Arts Desk

Artistic Directors Respond to Helen Hayes Reforms

Immediately after TheatreWashington announced an overhaul of how the Helen Hayes awards are judged and distributed on Tuesday evening, reporters and theater-makers responded with questions and cautious optimism.

Following the small press event at the Washington Post building, groups chatted about whether dividing the awards into two tiers, rearranging the judging process, and nearly doubling the number of awards would actually benefit the theater community. The reforms seemed to respond to the largely mysterious demands of a few big theater companies, which reportedly expressed their dissatisfaction with the awards in an unpublished letter to TheatreWashington earlier this year.

But while the reforms seem to give Big Theater what it wants—a system that separates Equity and non-Equity shows into different categories, therefore eliminating what's seen as unfair competition—would the reforms benefit those small shows that seemed so good at beating the big boys? Perhaps. A few days after the announcement, many artistic directors of smaller companies seem to mostly approve of the revamped system.

Carolyn Griffin, the producing artistic director of MetroStage, says that the tier system, along with subsequent changes in judging, will allow more judges to see productions and evaluate them more evenly. A smaller change in the judging process, which allows judges to reconvene and rank performances after nominations are made, will impact the awards for the better, Griffin says. The company, which won three awards for its production of Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, will compete in the Hayes category, along with bigger-budget companies like Arena Stage and Signature Theatre.

Shows using fewer Equity actors will fall into the Helen category—but artistic directors don't necessarily see the split as a kind of ghettoization. In an email, Keegan Theatre Producing Artistic Director Mark Rhea writes, "My company was started to produce art, and if the Helen Hayes Awards wants to recognize the work we do, then I'll take it...Last year we garnered seven Helen Hayes nominations, and of course it was nice to be in the same categories as the larger Equity theater companies, but it isn't something I really care about or have time to spend worrying about."

For Forum Theatre Artistic Director Michael Dove, the change will take a bit more getting used to. "I like the idea of things mixing. I think it's good for us to influence one another," he says. As a TheatreWashington board member who voted to accept the proposed changes, however, Dove believes the group did the best it could to reflect the evolving theater scene. "It's almost an impossible task to try and find something that represents the community, all the interests of the board, and all the interests of the organization," he says.

Laura Giannarelli, an Equity actor and company member at Washington Stage Guild, says she thinks that while the changes in judging will make for a fairer process overall, she'll miss the surprise wins by smaller shows. "Until this new system will take effect, someone from a tiny theater could, in theory, blow the judges out of the water and win the award over a much more established, higher-paid actor from one of the larger theaters," she says. "There was something delicious about that." But even without that kind of exciting competition, Giannarelli says, the changes seem to make sense for a community that's expanded rapidly over the past three decades.

Plenty of questions still need to be answered as these changes go into effect—like how 47 awards will be presented in an efficient manner—but since the changes won't affect the awards until 2015, TheatreWashington has time.

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