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TBA Online: News & Features: November 2014

Life in the Awards Zone: Year One

Monday, November 10, 2014   (0 Comments)
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By Robert Sokol


There was a great sense of pride and accomplishment around the Theatre Bay Area office at the end of the day on September 18. After a busy year gathering, synthesizing and deploying the input and suggestions of over a decade's worth of creative conjuring, considering and planning by staff, members and other interested parties, the finalists in the inaugural season of the TBA Awards had been announced!


The cast of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at Center Repertory Company, a multiple award finalist for the 2014 TBA Awards. Photo:


Tweets were tweeted and Facebook fans posted digital back-slapping as a series of a dozen videos were unspooled featuring Theatre Bay Area staff (plus yours truly) announcing over 350 theatre-maker finalists, selected by their peers in recognition of outstanding achievement in the season just ended. By the following Monday, the videos on YouTube had recorded more than 7,000 views, indicating there was more than a little interest in this new program amongst the Bay Area theatre community and its supporters.

The interest has actually been very long-standing. More than a year ago, when the program was just getting started, executive director Brad Erickson wrote in the July/August 2013 issue of Theatre Bay Area magazine, "For years, our members, theatre companies and individual artists alike, have been urging us—begging us, really—as their regional service organization to create and operate an awards system that would garner respect from the field and coverage from the press, and pique the interest of the broader community."

Earlier that year, Theatre Bay Area had secured seed funding from the Fleishhacker and Kenneth Rainin Foundations to launch the program, and Theatre Bay Area's director of field services Dale Albright reached out to me in June to dangle the carrot. At the time, running an awards program was nowhere on my radar, though I had done similar work in my tenure with the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle, where I produced their 2011 ceremony at the Palace of Fine Arts and served briefly as president. Instead, I was laying the groundwork for transitioning BayStages, my magazine, from its recently ended print life to a digital platform. Well, Dale can be very persuasive, and after several meetings I agreed postpone my plans for BayStages and take on the new program.

Projects like this never fully reveal themselves until you are in the thick of it, and the TBA Awards was no exception. A software vendor was already in place prior to my coming on board with the project, and the system looked promising. Unfortunately, complicated computer programs can embody very circuitous and often less than satisfying routing from the source code to the user experience. There were also some Bay Area‒specific customizations needed, such as not assigning adjudicators from San Jose to attend a production in Santa Rosa unless they really and truly were willing to make the trip. More perplexing, while the adjudicator interface was fairly direct, the producer interface for submitting production and ballot data to the system was extremely unfriendly. This caused the launch of the program to be delayed from September to November and then to January while the code was modified and work-arounds put in place.

In the meantime, word of the launch spread, companies registered to participate and adjudicator applications from Theatre Bay Area members were reviewed by the steering committee. The program launched quietly on New Year's Day this year. Technology was finally our friend, and I was able to monitor progress from Prague and make adjustments from Amsterdam during a long-planned winter vacation. Road Show at Theatre Rhinoceros, Rx at Dragon Productions Theatre Company and Major Barbara at American Conservatory Theater were among the first productions evaluated, and all have finalists in the running to possibly receive a TBA Award at the ceremony this month.

A lot of labor and learning took place over the subsequent months leading to the recent August 31 season end. Some days felt like building a plane while flying it, and I developed a great deal of empathy for former Health and Human Services secretary Kathleen Sebelius and her challenges with a certain website.

Despite all the pre-planning, we learned that not all types of theatre fit neatly our thoughtfully wrought initial framework. In some cases we were able to modify the program immediately to add a category like Outstanding Anthology Production, which now recognizes collections of three or more short plays presented as a collective production. For the 2014–2015 season we have expanded the program to include participation from members in Monterey, San Benito and Santa Cruz counties. There are, of course, other questions still being evaluated for future seasons, such as how to engage educational or recreational theatre along with other parts of the performing arts continuum.

Infrastructure aside, the success of this inaugural season really would not have been possible without the boots on the ground, or perhaps more aptly, the butts in the seats provided by the 200 adjudicators in the program. These fine folks were the guinea pigs on whom the system was tested, and they gamely met the challenge, recording almost 3,000 ballots covering nearly 180 submitted productions. To give a greater sense of the scale of the commitment, the inaugural adjudicators made individual evaluations of more than 36,000 discrete ballot line items and donated more than 500 days of volunteer service.

Who are these intrepid theatregoers willing to journey either by choice or by assignment to deepest Contra Costa County, the highlands of Sonoma or distant Peninsula pockets? They are actors, directors, playwrights, designers, dramaturgs, journalists, casting directors, theatre managers, educators and other professionals in the field. They are the peers of the more than 350 finalists listed elsewhere in the magazine who agreed to serve the community in this capacity, and they deserve your applause for faithfully following a professional code of conduct, asking good questions and utilizing set of carefully developed guidelines in their efforts.

Applause and thanks also go to the dozens of company representatives, administrators and box office personnel who prepared ballot data and coordinated reservations, sometimes on the fly, to ensure that a production met its minimum ballot threshold. Recognition and gratitude should also be extended to the many members of the various incarnations of the steering committee, individuals from companies large and growing throughout the region and across the full membership profile, and to Dale Albright and Brad Erickson for their carefully considered leadership of the program.

It really is an honor to be a finalist selected by one's peers from more than 2,200 productions and individual artists submitted for consideration, and all shall be revealed on November 10 at the Geary Theater. In the meantime, the new season is already underway, with a brand new website in place using completely custom-designed software. If you are interested in participating as an adjudicator or a producing company, please visit for program information and applications. And now, may I have the envelope, please?

Robert Sokol is program director of the TBA Awards, creative director of the design and publishing firm Via Media and a longtime Bay Area arts writer.