Last week was the week for theater awards in Lansing. Both the traditional daily, The Lansing State Journal, and the alternative weekly, the City Pulse, came out with its theater awards.
The City Pulse awarded Pulsars to any of 10 organizations that their judges felt represented the "best" in a 9-month period. They assigned three judges to attend each show and then tallied point totals from their judging forms. It's judges included their critics and readers from the community who responded to a call for participation. The awards were given out in a dinner ceremony which was open to the entire theater community for the low price of $5 if bought in advance, $10 at the door--a bargain even for starving actors. It was their second time giving out full season Pulsars (they'd given out two summer awards and been bullied into not handing them out last year).
The Lansing State Journal awarded Thespies for the 39th straight year. These awards are open to anyone doing theater in the Greater Lansing area and include "special" awards to recognize theatrical achievements in any area. These awards are decided by a committee that includes all of the staff's critics, arts writers, and a few recruited individuals--one who directs and the other whose background is only that of theater attendee. Committee members nominate, discuss, arm wrestle, and vote on each category individually.
Every year, the awards end up being controversial.
One of the biggest and most frequently heard complaints is that all the judges don't see all the shows. Few people realize what they are demanding when they put that forth as a criteria. I saw 87 shows last year (not counting operas, concerts, high school shows, or dance concerts) and I still missed several shows. The problem with artists who demand that we see everything is that they rarely have a sense for what is happening in the community beyond their organization. What they really mean is that they want you to see all of their shows.
In order for the Pulsars to ensure that they they had three judges at each show, they had to exclude several organizations. They didn't include the local dinner theater even though they stage full-length, traditional productions such as Picnic, I Do! I Do!, and It Had to Be You. They include some of the neighboring community theater organizations, but not others. They exclude a local professional studio theater on the grounds that it is educational in nature (though they do include the local college productions). It's their way of making it manageable.
Last year, they were bullied into not having the awards at all because one theater community member threatened to "blow the whistle" on them for being "unethical" because not all of the judges came to all of his shows. It was unfortunate that the publisher caved in to that demand and passed on an opportunity to benefit the entire community because of the sour grapes of one individual.
The Thespies don't attempt to mandate what shows or how many shows its judges see. In many ways, the judging process is far more organic. The judges are all very knowledgeable about what goes on in the community and are dilligent about seeing as much as possible and listening for what shows are "must sees."
Other people will argue that anyone who has any connections in the local theater community are not objective enough to judge for awards. How a person is supposed to see 100 shows in a relatively small town and not form connections with people in the theater is a question that doesn't get asked. Nor do they ask how a person is supposed to be qualified to judge if they have no background in theater. What has to happen is that the judges must know when to excuse themselves and to be aware of their own biases.
Ultimately, awards like these are supposed to be a booster for the community and an entertaining read for readers. They're supposed to recognize the good things that are going on in the arts community and recognize stand-out performances.
They are not the final arbiters on quality and they are not the determiner as to who should get funded or not. They are a way of saying, "We saw you and you touched us or made us laugh."
Bloggers We Love
Bridgette Redman and Lansing Theater
Drew McManus' "Neo Classical" at the Partial Observer
Marc Moss (Missoula, MT artist)
Mary Louise Schumacher's "Art City"
Other Great Sites
American Composers Orchestra
Arts & Letters Daily
Center for Arts and Culture
Cultural Policy and the Arts National Data Archive
National Arts Journalism Program
NEA Arts Journalism Institute for Dance Criticism
NEA Arts Journalism Institute in Classical Music and Opera
NEA Arts Journalism Institute in Theater & Musical Theater
New Music Box: American Music Center
USC Annenberg/Getty Arts Journalism Program