Helen Hayes Awards ceremony moves venues, changes format

Washington’s theater prom is getting a makeover. Party!

The Helen Hayes Awards, the black-tie gala and open bar after-party long dubbed the “theater prom,” is migrating from its longtime home in the Warner Theatre and shaking up its habits. This year’s ceremony, on April 21, will take place in the majestic atrium of the National Building Museum, where the bar will open at 7 p.m. and the awards will pour forth from two different stages starting at 7:30 p.m.

Nominations for this year’s awards, honoring shows produced last year, will be announced Monday at the National Theatre. This spring will mark the 30th anniversary of the Hayes Awards.

“We’re old enough to break some rules and try some new things,” Linda Levy said Wednesday. Levy is president and chief executive of TheatreWashington, the service organization that runs the awards.

The dress code will still be black tie, even if the event promises to be significantly less buttoned up. Seating will be available, but the crowd will be free to mingle and drink. (Levy acknowledges that maintaining attention might be a challenge.)

Yet it won’t be an entirely lawless bacchanal. The awards will be directed by Jeff Davis and Jerry Whiddon and scripted by Renee Calarco, all Hayes Award veterans. Local talent will be showcased. Nominees will be rustled forward en masse before the winner is announced.

“There will be no delay getting to the stage,” Levy says. “No Jacqueline Bisset thing.”

Acceptance speeches, which have averaged a dawdling three minutes (not including “travel time” to the stage, Levy said), will be strictly limited to 30 seconds. Tickets, which had been priced near $400 for donors and discounted for theater staff and leadership, will now be more widely available to the general public and priced — well, still at a gala-level $150. (VIP access will be available to sponsors at the $7,500 and $15,000 levels.)

Levy said this is a test run for next year, when a raft of new categories will mark an immense change to the awards. In the summer, TheatreWashington announced a restructuring that groups shows into “Helen” or “Hayes” categories, with the “Helens” as largely Equity-cast shows. That system took effect at the beginning of this year, with results to be revealed at next year’s awards.

The town-hall-style talks and meetings that led to those changes also prompted TheatreWashington to revamp its trophy-doling gala, which for years followed the standard awards-show format.

“So much was talked about celebrating together, our unity,” Levy said of last year’s feedback from constituents. “And they also wanted more party.”

Nelson Pressley has been writing about theater and other arts – but mostly theater – for the Post since 1999.
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