L-R: Kirstin Riegler as Bird, Jobari Parker-Namdar as Bird, and Ariel Vinitsky as Bird in "A Year With Frog and Toad" at Adventure Theatre. (Bruce Douglas)

Should the Helen Hayes Awards be handed out on two separate tiers, splitting larger and smaller theater companies into separate groups? Or not?

The debate has run on two distinctly separate tracks as the HHA considers changes to its often-criticized annual trophy-doling process.

In June, many small theaters made a vocal case against dividing the prizes during a “summit” run by TheatreWashington, the umbrella organization that manages the Hayes Awards. Heads of larger D.C. theaters were scarce at that meeting.

Two months earlier, seven large companies quietly made it clear to TheatreWashington that reforms were necessary, or they might have to “rethink their future involvement,” according to TheatreWashington President and CEO Linda Levy Grossman. Heads of three theaters — Eric Schaeffer of Signature Theatre, Paul Tetreault of Ford’s Theatre, and Molly Smith of Arena Stage — met with Grossman, Abel Lopez, Brad Watkins and Glen Howard of TheatreWashington.

An announcement on changes (or not) to the awards is expected next month.

“I would absolutely not characterize it as demands,” Grossman says of the larger theaters’ message. “I think it would be more accurate to say they felt some of their recommendations would be for the better of the entire the community. There was no demand that you must make the changes we say you must.”

The companies signing on with Signature, Ford’s and Arena were the Shakespeare Theatre Company, Studio Theatre, Round House Theatre and the Kennedy Center, Grossman says. Schaeffer, speaking for Tetreault and Smith, declined to comment for this article.

The larger theaters sent TheatreWashington a letter that included the possibility of “rethinking” their participation in the awards.

“That could mean anything,” says Grossman, declining to characterize it as a threat to withdraw.

The letter has not been made public. “That was never meant to be shared,” Grossman says, “and we have not shared it.”

Hard to judge

Even so, knowledge of it rattled Janet Stanford, artistic director of Bethesda’s Imagination Stage. She responded with an e-mail blast urging people to stand against dividing the awards and potentially disqualifying theater for young audiences (TYA) at the June 24 summit.

“One of many ideas up for discussion is to exclude TYA theatres from consideration alongside the region’s adult theatres,” Stanford wrote.

The Helen Hayes Awards have often come under fire for eccentric results pegged to its all-inclusive process. Ever since the awards debuted 30 years ago, cash-poor troupes have been weighed alongside multimillion-dollar Goliaths. Money, goes the HHA reasoning, does not necessarily buy quality.

But the difficulties of judging have deepened over the past several years as the city’s artistry has expanded.

Synetic Theatre, a movement-based troupe unlike any other company in the region, has sometimes dominated the awards with its singular productions. (A whopping seven actors were nominated from its 2011 production of “King Lear.”) And the area’s burgeoning corps of youth-oriented theaters has only made award-giving more complex.

That was thrown into sharp relief in 2012, when the region’s most-nominated musical was Adventure Theatre’s hour-long kids’ production “A Year With Frog and Toad.” Meanwhile, the Kennedy Center’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s sophisticated “Follies” seemed to flummox the judges, who declined even to nominate star Bernadette Peters.

In Washington, “Follies” was nominated for only four Hayes Awards and won none. When it moved to Broadway, it was nominated for eight Tony Awards.

The judging system

Chicago hands out awards in separate ceremonies for Equity and non-Equity companies, a distinction that has been in place since 1973. Philadelphia’s Barrymore Awards recently announced reforms, including salary thresholds in order for productions to be eligible. The minimum salaries are $150 a week for actors, $500 a show for designer, and $750 a show for directors.

The Hayes Awards requirement is vague, only insisting that to be eligible, a theater “financially compensates all artists on a regular basis.”

Regarding judging: it’s a challenge to find capable professionals willing and able to see dozens and dozens of productions a year, and solutions vary from city to city. (Broadway has it easy: only about three dozen shows open there each season.) Philadelphia’s revamped Barrymores are trying to create a narrowed, more professional panel of only 10-12 judges who will see up to 60 productions a year, as recommended by a larger, rotating pool of nominators.

On the other hand, Chicago’s Jeff Awards are judged by a committee of 50 professionals. Five judges per show, plus two people from the artistic and technical committee, make the nominations, and the whole committee then votes on winners. Jeff judges see as many as 150 shows a year, according to the Jeff Web site.

The HHA assigns eight of its 60 judges to evaluate eligible productions. HHA judges, many of whom self-identify as “theater-goer,” see 30-40 performances a year; they get to opt out of styles they don’t like (musicals, for example). Only eight of those judges cast ballots for any given show.

The one-time ballot creates both the list of nominees and the eventual winners. No single body of judges evaluates all the nominees, and there is no separate voting process once the nominees are announced. Ballots from that potluck group of eight judges must be cast within 24 hours of seeing a show, and they are final.

The notion of change has been on the Hayes agenda all year, and a task force has been active since May. Its recommendations were expected earlier this week; several steps will follow before any new rules are adopted.

Eliminating nonresident awards for work generated out of town was a popular topic at the June 24 summit, according to Pinky Swear Productions Co-Artistic Director Karen Lange and Hub Theatre Artistic Director Helen Pafumi. (The event was closed to reporters.) But the big issue was splitting the awards, with Pafumi rising to make a vocal case against it.

“I would rather not be seen as second-class citizen,” Pafumi summarized a few weeks later. “It’s not a light I want to have shed on the Hub Theatre. I feel very, very strongly that if the Helen Hayes Awards splits, it flies in the face of everything they should be about.”

Stanford echoes that, and worries where TYA companies would fit in.

“A couple of us would be cast as bigger theaters,” Stanford says. “My budget is $5 million. The difficulty comes in where and how you draw the line.”

Grossman says support for some sort of division has grown notably since 2009, when TheatreWashington polled its community and found 56 percent in favor of a split. Last December, a survey went out to 82 theater leaders; according to Grossman, 80 people replied in less than two weeks, with 76 percent in favor of adding categories to the awards to distinguish between larger and smaller theaters.

Several of the larger theaters have pressed for reforms for years.

“I can absolutely understand the frustration of theaters that have requested changes for some time and it has not happened,” Grossman says. She says she also understands why they weren’t there at the summit to make their case to a reluctant corps of small theaters: “Who wants to show up if you’re going to be tarred and feathered?”

Based on the mood of the summit, Lange isn’t expecting the awards to split.

“I really don’t think they’re going to do that,” she says. “There were maybe one or two people in a group of 35 that seemed to think it was a good idea.”

“It was pretty unanimous against,” says Forum Theatre Artistic Director Michael Dove, reiterating that the meeting was dominated by smaller companies.

Those troupes don’t seem too worried about whether the current quirky system dilutes confidence.

“I’m willing to go with the pitfalls of it all,” Pafumi says.

“Fairness may be a goal, but it’s an unlikely thing to be achieved,” Stanford says. “You’re always going to be comparing things that are unlike each other. You’re never comparing apples to apples.”