Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Some Thoughts on the Inaugural MN Theater Awards

Does an awards show even need actual awards? 

Last night marked the first ever MN Theater Awards, aka The Little Show That Could that took over after the Ivey Awards folded abruptly last year. Many people in the #tctheater community were disappointed by the loss of an event to recognize the excellent work done here every year. Thankfully, Four Humors stepped in to fill the void and reinvent the awards show to make it less difficult (and expensive) to sustain. The approach seemed to be "what would an awards show look like if none had existed before?" I fully support this kind of exercise, and there were lots of changes from previous Ivey Awards ceremonies. Check out the awesome list of nominees here:

Because this year had such an unusual set of circumstances (the Iveys disappearing, a late scramble to put something together), it doesn't feel right to do a full retrospective as I normally would have for the Iveys. Instead, I wanted to jot down some thoughts about the event and things to think about while planning next year's ceremony. I want to preface all of these comments with a huge thank you to Four Humors for creating and hosting the show. Events this large are never easy to plan in the best of circumstances, and they took the project on with no budget and little time to plan. The fact that they pulled off such a respectable event really deserves credit - so many thanks to them for assuming the responsibility of putting this on!

Things I Loved 

  • The casual atmosphere. Removing the awards from a gilt theater and expanding the dress code allowed for a welcome breath of fresh air in the general attitude of the attendees. Don't get me wrong - tons of people still got dressed to the nines and the people watching was on point - but just allowing people to move around freely, grab drinks during the show, etc. made it feel so much more inclusive and fun to be there. 
  • Inclusion was the theme. The committee behind MN Theater Awards re-opened nominations less than a month before the ceremony because they felt the submissions they'd received were not reflective enough of our diverse theater community. BRAVO to that. There was much wider attendance and a much larger pool of nominees last night than I'd expected for a first attempt at this process, and that is largely due to the committee's insistence that they get the nomination process right. I'm sure they will refine this further next year but: I'm so grateful they pushed for inclusivity, and their efforts really showed. 
  • Women were front and center. There were a ton of women represented in all of the categories, and I think the collective impact of having theater practitioners nominate each other had a lot to do with it. The most impressive part of this? Of the six people nominated for best individual performance, five were women and several were women of color. It was really great to see so many women taking center stage and getting recognized for their often-overlooked efforts. 
  • More celebration for under-recognized contributions. There were a few awards that flipped the typical categories on their head, and they were thoughtful additions to the usual categories of best performance or actor. A few that come to mind immediately: a specific recognition for stage mangers, who are notoriously overlooked when it comes to the hard work of putting on a show; a category for performative direction that included nominees for skills like dance choreography, fight choreography, conducting or projection design; and a long overdue award celebrating companies focusing on accessibility, which encourages all theaters to do a better job of serving diverse communities. 
  • Awesome graphics! Whoever did the video clips celebrating each nominee did a masterful job, to the point that even still photos appeared almost animated. It was totally riveting and I would love to know how they did it. Definitely keep that up for next year. 
  • No hierarchy in recognition. At first I thought it was odd that there were no individual winners of every category, but it made more sense the more I thought about it. The point of an awards show is to recognize excellence, right? Who says an award needs to go to just one "winner" in order to count? It also removes the pressure of trying to judge between say, a one woman show or a 200 person flagship Ordway musical, which is daunting to say the least. This way a spectrum of excellence and diverse offerings can be equally celebrated, something I can totally get behind. 
  • No speeches. Removing the need for each winner to give a speech definitely helped save time in the overall ceremony, which was truly welcome for anyone attending who had to work the next day. This was a great choice. 

Lessons Learned

  • Get a Grade A sound system. The Aria space is large and hard edged, making it a veritable echo chamber. As much as I enjoyed the casual atmosphere, it did mean that people talked (and rather loudly) throughout the show; by the end of the night, it was literally impossible to hear what anyone was saying on stage. Next year, can a local theater company please donate better speakers / microphones / sound equipment / tech to help improve this? There was such excitement in the room and it was a shame that the nominees weren't able to hear their own names called. If only one thing changes for next year, this would be my pick
  • More tables or seating would help organize things. Attendees were warned that seating would be limited, and I think that worked ok for the most part. Considering all drinks were served in real glassware, however, I think it would really have helped to have a few more cocktail tables and seating areas strewn around the basic floor area. This also may have helped with the noise problem if people were broken down into smaller clumps / less likely to move through chatting with each other as the presentations were happening. It doesn't need to have formal seating, but more organization around where people are might be helpful. 
  • Could we get a few short performances? The main thing I missed from the Ivey Awards were the short performances given by nominated companies. It was always so nice to give everyone a chance to see why each show was so special, and it always broke up some of the more tedious events of the night. I'd love to see this come back in some form next year - maybe as a special people's choice award? 
  • No speeches should mean no speeches. Through the second half, there was an odd tribute to the Jeune Lune that took a solid 10+ minutes to get through. Not only did this bog down the momentum of the show, it felt a little odd considering there were dozens of other theater companies represented in attendance. I understand the sentimentality of being in the former Jeune Lune space for the show, but since no other companies were afforded the opportunity to extemporize, it didn't feel right to allow a company that folded 10 years ago to do so. Next year I'd keep that policy consistent for everyone. 
  • Shorter introduction speeches to each award. It felt a little odd to announce that no one would be giving speeches.... and then have very long banter to introduce the nominees. If the process is to be streamlined, I vote to streamline it all the way through. I don't think anyone would miss it - most people are there to clap for the nominees and network anyway.
  • Seek more outstate nominees. By expanding the name of the awards show to all of Minnesota (a smart choice), it would be nice to see more out-state theaters represented in the nominees. Due to this year's abridged time frame I'm sure it was difficult to get word out - but it would be great if the committee could work with the MN Theater Alliance to get more representation from groups outside of the Metro area next year. 

All in all? I think this was a very promising evening. I'm so grateful that Four Humors took it upon themselves to keep the spirit of appreciation for our local arts practitioners going. It was so fun to see everyone networking and celebrating their hard work over the past year, and to help raise the profiles of some deserving people and companies who are often overlooked. The inaugural MN Theater Awards proved that you don't need fancy sets and trophies to have an awards ceremony; all you need is a happy audience, some willing hosts, and a great crew of nominees to celebrate. I hope this event comes back again next year and am sure it will be better than ever. If you want to follow progress of this group and planning efforts, make sure to follow their Facebook page by clicking here.

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