Oliviers seek to tweak event

Theater Awards unwind in London

The word at last week’s 2009 Olivier Awards after-party was that Kevin Spacey wasn’t pleased.

And with just cause. There he was onstage, accompanied by actress Liza Goddard, making the speech for the Society of London Theaters’ special award to Alan Ayckbourn. Spacey had just listed the initial statistics of Ayckbourn’s astonishing career — the man has, so far, written 72 plays — when someone cued the orchestra, Ayckbourn himself stood up, the house burst into applause and that was that.

Still, at least Spacey got part of his speech out. The inadvertent curtailment left poor Goddard literally speechless.

To be fair, this year’s Oliviers ceremony was a considerable improvement on last year, even if every time a presenter said, “And the nominees are …,” there was agonizing silence before the voiceover kicked in. And at least actor David Suchet managed to get most of the pronunciations right in the pre-recorded list of nominees. But more important questions hang over the event, which, at £155 ($215) a ticket plus wine from $50 a bottle, is London theater’s most important industry night.

Chief among them is why is it held in a hotel?

The entire audience comprises people who make, present or promote theater. The Oliviers used to be held in theaters, and the BAFTAs still are. Surely the event’s producers are embarrassed by having to occupy a hotel’s carpeted events room, a temporary venue that, however smart, makes the ceremony resemble an effortfully upscale wedding with entertainment laid on.

The wide stage — a number of covered rostra — is barely 9 feet deep. Try staging a dance number on that. Or, rather, don’t. Such was the case with “Zorro,” the flamenco-fueled musical nominee whose foot-stamping would have wrecked the joint, so it had to resort to an undanced, bland ballad.

And then there’s the voting anomaly. Opera categories allow someone to be nominated for a body of work — thus English National Opera’s Edward Gardner deservedly won for conducting a whole raft of shows.

But theater nominations are for single shows only. That meant Paule Constable and Neil Austin, with two shows apiece, wound up taking all four nominations for lighting and thus competed against themselves.

At least they both made it to the nominees list. Others in the running for multiple shows split their own votes and were thus left out in the cold. That left Michael Grandage without a directing nom despite several of his productions dominating other categories.

Nica Burns, president of SOLT since last July, recognizes problems.

“I don’t like the words ‘This is the way we have always done things,’ ” she tells Variety. “People shouldn’t compete against themselves. Aside from acting awards, creatives should be nominated for a body of work. I’m determined to change that. I’m holding a board meeting, and we’re going to throw the whole thing open to the membership.”

So might the event move back to a theater?

“We used to have it in theaters, but that brought its own problems in getting between there and a dinner venue,” counters Burns.

But is a sit-down dinner a real priority? Several industry figures have observed off the record that they would be far happier shelling out for less catering but better produced entertainment on a proper stage. That, too, would make it more attractive to television, which stopped screening the Oliviers long ago, a situation Burns is determined to reverse.

“TV people always say there are too many awards shows, but we are owed our TV program back,” she says. “It’s insulting that we don’t have an annual program celebrating British theater. And, unlike TV, we’re very healthy. London theater generates £480 million ($664 million) in box office and contributes £1.8 billion ($2.5 billion) to the British economy in terms of surrounding expenditure. We should be taken seriously as an industry, especially in these financial times.”

Were a TV company to get onboard, Burns is ready to make major changes affecting the whole event. And though she won’t say who, she did ensure TV people came to this year’s ceremony.

“We hope we did a good audition,” she says.

Spacey might disagree.

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