Arts Desk

After Big Companies Complain, Helen Hayes Awards Will Be Split Into Two Tiers

D.C. theater professionals and aficionados should prepare for an extra-long Helen Hayes Awards celebration come 2015. TheatreWashington, the organization that runs the awards, announced major changes to its signature event Tuesday night, including splitting its prizes for local theater troupes into two tiers based on the number of union actors in a particular production. As a result, the number of awards will balloon from 27 to a maximum of 47, though some awards may not be given out every year.

The two new categories of plays: "Helen" productions will have less than 51 percent of the cast working under an Actors' Equity Association contract and no more than three Equity-contracted actors, while "Hayes" productions will feature casts with more than 51 percent (or more than four actors) working under an Equity contract. The designations essentially separate the area's bigger-budgeted companies who cast almost entirely union members from smaller companies who use fewer Equity members. After the leaders of Ford's Theatre, Signature Theatre, and Arena Stage met with theatreWashington board members earlier this year and expressed their concerns about the awards—in which smaller companies have frequently upset more moneyed competitors—these changes will amount to more wins for the area's bigger producers. (Those companies and four others also sent TheatreWashington a letter saying that they were "rethinking" their participation in the Helen Hayes Awards.)

The task force also created new categories for choreography, distinguishing between dance-based choreography in musicals and movement-based choreography, including fights, gymnastics, and staged dances, in plays. As for theater geared toward young audiences, which have managed upsets in non-kids categories in the past, those productions will be eligible in all acting and production categories, but directors will have decide if they want to be considered in the overall Outstanding Play or Outstanding Musical categories or for the Outstanding Production, Theatre for Young People award.

At least the awards didn't swell across the board: the nonresident awards given to traveling productions have been scaled back from four to two. Awards will now only be given to one outstanding production and one outstanding performer in that production. (Perhaps the decision-makers paid attention to a few of our suggestions?)

Another change that should please D.C. theatermakers concerned with the capriciousness of the awarding process: Artistic directors at local companies will get to nominate the awards judges, who will see every show in their particular wheelhouse (Helen plays, Helen musicals, Hayes plays, Hayes musicals). A separate judging panel will select the winners of the Charles MacArthur Award for New Play or Musical.

Changes will be implemented beginning in January 2014 and will affect the awards beginning in 2015. How the changes will affect the awards—which can already stretch past two hours—isn't clear, but TheatreWashington President Linda Levy said the organization is revisiting the evening's format. In the meantime, start looking for formal wear with enough storage space for snacks and a flask.

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