Hayes legacy fuels D.C. theater

Awards serve as model for regionals

WASHINGTON — Helen Hayes always credited her stage career to her experiences growing up, attending theater in the nation’s capital. So it’s fitting that the D.C. theater community gathers each year to celebrate its own artistic achievements via the Helen Hayes Awards.

And the 24th Hayes awards, on April 28, will be a time of particular cheer. It’s been a boffo year for local thesps. Latest figures from the Hayes organization report that 67 area professional theaters presented 8,050 performances in 454 productions to auds totaling 1.8 million during 2007, the largest serving of theatrical work ever produced here.

The numbers are even more impressive considering that the area had only 14 professional theaters in 1983, the year representatives asked Hayes to lend her name to a proposed honors program inspired by Chicago’s Joseph Jefferson Awards. Hayes not only agreed, she supported all of the fledgling org’s activities until her death in 1993.

The Hayes Awards now serve as a model for other regional theater kudos beyond the D.C. Beltway, including the Barrymores in Philadelphia and Kevin Klein Awards in St. Louis. The national spotlight has attracted corporate and foundation support for area troupes while promoting “the extraordinary scope of theater in Washington,” says Hayes Awards prexy Linda Levy Grossman.

The program owes much of its success to an early decision to recognize D.C. performances of national touring productions in a separate category from locally produced fare. Although the nonresident category is often criticized by locals, the added glitz of high-profile visiting shows and celebs boosts the award’s visibility and broadens its support among marquee actors and directors, Grossman says. For the same reason, a prominent artist such as this year’s recipient, Derek Jacobi, is always saluted with the Helen Hayes Tribute.

Other Hayes activities include a theater education program for area youngsters and a variety of audience-building initiatives. In addition, the org has received a $2.8 million grant from the Robert M. Fisher Memorial Foundation to jumpstart an endowment program.

Another important element is the decision to judge all qualifying productions on the same playing field, meaning powerhouses like Arena Stage and Shakespeare Theater are weighed alongside tiny startups like Solas Nua. (No category exists for non-Equity productions.) Although unwieldy, advocates claim the formula gives instant credibility to deserving smaller groups.

Some 65 selected volunteer judges are dispatched to specific plays and musicals, voting on a scale in 24 categories, including performance, ensemble, direction and design, and submitting an independent judgment within 24 hours.

The method results in a love/hate relationship between theaters and the Hayes organization, and some occasional embarrassments when superior productions are overlooked.

“The competition is not the point of the Hayes Awards,” says Howard Shalwitz, a.d. of Woolly Mammoth Theater Company, whose troupe garnered 23 nominations this year. “They have done a great job in using a competitive process to celebrate and showcase Washington theater overall.”

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