Is it time to rethink theater awards in Los Angeles?

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2nd Annual Stage Raw Awards (Photo via Stage Raw Facebook Page)

Monday night was the 2nd Annual Stage Raw Awards for LA’s small theaters. There are two big awards ‘shows’ each year: Stage Raw and the Ovation Awards run by LA STAGE Alliance.

The Ovation Awards encompass both small theater and large theater. The awards are voted on by Ovation Voters (which is a byzantine mixture of something akin to the Academy and a people’s choice award).

The Stage Raw Awards focus exclusively on 99 seat theater (no large theaters). The awards are voted on by the Stage Raw theater critics.

While the awards shows themselves haven’t changed a lot in the last year, the context in which they exist has radically shifted.

Last year the Stage Raw Awards felt like a defiant and triumphant rally. There was an urgency to the event. The LA Weekly had recently, radically scaled back its theater coverage. At the same time, the 99 seat community was energized and threatened by the actions of Actor’s Equity to do away with (or if you prefer alter) the plan under which small theater was made. The community needed champions. They needed assurance.  They needed a place to come together and proclaim their existence and hopes for a future. The Stage Raw Awards were that place.

Steven Leigh Morris, former editor and champion of theater coverage at the LA Weekly, had founded Stage Raw, a platform to provide continuity of coverage for small theater. He had figured out how to cobble together an awards show like a phoenix rising out of the LA Weekly’s ashes. It was exciting. There was even a rumor that, given the Equity drama, there was a reporter from the New York Times in the house. Small theater in LA was important – at least, that was the feeling in the air.

Fast forward a year and… we are all still here, there were some sort of negotiations going on (however poorly) with Equity, and here was just another awards show. Yes, there was a moving (and long) tribute to Gary Grossman as one of the champions for, and importantly a plaintiff in, the drama that is 99 seat theater versus Equity. But it lacked urgency.

Steven Leigh Morris has now taken over as the executive director at LA STAGE. In effect, he’s the voice behind both big awards shows. It’s too early to tell exactly what this shared leadership will mean. But Monday’s awards show seemed to be lacking a little clarity and had a little less passion. Perhaps that’s because the threat to the community is less palpable. Or maybe no one is really sure what exactly we should be championing.

It’s got me thinking about the awards shows themselves.

Shows like the Tonys or the Oscars or the Grammys are marketing events. “Tony Award winner coming to a theater near you ” is a badge of distinction. These shows are nominally about recognizing achievement but they are also about creating revenue.

We do not enjoy that benefit in Los Angeles theater.  We do not have the theatrical infrastructure to capitalize on these awards: winning shows closed months ago and aren’t revived or extended. The tag line “from Ovation (or Stage Raw) award winner x comes the new play y” has no currency with the general theater going audience. There is no general audience presence or awareness of these award shows. 

These award shows are really ‘inside baseball’ events for the theater community. But without a way to draw in audience, are they really serving that community?

Despite everyone’s best intentions, the awards shows are a mess. The format is challenging for everyone (when’s the last time you thought “what’d I’d love to do tonight is see an awards show”?). For some reason we seem particularly ill-equipped in Los Angeles theater to pull these off.  There are lovely ideas but they sadly come off feeling, frankly, amateurish – and not in a good way. 

The audience dynamic doesn’t help. Ensembles from different theaters sit together almost like tribes at Medieval Times rooting for their particular team.

I wonder if it’s time to rethink the whole thing? Is this really the best way to celebrate the community and reward it’s virtuosity?

What if we kept the little statues but just threw a big party twice a year? Have nominees, have everyone dress up, even honor a couple of important folks and let them give inspiring and grateful speeches but confine that to 30 minutes (no banquet, no seats just a cocktail party). Then announce the awards and let everyone hang out together (for those that simply have to have an acceptance speech, let them vine it, or snapchat it, or periscope it, or even dubsmash it!).

If it’s about bringing the community together, bring the community together and let them hang out: catch up, reconnect, hatch the next great production or collaboration. Ditch the expense on mediocre production and have a party. Heck, if it’s a good party we could even invite the audience!