Many Helens and Hayeses to Cheer For

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Image courtesy of Washington Theater.

One thing about the new system of nominations for the Helen Hayes Awards — the annual distribution of “bests” across a broad range of Washington-area theatrical accomplishments — is that, though it’s cumbersome, complicated and not a little confusing, the ceremony also allows theatergoers and the theater community itself to get a truer sense of that community’s breadth and depth, which is considerable.

The new system and the awards and the nominations are the work of 40 judges, subdivided into specific panels. The system seems often arcane, puzzling and sometimes mysterious in its results, the latter not being very different from previous years. The awards, which began in 1983, pay tribute to legendary American theater star Helen Hayes, who lent her presence to them for years. Hayes died in 1993.

A big change was adopted in the 2015. The awards would be split into two sets: one called the “Hayes,” the other the “Helen,” based on the number of Equity (that’s the actors’ union) performers used in an individual production. Shows with half or more Equity actors would be in the “Hayes” category and non-Equity productions would be awarded “Helens.”

Given the list of nominations announced this week by parent organization Theatre Washington, some concerns on the part of the theater community have not materialized. While size and resources still matter — especially for the Equity “Hayes” categories and awards — the gaps between the two categories aren’t necessarily noticeable in terms of quality and excellence. There are crossover occurrences, too; a number of individual artists have been nominated in both categories, and theater companies — notably Studio Theatre — have worked in both.

In fact, Studio Theatre, under artistic director David Muse, has emerged as something of a cutting-edge theater company, with many of its productions crafty, experimental efforts that vary in size and intent. The result, this year, is that the Outstanding Production category has been something of a boon for the company, and a revealing one at that. Three Studio productions — in what appears to be a journey of scale and reduction in size — are up for Outstanding Production in the Hayes category: the play “Hand to God” by Robert Askins, the two-character drama “Moment” by Deidre Kinahan and the writer Staceyann Chin’s solo performance, “Motherstruck.”

The competition includes Round House Theatre’s restaging of Tennessee Williams’s “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and a much-praised production of Jane Austen’s “Sense and Sensibility” at the Folger Theatre.

The biggest haul of nominations came for Ford’s Theatre’s crowd-and-critic-pleasing “Come From Away,” about the airline passengers stranded in Newfoundland in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. The musical, first produced at La Jolla Playhouse in California, got 14 nominations and was a big hit at the venerable Ford’s.

One of the issues surrounding the original system was that it mixed in companies with major resources like Arena Stage, the Shakespeare Theatre Company, Studio Theatre, and Signature Theatre with much smaller companies, scattered around the region, some of them feeling ignored or unable to compete on even ground. The system saw the rise (and sometimes literal fall) of companies that substituted daring for resources, and often proved successful in terms of recognition and excellence.

Certain results didn’t make everyone happy, although the prevailing mood at the actual awards was always celebratory in a communal sort of way, unlike the television-geared Tonys in that other city, for instance.

Still, people were sometimes ignored. Guess what? It still happens.

In the category of Outstanding Visiting Production, the Tony-award winning production of Arthur Miller’s “A View from the Bridge” at the Kennedy Center turned up empty-handed, a remarkable occurrence in a production that was hailed locally and everywhere it played for its innovative style and powerful emotional impact.

What you can celebrate is the depth and range in most of the nominations, the depth, for instance, in the musical category in the finalists for Outstanding Ensemble in a Musical: “Carousel,” “Come Away” and “Jelly’s Last Jam,” the latter about the early blues artists, which starred local jazz great Mark Meadows.

Looking at the Hayeses and the Helens in turn, one gets an even better idea of the companies that give us so much rich theater to choose from. Here’s to Olney and Ford’s, Arena, Signature, Folger, Taffety Punk, Woolly Mammoth, Theater J, Shakespeare, Studio, Round House, Infinity and the Kennedy Center among the Hayeses. And here’s to the Keegan and Next Stop, Constellation, Toby’s, Happenstance, Theater Alliance, Synectic, the Welders, Folger (again), Pointless, Adventure, GALA Hispanic, Studio (again), 1st Stage, Forum, Flying V, Creative Cauldron and the Hub among the Helens. All have nominations to hope and cheer for.

In addition, Convergence Theatre, InterAct Story Theatre, Mosaic Theater Company of DC, Nu Sass Productions and Rainbow Theatre Project were nominated for the John Aniello Award for Outstanding Emerging Theatre Company.

Here’s also to the magnificent actor, classical and otherwise, the always classic Ted van Griethuysen, who will be the recipient of the Helen Hayes Tribute.

While we’re at it, here’s to Washington theater and to Helen Hayes and all her adopted progeny here.

The Helen Hayes Awards will be presented May 15 at the Lincoln Theatre, with an after-party at the 9:30 Club.

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