Process values independence, but secrecy shrouds jury's verdict

As the Tony cutoff approaches, legiters are keenly aware that more than 800 producers, out-of-town owners, reps of leading industry orgs, casting directors, press agents and critics are busily voting. By contrast, almost no one on either side of the Pond realizes the Oliviers, the U.K.’s equivalent prizes, are voted on by just nine people, only five of whom are connected to the legit industry.

The 36th Oliviers ceremony on April 15 was the first at the Royal Opera House, but the judging process has been in place for years. While not robed in secrecy, it’s fair to say that the Society of London Theater has previously been less than open about the makeup of the judging committee and, indeed, the entire judging process. Even most U.K. legit insiders have little or no idea how it works.

Leaving aside the opera and ballet/contemporary dance categories (judged separately), the number of productions to be weighed is larger than that for Tony voters, who this year will consider 37 shows. Olivier judges must size up more than 25 shows annually from the National Theater alone, with the total number of shows in contention averaging around 80, this year for 17 competitive awards. (The number of categories is adjusted from year to year, based on the makeup of the theatrical output.)

So who are the people judging those 80 productions? Four are members of the theatergoing public, unconnected with the business, who submit a 150-word review of a production and are then interviewed and selected by SOLT topper Julian Bird.

That leaves five so-called “professional” panelists. None of these are critics, or anyone whose job it is to assess theater in all its diversity. Indeed, people currently working in theater are ineligible. They are also chosen by Bird and the awards team at SOLT.

To avoid lobbying, those chosen remain anonymous until the ceremony, but recent judges have included a novelist/broadcaster, a former Equity prexy and a TV casting director. This year’s judges included Edward Kemp, a.d. of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. “There’s usually a director of a drama school,” Bird observes.

Bird admits the process is unlike the way the Tonys operates. “We know that the people who finally vote for the winner have genuinely seen everything, so they really can legitimately judge,” he says.

This certainly ensures an even playing field for all potential nominees. But Bird’s use of the word “finally” points to one of the system’s more awkward aspects: The judging panel is not responsible for the final shortlist of nominees.

At a typically interminable meeting filled with energetic discussion, the panel draws up its long list. That list is distributed to the 140 SOLT members (producers, theater owners, etc.) who then vote, but are not tied to, the list. They can, and regularly do, add their own nominees and vote for them. Not only does this mean that this stage of the process is wide open to block voting and favoritism, but the names with the most votes — which form the final shortlist — may have little relation to those originally tapped by the judges.

The final round, however, is in the judges’ hands. At this stage, there is next to no discussion.

“We don’t want them to end up compromising; we want them to judge as individuals,” Bird says. Thus a blind vote takes place with a weighted points system. Bird won’t be drawn on the exact details, but agrees that it works along the lines of, say, four points for first choice, three for second, etc., in each category.

All awards systems have unique drawbacks. While the method for the Oliviers avoids horse-trading in the final vote, it can lead to results that please no one but the winner. Anecdotal evidence reveals that in 2010, when critical and box office smashes “Jerusalem,” “Enron” and “Red” were vying for the top play award, almost everyone put “The Mountaintop” — which no one expected to win — in second place. As a result, and to everyone’s astonishment (even its producers), its second-place points total contributed to overall victory.

That lack of discussion at the final stage means the relative merits of the nominees cannot be weighed. At the risk of oversimplifying, two of this year’s sound nominees were for tuners, which is principally about amplification and balance. The other two were for plays, which meant creating soundscapes. Neither is better than the other, but how could their relative merits be assessed without discussion?

This raises the question of exactly how well-equipped the judges are to analyze the technical awards. One prolific lighting designer who has won several Oliviers privately points out that he has, on occasion, won for what he considers his worst, yet showiest, work. Without proper analysis, Olivier judges tend to favor the most obvious, rather than the best.

Given that the awards are funded and run by SOLT, the org is clearly free to operate them as they wish. But since they are widely held to represent the industry standard, shouldn’t there be some sort of reconsideration of the process to suggest that standard?

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