Boss Blog: In the Eye of the Awards StormDate: 15 February 2011
Just five days to go until this year's Whatsonstage.com Awards Concert and I'm feeling strangely calm about it all. Maybe that's because I've been consumed with Awards matters for so long now I've got blasé about it.
Internally, our annual Awards hell – I mean, workload – starts circa September. The first, and frankly most time-consuming and hair-tearing, task is simply to come up with the invitation list for the Launch Party in December, where we announce the nominations. The list must be redrawn every year according to what’s opened during the eligible months. We try to invite key people behind every major opening – from playwrights, creatives and actors to producers, marketers and publicists. Finding out who they are and where to send the invitations is a minefield (for the record, directors’ agents are the trickiest to deduce). There’s always a large number of people offended because they were left off and an even larger number of invites that get lost in the post.
But that all seems ages ago now. The Awards Concert is a very different event. The majority (70%) of the 1,100-seat Prince of Wales is sold to you, the voting, theatregoing public, so that you can applaud your nominees and winners in person. And you bought up all the tickets faster than ever this year. That leaves enormous pressure on the house seats that we hold for winners, nominees, Concert performers and sponsors, which are also hugely oversubscribed. So in the days leading up to Sunday, I’m spending a silly amount of time dealing with begging requests to purchase any returns (I’m feeling very unpopular as I'm having to say no, a lot), and watching our waiting list grow and grow - there are now over 200 people hoping for a returns alert on Friday and, if they’re lucky, there may be all of five tickets that go back on sale.
As much as we love the Prince of Wales – it’s our third year there with the Concert, and theatre manager Graham Sykes and his team look after us brilliantly – it seems inevitable that we’ll need to consider a move to a larger venue. All going to plan, the venue is only one of the ways that the Awards may be bigger and better next year. We’ve also just signed a deal with a TV production company – the same one that films the BAFTAs, no less – with whom we're working to secure a broadcast deal (thanks Cameron Mackintosh et al for the introduction). In the meantime this year, you'll be able to see online video updates on the Awards site during the course of Sunday evening as part of our live coverage, followed by our usual video highlights reels from Monday.
So, we’re hardly on the level of the Laurence Olivier Awards, especially after their relaunch this month but we’re growing fast by busily ploughing our own field.
Comparisons with the Oliviers are slightly of the apples and oranges variety as, being very much the “theatregoers’ choice” across the board, the Whatsonstage.com Awards have always served a very different purpose to those or any other theatre awards: we’re unashamedly about what’s popular and commercial as well as high-quality - evidenced again this year by very different shortlists. That said, it is gratifying to reflect on how our development has been linked to theirs, and vice versa.
Our Awards started almost by accident 11 years ago on the back of that year’s Olivier shortlists. We published their nominations and let theatregoers vote on who they thought should win. Over 7,000 people did so in five weeks and the results were quite different from the Olivier judges. We struck out on our own after that, adding the nominations Launch Party in 2002 (now regularly one of the industry’s biggest annual parties, attended by over 600 theatre professionals – and an important event as we’ve always said, it’s as big an honour to be nominated as it is to win) and the Awards Concert in 2008 (a sell-out since our first year at the Queen’s Theatre) and now attracting over 45,000 voters a year.
Over the same period, the Oliviers introduced what was meant to be a one-off Audience Award in 2002 (when The Phantom of the Opera won), which they resuscitated last year and have now decided to make annual, backed by BBC Radio 2 to swell their voting numbers. Apparently, as far as the Oliviers are concerned, a show can't be the most popular two years running, which is why Wicked is ineligible in 2011 having won in 2010.
Three years ago the Oliviers also initiated their own nominees' lunch and this year they’re returning to a theatre, after years as an industry-only black-tie dinner in a swanky hotel, making tickets publicly available again, and reformatting the evening with “unique” concert entertainment.
Many producers tell me they’ve been urging the Society of London Theatre (SOLT), the trade association which organises the Oliviers, to make the "Larrys" more like our prize-giving (which is very complimentary) – clearly, their pleas have not fallen on deaf ears. As one industry insider told me, “without doubt, you’ve set the cat amongst the pigeons” with the Whatsonstage.com Awards.
That's fine with us - imitation is the greatest form of flattery. With their budget, history and prestige, SOLT (now with MasterCard and the BBC in league) can achieve an international scale and reach that we simply can’t, and we wish them well in their quest to promote theatre as broadly as possible. And besides, there’s room for the Oliviers and the Whatsonstage.com Awards. They’re both, of course, about celebrating this art form that we all love and that can only be a good thing in my book.
Meanwhile, I’m looking forward to a big sleep – and an end to my ticketing nightmares – come Monday...