t follow any of the videos.”

The crowd is getting more crowded and the heat keeps getting hotter, but there, relaxed as if in some lovely air-conditioned microclimate in the middle of the room, is Ellen Burstyn.

She is wearing turquoise. Strands of pearls are looped around her neck. The Oscar, Emmy and Tony award winner is in attendance to accept the Helen Hayes Tribute on behalf of the Actors’ Equity Association.

“Theater is one of the oldest arts,” Burstyn says. “Whenever I’m taking part in a theatrical production, I feel like I’m reaching back in history to the earliest form of entertainment.”

When she made her Broadway debut in “Fair Game” in 1957, “I was totally nervous,” she says. “Nothing but nervous.” Even now, she’s got “a million” pre-show rituals, including meditation and gratitude circles.

But enough of the pre-show. The real show is beginning, with one of those PowerPoint presentations featuring photos from all the nominated productions. It’s just like high school graduation: You can gauge the popularity (or at least family size) of any given show by the volume of the applause.

To my left is Shakespeare Theatre Company artistic director Michael Kahn. When the audience goes “woooo!,” Kahn chuckles. The man has heard all the woos. Woo away, Kahn seems to be saying, and the theater obliges, wooing their hearts out before anybody even wins anything.

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