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June 21, 2007

Why awards?

Bridgette Redman

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."

Posted by Bridgette Redman at June 21, 2007 8:34 AM


Sounds to me as if the Thespies may have been a good idea in the late 1960s, but I can't see why a daily newspaper would want to give out awards now. I assume you've already alerted your readers about the good stuff via your regular, ongoing theater coverage; you have the opportunity to do the traditional critics' "best-of" columns at year's end; does your local theater community need that much ego-stroking? And at the risk of your staff being put on the defensive ethically, while feeling guilty for not seeing every show? When maybe your time could be better spent on more coverage? You work for the reader. You give to the reader. Keep your independence, save your energy, and if awards are so important to your local theater artists, let them come up with an awards program of their own. Then you'll be free to serve your readers some more by covering any controversy that breaks out over THAT.

Posted by: Mike Boehm at June 21, 2007 4:48 PM

Wise words indeed--and definitely the elephant in the room that no one is talking about.

I will add that all of the paper's critics are currently freelancers, so we wouldn't be doing any more coverage if we stopped seeing shows. I'm fortunate enough to be able to provide more coverage through a weekly performing arts column, but I'm the only one on the committee who currently has that option. Also, with Gannett's budget-cutting, we three critics get very few assignments during the year. Of the 90-some shows we saw and judged, only 12 of them were reviewed--and that's a topic for another blog entry.

So the awards do provide some coverage that doesn't happen during the rest of the year. Given the choice, though, I'd far rather see the coverage throughout the year than in once-a-year awards. So, I believe, would my editor.

Posted by: Bridgette at June 21, 2007 7:29 PM

This is too weird, but as an adolescent, I used to perform with the Okemos Barn Theatre which at that time (I would not know anymore) was definitely a part of the Lansing theatrical scene, and it was my first experience (but not my last) at dealing with the whole notion of the value of recognition. Value being determined by value. A thing being valued because it is recognized. I am shooting some film in Russia today with the understanding it will never be recognized and it's a conflict. Artists who tell you they don't strive for recognition (or read reviews) are almost always lying. On one hand, shooting film that will never be recognized is liberating because I simply don't have to care what a critic thinks. On the other hand, it hurts to know that what you're shooting is as good as anything made in Hollywood. Maybe better. But you know Hollywood will get the hype because they have the cultural clout. The gravitas of cash. Critics do respond to that. They are a part of it. Newspapers are owned by corporations and so are the critics. They are not immune from valueless values. Lansing was my first eye-opening experience at seeing the mixture and clash of egos that when empowered in concert could transcend a place so small in vision that all I could ever do was hope and pray someday I could leave and never go back. The only freedom I knew was in performance. The community may, indeed, have been mean, mean-spirited, racist, homophobic, banal, and visionless, but there was a group of actors (the same people repeatedly) who came back time and time again to this place where on the stage of a barn theatre we could transcend both time and place and class. Yes, they were recognized for theatre. But never for what their real value was which happened to be a venue that could transport both audience and players to a world (where interactions mattered) that we knew existed but we were never really a part of living our everyday lives in as we did in a hateful place where you simply dragged your slow length along from day to day. The dullness of it was a strangulation and not a slow one. The real value of an insignificant barn theater was that it was a small peep hole into a universe that created and it mattered. This was where my bad, rotten attitude for critics was born. They never "got it." In order to "get it" they would have had to be able to articulate the juxtaposition between a community where creative thinking was strictly forbidden unless it was actualized within the context of fiction. It had to be fiction or it couldn't be real. "Get it." Creativity was something you put in a box. Letting it outside of the box was dangerous. It could only be done on a stage or associated with a school. It did not belong at a place like Oldsmobile which was where we were "slotted" to work on the assembly line. The critics and the awards handed out simply reflected the values of a community that had more to do with stagnation than reach or experimentation (again, forbidden). You could present "the Music Man," but not "The Boys in the Band." Thusly (in my adolescent book and one I have hardly thrown away) awards and critics were meaningless. This was the place where I learned to hate the culture I grew up in. I still do. The awards and the critics were there to reinforce the staus quo not challenge it. In order for me to challenge it, I had to disguise myself as a completely fictional character (Nasdijj) that I thought maybe I could get away with for perhaps a year (tops). I do NOT look like a Native American and the fact that I could walk out on stages (the audience was always white) all over America and get away with being this person who did not exist turned what I was doing into a performance art that I could never in a million years have performed in Lansing. Performance art would have been far too abstract. No one was waiting for Godot because no one knew who he was. Nasdijj lasted ten years. It was getting tiresome. His perpetual goodness eventually bored me. But he won AWARDS. Award after award. It was totally ridiculous and only reinforced my notion about how absurd the culture is. Not the theatre that represents it. That is only art. I have less respect for the culture, less respect for the critics, and less respect for the awards than I did while living in Lansing, and being able to crunch and mess with those values was pleasing. I would do it again. You deserve being lied to because you are lied to every day (you value recognition not Godot) and you're waiting for fiction to be real and there I was. A whore giving them what they want. Your awards and analysis are subjective. They are valuable only because the recognition of them is valuable. How pathetic is that. What I found out later was that small thinking is not relegated to Lansing. The New York Times found my book THE BOY AND THE DOG ARE SLEEPING to be "disturbing." Good. It was about AIDS and people should be disturbed but they weren't referring to AIDS. They were referring to sex. But the critic had to use code and they do it all the time. SEX was more disturbing than AIDS. Get a clue, America. Your cultural critics and your awards don't get it. THE BOY AND THE DOG ARE SLEEPING didn't win literary awards because it was well-written. It won those awards because you thought it was written by someone you had decided could not compete on a level playing-field. So "minority" writers could have their own awards for "their" books. Again, the critics represent the values of the community, and they're racist. My playing that part only put that in the culture's face thusly the subsequent outrage and screaming that you were lied to could disengage your own part in the theatricality of it. You wanted him to real in much the same way you want James Bond to be a real spy. Or Perry Mason to be a real lawyer. The critics and the awards don't MESS with the values of the community. They only uphold them, and they're ripe for satire. I am the only filmmaker here in Chechnya and the images are visceral. I'm IT. The value clashes of the status quo are murderous, and there's no hiding place. But will the critics get it. No. Will it win awards. I hope not. The critics will all applaud and give awards to the fictional explosions Hollywood will contrive this and any other year. Lansing was trial by fire and blood and brimstone and today I'm glad I started there. It was a microcosm of the world's meanness at large even if I was too adolescent to know it. It's "about" the slots and the awards and not the art which has to stand alone on its own two feet. To mean anything. To me. I won an award there at Eastern High School for poetry but I was too shy to read it on the awards stage. Someone else had to do it for me. That has changed for me. Today, I would not only read it, I would live it, and do whatever it took to put it in your face, and wrap the thing around your neck. MINE refuses to be strangulated by banality or any other criticism or code you might throw at me. It's ALL performance art. Even and especially the awards.

Posted by: Tim Barrus at June 22, 2007 5:40 AM

I agree with Mike that a reporter's energies should be used more for coverage than for judging award shows. The burden of organizing such a huge endeavor should be on the shoulders of the arts organizations, not the people who cover them. What's interesting here, I think, is that the level of controversy surrounding awards shows rises the deeper you go into the American Outback. Attention in the local media is often the greatest reward for the tremendous energy and dedication that goes into putting on these shows. Unlike larger urban centers, there is little if any commercial incentive and quality is often not quite the ideal. In a climate like this, it's no surprise that recognition -- of any kind (though bad reviews are hardly received with warmth) -- becomes immensely important. In this climate, it's no surprise to see a blossoming of narcissism among theatricals.

Posted by: John Stoehr at June 22, 2007 7:28 AM