theatreWashington Unveils Restructured Helen Hayes Awards Process

Jen Clements


New Vision Improves Adjudication, Increases Credibility, and Reflects Exponential Growth of Theatre Community

Washington, DC – Following a year-long process of discernment and deliberation, the theatreWashington Board of Directors last week unanimously approved a significant restructuring of the Helen Hayes Awards to create a more credible and manageable program that will further strengthen the value of the Award as an internationally recognized symbol of excellence in the professional theatre.

theatreWashington President and CEO Linda Levy commented, “We are so pleased, and so excited to finally share this enormous breakthrough with the public. These changes, which reflect extensive input from our theatre community, will not only make the Helen Hayes Awards entirely relevant to the work created on Washington stages today, but will serve us far into the future.”

With more than 200 productions eligible in a typical year, the existing adjudication system had become challenging. Most importantly it was logistically impossible for all productions to be adjudicated by all judges – a situation which lessened the perceived credibility of the outcomes. This issue formed the nucleus of the structural changes.

To remedy the situation, productions eligible for a Helen Hayes Award will now be assessed as one of two equal types of productions. Productions in which less than 51% of the cast appears on an Actors Equity Association (Equity) Contract and has less than three Equity contracted actors in the cast, will be assessed by the “Helen” cohort of judges. Productions presented under a theatre company’s Equity agreement or a production in which at least 51% of the cast is working on an Equity Contract will be assessed by the “Hayes” cohort of judges. The emphasis on theatre productions, rather than theatre companies, means that a single institution might well produce individual pieces of work evaluated by each of group of judges.

Levy commented, “The most important goal was to find a way for the same group of judges to see the same group of productions eligible for the same Awards to produce the most credible outcome. Basically, we had two choices. We could greatly reduce the number of eligible productions by altering the criteria, which would needlessly eliminate some of our strongest and most innovative theatres. Or we could create groups of productions and judges, defined by relevant industry-based criteria that avoids marginalizing of any Award, promotes fairness and common sense in Awards outcomes, allows theatres some choice in how their productions are considered, and enables more theatres and artists to benefit from the Helen Hayes Award credential.

Levy stressed that all Awards given will continue to be named Helen Hayes Awards. “The Helen and Hayes groups,” she explained, “are in place solely for the purposes of management.”

Also critical to the restructuring of the awards was the qualifications of judges, a responsibility that will now rest almost entirely on the shoulders of the theatre community’s artistic leadership. Judges will be nominated by individual artistic directors, vetted by theatreWashington staff, and then voted upon by all artistic directors, who will have access to application materials and resumes. “It’s very important that the theatre community trust and respect the men and women who are choosing the award recipients,” Levy explained. “The leadership of that community will now be entirely responsible for identifying those judges and, ultimately, for giving them the thumbs-up or thumbs-down.”

The process of determining award recipients has also been significantly improved. Previously, the judges’ scoring of production elements created statistical reports that simultaneously determined nominees and recipients. That point-based system will continue to determine nominees, but a new “second look” element has been added to the process of determining final recipients. At the close of the calendar year, judges will meet in their groups and review all nominated productions through the use of visual representations and open discussion. Facilitators will ensure that the exercise is one of recall and sharing, not of lobbying or persuasion. Judges will then rank the nominees in each category by secret ballot. The results will determine award recipients.

The big-picture changes to the Helen Hayes Awards adjudication process have a natural ripple effect throughout the system, and will require additional changes to existing rules. For example, additional categories will only be added if there are enough eligible productions (critical mass) to warrant it. Details can be found here.

Levy explained, “Today we got to share with our constituent theatres, artists and audiences the result of more than a year’s worth of research, analysis, recommendations, and testing. But I want to stress that this is still a working model. There will be aspects of this new structure that will work, and there will be aspects that may not. But we will remain flexible and responsive to the needs of our community. We’re eager to see what happens, and we’re eager to build on these new innovations.”

Due to celebrate its 30th Anniversary in 2014, the Helen Hayes Award is used frequently by theatres and artists as a marketing tool that helps lend credibility to a career or a company. The name can be found in artists’ bios in playbills across the country, on Broadway, and abroad. The award, and the organization that administers it, is recognized as a key element in the exponential growth of the Washington theatre community. From the beginning, the award was intended as a branding tool that would galvanize the community, and give it a coherent persona beyond the region.

Throughout its three decades, the Helen Hayes Awards has refined and revised its adjudication process to meet the community’s changing needs. A Task Force appointed by the theatreWashington Board of Directors carried out this most recent restructuring. Its objectives were to: 1) improve the quality, consistency, and credibility of Awards judging, 2) increase the value of the Helen Hayes Awards brand, 3) improve the process by which Awards nominees and recipients are determined, 4) develop an adjudication system that is administratively manageable, and 5) continuing to build and promote a sense of community among the region’s theatre professionals.

Key to the process were the contributions from the Helen Hayes Awards Board of Governors, a “Summit” hosted by theatreWashington last June, and small group conversations during which a wide range of artists and administrators shared their vision for the Helen Hayes Awards. Stakeholders ultimately, contributed mightily to the draft recommendations. The Task Force then shared ideas with individuals and small groups of theatre professionals for their feedback and suggestions. The revised recommendations were then shared with the theatreWashington Executive Committee, which subsequently made its recommendation to the theatreWashington Board of Directors.

Outgoing Board Chair Victor Shargai commented, “I’m enormously proud of this organization and of our entire theatre community. The phrase ‘due diligence’ doesn’t come close to describing the work of the Task Force—and the input from the community has been absolutely critical to our success. Together we’ve entered a new era. I can’t wait to witness the results.”