Awards Galore: The Art of GivingDate: 4 February 2002
With the Critics' Circle and Whatsonstage.com presenting awards this week and the Oliviers ceremony looming, Mark Shenton analyses the annual merry-go-round of theatrical backslapping, taking a closer look at those who give rather than receive.
"It is more blessed to give than to receive," goes one famous biblical declaration (Acts 20:33), and so it proves at this time of year, more than any other, in the theatre, too. In order to understand the importance of awards as well as their impact, we therefore need to know who is giving the prizes as much as to those upon whom they are bestowed.
Keeping Up Standards
While the Evening Standard Drama Awards, presented last November for the 2001 theatre year, may have the longest pedigree, they have also traditionally held the greatest mystique, too. A small voting panel of professional critics, including the Standard's own idiosyncratic man on the aisle (previously Milton Shulman, now the equally hard-to-please Nicholas de Jongh), have always determined the Standard choices, but those in contention for the awards usually aren't made publicly. In a break with that tradition, this past time around the paper announced the shortlisted candidates ahead of time.
Shortlist or no, the winners are always told in advance of the actual ceremony, held at the Savoy Hotel, so there isn't much in the way of surprise for the nominees. Entertainingly, though, the paper publishes a report, the day after the awards, of the panel discussion and voting by which the winners emerged. While only productions seen in London are considered, the panel doesn't limit itself according to the arbitrary divisions of London theatre into West End and Fringe, but merely includes what it considers to be the capital's best work, no matter where it's shown.
Amongst the most beneficial aspects of the Standard Awards is a recently added one - now two years old - for most promising playwright, which comes with a cash prize (currently £30,000) in recognition of the importance of new writing. Every other year, too, another two-part award is made: the first part to provide one unknown young hopeful drama student with tuition fees; and the second to recognise an outstanding service to drama by an established star. In this way, both the past and hopefully future of London's theatrical legacy are respectively acknowledged and possibly secured.
The Critics' Circle
The Critics' Circle also annually votes its own awards. While the Critics' Circle was established in 1913 to represent critics of drama, music, cinema and dance, its drama section has been presenting these awards since 1989. Done by a free vote amongst all its members nationwide, critics are invited to vote in nine categories. These include the usual categories for Best New Play and Musical (New or Revival), Best Actor, Actress, Director, and Designer.
But the Critics' Circle was also the first to recognize the importance of giving separate awards to most promising playwright and most promising newcomer (other than a playwright), and to have a separate award for Best Shakespearean Performance. The Critics' Circle Theatre Awards are presented this week, on 5 February in a lunchtime ceremony at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane.
SWET, SOLT & tears
The Big Daddy of the annual awards, the industry's own bit of back-slapping - presented by the Society of London Theatres, the professional body that officially represents the interests of West End and affiliate members - are the Laurence Olivier Awards. Originally set up in 1976 by the then Society of West End Theatres, the awards first took the unappetizing acronym of the producing body, coming to be known as the SWET Awards. In 1984, in a smart move, they renamed the awards after the man who was then arguably England's most celebrated living stage actor, Sir Laurence Olivier, and their status improved. But with the previous glamorous Sunday evenings award ceremony now replaced by an on-the-hop weekday lunchtime one, the Oliviers are no longer seen as exclusive as they used to be.
They remain, however, as predictably unpredictable as ever. The Oliviers are decided by an invited jury of professional experts joined by members of the public who put themselves forward for the task (and are appointed after a selection interview). The judges see only the shows opened in eligible West End houses that have actually put themselves forward for nomination.
Such a restriction not only typically creates some interesting anomalies, but it also ignores some of London's most interesting producing spaces, such as the Almeida, which don't qualify as a West End house. Thankfully, this year the Oliviers have introduced a wider reach, following the Critics' Circle to introduce new categories for most promising playwright and performer (nominations for both of which are not restricted to the West End). And they have copied Whatsonstage.com by inviting the public themselves to vote on an award, with the introduction of an extra Audience Award for most popular show from London's myriad long-runners.
And so to our own awards offering - Whatsonstage.com's "Theatregoers' Choice" Awards, the newest awards in theatreland. How did these come about? Last year, we posted the full list of Laurence Olivier nominations and invited you to vote on who should win what. That proved so successful that, this year, we drew up our own shortlist. Although partly a matter of timing, this decision was also prompted by our desire to widen the net of eligibility, both in terms of geographical reach but also focus, and also to establish our own separate and fully-fledged awards in which the audience and the audience alone has the final say.
The compilation of our category shortlists was fought over long and hard by a panel led by the Whatsonstage.com's Editor and Contributing Editor. The hardest thing was to limit the fields to just six nominees; or, in the case of some of the beleaguered musical categories, to find enough candidates worthy of nominations. In all instances, however, our aim was to reflect the diversity of London's theatre, from the smallest fringe theatres like Jermyn Street Theatre and the Bridewell, to the big league National and West End houses.
We also sought to embrace some distinctive categories that you don't usually find in awards ceremonies, partly to make the whole exercise more fun, but also to demonstrate that London's theatre isn't only about big stars in big shows (thus new categories for Best Solo and Best Ensemble Performances) or even only about hits (hence our inclusion of the Turkey of the Year category).
Overall, however, the point of the Whatsonstage.com Awards is, uniquely, to give theatregoers the final say in deciding which theatrical performers and productions deserve the real recognition. Voting has now finished and, drum roll please...the final winning results can be found by clicking here. More than 8,000 theatregoers voted to decide which names should go onto the awards certificates that will be presented to all of the winners this week.
Does It Matter?
Like 'em or loathe 'em, everyone enjoys winning an award. In a notoriously insecure profession, the approval of critics and judging panels, whoever they are, make actors and other creators feel good about themselves. But, truth be told, they have little commercial importance, or long-lasting value. Can you remember who won last year, let alone was nominated? No, neither can I. But it's always fun to speculate about who the likely winners and losers are to be.