Local Theater Awards Need Work

Although most people think that theater awards are about recognizing excellence, the real bottom line is marketing. A half-dozen award programs in New York City — the Drama Desk, the Outer Critics Circle, the Lortels, the Obies — lead up to the big kahun

Although most people think that theater awards are about recognizing excellence, the real bottom line is marketing. A half-dozen award programs in New York City — the Drama Desk, the Outer Critics Circle, the Lortels, the Obies — lead up to the big kahuna, the Tony Awards, focused on Broadway shows. They do showcase the best of what’s been onstage in America’s great theater city. But don’t let anyone fool you into thinking that they’re anything more than a marketing tool. Shows open in the spring in hopes that they’ll catch the crest of an awards wave. If they don’t get the hoped-for recognition, they typically announce their closing immediately after the Tonys (to be handed out on June 10 this year).

Bring that home to our own little theater universe in Cincinnati. As recently as the 2009-2010 season, we had two programs that drew attention to good work onstage, the Cincinnati Entertainment Awards for theater, originated by CityBeat in 1997, and the Acclaim Awards, instigated by The Cincinnati Enquirer in 2004. While differently conceived, each generated excitement around work by theater artists and companies in Greater Cincinnati. 

During the 2010-2011 season, an attempt was made to put them together. That crashed and burned in a lot of senseless bickering and disagreement. The League of Cincinnati Theatres (LCT) endeavored to sustain a program for the 2011-2012 season, which culminated in an awards program on May 21 at the Aronoff Center’s Jarson-Kaplan Theater.

The LCT event was meagerly attended by approximately 150 people, mostly from theaters recognized throughout the season. There were no surprises on Monday because the awards were announced throughout the past year. This information was released erratically and seldomly in a timely manner, and the awards, some deserving and some questionable, received almost no publicity. Was it worth it? That’s hard to say.

LCT certainly has good intentions, especially several award elements that are worthwhile. Two outstanding educators were recognized: Jason Burgess at Highlands High School in Fort Thomas and John Whapham from Sycamore High School in Montgomery. Five “rising stars” were singled out as talent on the way up: John Riddle, Kristopher Dean and Katie Johannigman from the College-Conservatory of Music, Carmyn Howe from Northern Kentucky University and Brandon Holmes, a young stage management intern at the Cincinnati Playhouse. LCT also provides occasional grants to enable theaters to hire Equity actors and worked to get information about productions to downtown hotels. Those are all commendable activities.

Monday evening’s 75-minute program showcased some fine talent: an ensemble from CCM’s much lauded production of Into the Woods (it received nine LCT awards, the most of any production this season) and another from the Showboat Majestic’s Babes in Hollywood; an animated solo song by Sara Mackie of The Marvelous Wonderettes; an oddball number from an upcoming Fringe Festival musical. Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati made a strong showing, with an award of excellence bestowed on Lynn Meyers, and six technical achievement awards for designer Brian Mehring (a quarter of the total awards in the tech category). ETC was singled out for the season’s outstanding local premiere for Donald Margulies’ Time Stands Still. 

But that ETC show was the only production receiving singular recognition on Monday. Fourteen shows were cited for their acting ensembles, but no production was singled out as the season’s best. Seventeen actors and 10 actresses (leading and featured) were listed, but none was held up as the season’s best. In fact, these performers were hustled onto the stage in a hurried role call while LCT personnel tried to hand out framed awards by wandering on and off stage and asking people who they were. Seven directors were announced, but there was no “outstanding director” or “best drama” or “outstanding musical.”

There was a lot of joshing about the seat-of-their pants onstage activity and several moments of hilarity and impressive ad libbing when pianist Sherry McCamley’s music went missing for the closing number and she made it work accompanying vocalist Nancy James, the evening’s emcee (a fine singer, but she has no connection to any show or theater). 

I missed the excitement and good cheer of past award events. LCT’s good intentions boil down to little more than self-congratulation. There was no one in the audience not attached to a specific theater; one or two theaters were entirely absent. I hope LCT keeps working to make their awards a program that convinces people who love theater to go see more. They’re not there yet.

CONTACT RICK PENDER: [email protected]

About The Author

Rick Pender

RICK PENDER has written about theater for CityBeat since its first issues in 1994. Before that he wrote for EveryBody’s News. From 1998 to 2006 he was CityBeat’s arts & entertainment editor. Retired from a long career in public relations, he’s still a local arts fan, providing readers (and public radio listeners)...
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