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Olivier’s vexed vote

WHEN OLIVIER AWARDS JUDGE Clive Hirschorn says, “I did it for two years and still don’t understand how the voting works,” it doesn’t exactly inspire confidence.

Now entering their 32nd year, the Oliviers are regarded as the U.K.’s most prestigious theater prize. Yet unlike the rival Evening Standard Theater Awards — judged by a panel of practicing critics and senior staff of that newspaper — the Olivier judging system is less than transparent.

For starters, a chunk of the vote is in the hands of self-confessed amateurs. The Society of London Theaters (SOLT), which organizes the Oliviers, advertises annually for eight members of the public to form part of the two panels: four watching plays, four watching musicals. Each group of four is joined by just five professionals from allied industries who see all eligible shows. Thus, where the Tonys have 700 voters, the total for each Olivier panel is nine.

As always, last year’s professionals — casting director Sarah Bird, freelance critic Hirschorn, former BritishActors’ Equity general secretary Ian McGarry, dance consultant Prudence Skene and TV writer Colleen Toomey — remained unidentified until the night of the ceremony Feb. 18. SOLT chief executive Richard Pulford argues that protects them from being lobbied.

The voting on the nominations list drawn up by the society is straightforward. Each panelist votes for a first, second, third and fourth place in each category. Their votes are then collated by computer.

Surprisingly, there’s little or no discussion among the judges. “We don’t encourage a collegiate system,” says Pulford. “It would be wrong for someone to argue and influence voting. People bring their own judgment. It’s not about arguing backwards and forwards as in, say, the Man Booker Prize.”

Fair enough, but the lack of analysis behind choices leads to odd decisions by voters — at least four of whom have enthusiasm but not necessarily the analytical framework to discern just why a designer merits the award for, say, lighting or sound. Subtlety regularly goes unrewarded, with the prizes usually going to the “most” rather than the “best.”

Yet the real trouble is in choosing not the winners but the nominees, a decision largely out of the judges’ hands.

Each December, all nine judges on each panel vote to create a long list of six or seven names per category, forming what Pulford calls “an aide-memoire” that goes out to all 157 members of the society.

But instead of merely voting for names on that list, members can nominate anything from the year, with the exception of their own shows. However, their choices come with absolutely no evidence that members have seen a representative selection, let alone all contenders. At best, this system is open to what could be termed “producer persuasion.”

With so many votes in the hands of society members, the judges, therefore, have considerably less influence than is generally believed.

It’s the weight of membership votes that accounts for this year’s list only including three names for best director and designer, where other categories had up to five noms. Although this anomaly reflects the society’s vote, the Oliviers are the industry flagship. Announcing to the world that only three directors produced work worthy of nomination — only one of which was for a play — is patently absurd.

Voting anomalies were only part of the dissatisfaction in the air at this year’s ceremony. Like many arts awards in the U.K., the Oliviers are no longer televised. It is, therefore, a pure theater bash — so why have a soap star with no stage chops as a guest presenter? Why did the comperes’ script induce audible groans? And why were there so many mispronunciations of nominees in the prerecorded voiceover?

Rosemary Squire, president of SOLT, admits the mispronunciations shouldn’t have happened. But she and Pulford aren’t about to make changes to the judging system. While finding anyone in the industry willing to go on record and jeopardize their chances of a statue next year is virtually impossible, the organizers’ thinking feels out of step with many of those who attended this year.

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