Arts Desk

Annals of Minor Controversies: Will Helen Hayes “Recommendations” Put Butts In Seats, or Repel Them?


On Monday, Christopher Henley, the artistic director of the Arlington-based Washington Shakespeare Theatre, received an e-mail from the group that runs the Helen Hayes Awards: The Miser would not be recommended.

Well, specifically: The company's adaptation of the Molière satire would not be "Helen Hayes Recommended," a distinction that the Washington Theatre Awards Society, which stages the ceremony, hopes will help area theaters and troupes promote their productions by using it in their marketing materials. The society launched the initiative in January, along with a set of apparently transparent rules and the caveat that the program would be reassessed and tweaked over the next year before the society decides whether it will be permanent.

Its intentions couldn't have been clearer, according to the release announcing the initiative: to "help put more paying butts in theatre seats."

Henley saw things differently, and took his grievances to Facebook: "Why is the butt in question not a new arrival to one of our seats, but my ass getting bitten?"

His problem, he says, was that by indicating which plays were recommended on its "Now Playing" page, the Hayes awards could actually depress attendence at productions not accompanied by the "Recommended" logo, especially since some people look to the Hayes Web site for information about ongoing shows. "I felt as if in a saturated theater market, a very small audience pool is being pulled in a lot of directions," he says. "It’s not very difficult for them to grasp on to a reason not to go to something. If Helen Hayes is getting into the business of recommending or not recommending things—that upset me."

Much of his dissatisfaction, he says, had to do with the fact that he feels The Miser is a strong production: It earned strong reviews in the Washington Post and elsewhere (Washington City Paper did not review it). But its run, which he says has been successful, was hurt by successive weekends of snowfall when it opened this month. It closes March 7.

The Helen Hayes Awards heard his grievances. After Henley posted his Facebook message, a friend of his, actor Jon Sherman, e-mailed the Helen Hayes Awards and outlined Henley's arguments. Soon after, Henley spoke with Washington Theatre Awards Society President and CEO Linda Levy Grossman.

The "Recommended" logos were removed from the "Now Playing" page; they're now banished to a separate listing.

"The optics of it were potentially misleading," Grossman tells Arts Desk. But the organization was happy to make the change, she says: The goal, simply, is to promote local theater.

She says that the Hayes organization has been considering the "Recommended" initiative for a number of years, and sought feedback from members of Washington's theater community. The worry, she says, was the program's potential perception as a mechanism of critical judgment, as opposed to a marketing tool. But the economic climate convinced the organization that theaters could use another weapon in their arsenal.

Grossman remains convinced that the "Recommended" distinctions will prove valuable—even though, because of the massive snowfall that caused theaters to cancel and postpone shows, now is not an ideal period to judge the program's efficacy. So far in 2010, the Hayes organization has recommended 10 productions.

The calculus is simple: The eight Hayes reviewers attending each show rank the production with a zero (not worthy of recommendation), a one (maybe worthy), or a two (worthy). Out of a possible 16 points, plays that earn 12 or more receive the "Recommended" logo. The "Recommended" ballot is separate from the one that eventually determines winners at the Hayes awards.

Now that the logos have been removed from the Now Playing page, "it’s not perfect but it’s better than what it was Monday," says Henley. "I’m impressed with how responsive they were to make a change that’s made it marginally better. But I’m still agnostic as to whether the program will be a net plus or a net minus. I’m a little cautious right now."

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  • Jon Sherman

    Hey there,

    Just to clarify: I wrote Linda Levy Grossman and the Helen Hayes board on my own. I didn't outline Chris' arguments, but made my own observation about how the Helen Hayes folks might better execute their initiative by taking down the logos from their "What's Playing" page on their website. I was astonished when Ms. Grossman replied and told me that after my email the board had agreed to my proposal. I haven't seen The Miser and can't say whether it "deserves" the Helen Hayes Recommended seal. I can say that I think you should go see it and decide for yourself. In any event, it seems that there are better means for determining whether this initiative is beneficial than whether or not shows we like are "recommended."