Executive Director's Note: Vanishing Point
Monday, January 26, 2015
By Brad Erickson
Back in June, a hullaballoo broke out in much of the nation's theatre community when the organizers of the Tony Awards announced they would be dropping two citations from their award roster. Nods for sound design, in plays and musicals, were to be eliminated. As an explanation, the Tony Awards Administrative Committee asserted that few of the 800 Tony voters felt competent to evaluate the work, and as a result many simply left this category blank when completing their ballots. Furthermore, the committee wondered if this discipline wasn't really more craft than art, and, at any rate, the organizers would consider special awards in this arena some time in the future.
Photo: "Road to nothingness" by Sjoerd van Oosten on Flickr.
Used under Creative Commons license.
Howls of protest arose from all points. The controversy was covered in The New York Times and trade publications around the country. Editorials condemning the decision were penned in a variety of theatre journals, and theatre organizations and associations from coast to coast registered their opposition to the exclusion of the awards. Sound designer John Gromada instigated a petition campaign to persuade the Tonys to reverse their decision. In November, Gromada turned in more than 32,000 signatures to the American Theatre Wing (which, with the Broadway Alliance, runs the Tonys), with the hope that the organizers may yet reinstate the awards.
While the hue and cry was at its peak, a thoughtful entry was published on HowlRound, the daily online journal produced by the Theatre Commons at Boston's ArtsEmerson. There, Robert Kaplowitz, an OBIE Award–winning sound designer, reflected on the meaning of awards for achievement in the theatre. His take was highly personal and heartfelt. He posited that "theater awards matter because theater vanishes. While scripts live on, productions themselves last only as long as that magical assemblage of actors, stagehands, musicians, stage managers, craftspeople and front-of-house staff are together... Once it's gone, it's gone. Forever. Theater awards are like beautiful, little gravestones, a marker for something that mattered, something you can sit beside and remember."
At our recent TBA Awards Celebration, 800 people packed American Conservatory Theater's Geary Theater, and for nearly three hours, they rocked the elegant venue with shouts and screams and wild applause. Finalists, cheered by those in the house, lined up together on stage before the results were announced, turning to applaud and congratulate each other. Then, as the awardees were named, more raucous exuberance erupted in the historic theatre as the recipients held high their awards.
Some observers wondered if the noisy reception wasn't a bit too unbridled. Backstage, I was urged to shush the crowd when I made my remarks. True enough, it was difficult to make out the names of some of the finalists over the din, but hushing the audience seemed contrary to the spirit of the whole enterprise. The idea was to celebrate achievement, and in no uncertain terms, there was a celebration going on.
From the start, we've hoped to achieve several things with this peer-adjudicated awards program: To raise the profile of theatre in the Bay Area. To excite an interest in theatre and spur theatregoing in our region. And to further excellence in theatre-making by honoring achievement. Add to that a deeper understanding of the profound personal meaning to the artist that accrues from recognition by one's peers, creating, as Kaplowitz put it, "a marker for something that mattered."
Since the event, I've been asked whom the awards are really for. Well, we wanted the press to notice, and they did. We hoped audiences would take note, and through the weekly announcements of "recommended" productions, we see the word is getting out. We expected the staffs and boards of theatre companies would take pride in the recognition of their artists, and certainly they have. But more than that, it's become clear, from the outpouring of emotion at the Awards Celebration and from individual responses following the evening, that the awards are really for the artists themselves, for the finalists, the recipients, and their peers, so they can "sit beside and remember" a work that mattered. An accomplishment that appeared, and then, like every piece of theatre, vanished, and was gone.
Brad Erickson is executive director of Theatre Bay Area.