Local Theater Awards: How Much Is Enough?

Greater Cincinnati has two awards programs that recognize our excellent theater scene. Perhaps that’s good news, but you might wonder if this kind of competition between competitions is the best way to go.—-

First, a bit of history and background. The Cincinnati Entertainment Awards (CEAs) were established by CityBeat in 1996, using theater critics from all the local media to determine nominees; I have served as the CEA’s de facto organizer from the beginning. (CityBeat initially paired theater recognition with its celebration of the local music scene, but the two award programs were separated in 2005.) The Acclaim Awards were created in 2006 and are largely supported by The Cincinnati Enquirer and managed by theater critic Jackie Demaline.

The two programs take different approaches. The CEAs are modeled on the Tonys and similar programs in cities like Chicago, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. Every year as the theater season winds up, I assemble a panel of willing theater critics from various publications around Greater Cincinnati. (In the early years of the CEAs, Demaline joined our deliberations.) We discuss the year’s productions and outstanding work by various actors and theater companies in order to assemble five nominees for the established categories (20 in 2009).

With that process the CEAs have annually identified roughly 100 performers and productions. The public is invited to vote for nominees in 12 categories during a month-long period via CityBeat’s Web site; thousands regularly cast votes. The critics panel chooses the winner in eight additional categories best judged by people who see a lot of theater. Recognition is handed out at an annual event late in August, just before the new season begins. The evening includes honoring the recipient of the League of Cincinnati Theatres’ “award for continuing achievement” with induction into the CEA Hall of Fame.

Acclaim awards are announced throughout the year in The Enquirer and via a dedicated Web site, often while productions are still onstage. They're determined by a set of people drawn from a large panel of “critics, educators, practitioners and savvy theatergoers” who attend shows. The same individuals don't attend every production, but it’s assumed that Demaline is part of the decision-making since she reviews most shows, manages the judging process and writes the reports that appear in the newspaper when a production is granted Acclaim recognition.

Categories are loosely defined (and often invented to fit a particular situation, event or performance); distinctions are drawn between Equity and non-Equity productions and between university programs and professional theaters. Community theaters haven't previously been included in the Acclaims, although a new wrinkle this year will offer “audience voting” as part of the “Best of the Season” recognition; those attending the May 24 event at the Aronoff Center’s Jarson-Kaplan Theater will choose their favorite community theater and professional musical theater productions.

(Curiously, in announcing this new development in The Enquirer on April 25, the community theater nominees included two shows that hadn't opened yet — Cincinnati Music Theatre’s Curtains and Footlighters’ The Wedding Singer — and among the nominees for “professional musical theater productions” were two shows presented by area universities, CCM’s Hair and NKU’s Bye Bye Birdie.)

So far during the 2009-10 season, 64 Acclaim winners have been announced (the total includes 10 for Cincinnati Playhouse’s production of Three Sisters). The Acclaims, which have a stated purpose of “building audiences by identifying, celebrating and inspiring excellence in Cincinnati theater,” culminate with an annual event — it’s coming on May 24 — when “major category” winners are announced. That evening, which offers a pre-show reception and an after-party, also supports some of the Acclaims broader purposes, honoring outstanding high school teachers and “rising stars” from local university programs.

Funds raised by the annual event and during the season with various special performances and programs enable grants to small theaters that could not otherwise afford to hire professional actors. That makes for better theater for everyone.

Both the CEAs and the Acclaims are about recognizing excellence, but are two programs necessary? Would it be make sense to bring them together into one recognition event? What form should that take? Is it important to have outstanding performances cited while shows are still running? Should there be online public voting or voting by the audience at the award event, or should decisions be made by a group of informed insiders? Should various kinds of theater productions — shows by professional companies, alternative events, university performances and community theater productions that feature talented amateurs — be segregated or compared?

I personally think Cincinnati theater would benefit from one solid, well-managed program. I’m working behind the scenes to see what might be done.

Of course, I’m proud of and partial to the CEAs, since I’ve shepherded the program for 15 seasons now. But I also believe that the Acclaims have considerable merit, often recognizing many of the same shows and actors who earn CEAs. I also admire the program's broader impact on theaters, teachers and young performers.

I don’t have all the answers as to what a singular effort should look like, but I can envision a structure that would combine the best elements of each program. I have my own thoughts, to be sure, but I’d like to hear yours. I will keep writing about this topic, and I plan to use my CityBeat column and this blog to share thoughts from theater fans and those engaged in performing and presenting shows.

Check out the Acclaims later this month and be on the lookout for the 2010 CEA nominations in late June after the Cincy Fringe Festival. Your opinions matter.

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