Olivier Judge Calls for Overhaul of Voting ProcessesDate: 17 February 2004
One of the judges of this year’s Laurence Olivier Awards, the UK’s most prestigious theatre prizes, which are announced this Sunday, has called for a major overhaul of voting procedures after accusations of pressure from commercial interests and unrepresentative nominations (See News, 15 Jan 2004).
In the wake of an interview with TheatreVoice.com - in which awards chairman Peter Wilkins admitted that shortlists were decided by theatre owning and producing members of awards organiser, the Society of London Theatre (SOLT), many of whom may not have seen all of the eligible productions – Whatsonstage.com was contacted by an Olivier public panellist who has revealed more deep-seated concerns about imbalances in voting power.
“I have until now kept silent about the farce that the Olivier awards really are,” the panellist told Whatsonstage.com. “They are more an industry pat on the back for commercial success or for the big names to feel good about themselves than a recognition of talent, ability and excellence.”
At the start of the awards year, two separate panels – for plays versus musicals - are drawn up, both comprising professionals (such as casting directors) and four members of the public apiece. During the year, all panellists see all the shows put forward by members of SOLT for consideration in their genre. At the end of the year, they meet to decide a long-list of award-worthy contenders. This list is sent out to the 100-odd SOLT members – only about half of which use their vote, according to the Whatsonstage.com source – who are entitled to ‘write in’ a nomination before they then vote on the final shortlists.
Subsequently, the panel reconvenes to make their votes on these shortlists, ranking nominees in order of preference. This data is then put into a computer system by SOLT, with the winners’ results meant kept secret until the awards ceremony.
The panellist who spoke to Whatsonstage.com said that, at the long-listing stage, pressure was applied to include particular individuals and/or productions. In addition, when the shortlists were returned, several names were included which had not even made the initial long-list, leaving many of the judges “quite upset” in feeling that the eventual nominations were not a true reflection of their assessments on the year’s theatre.
Of the system of SOLT members voting for the final shortlist, the Whatsonstage.com source says, “I would like it to be scrapped immediately and the panel reinstated as the forum for decision-making, without any interference. This is what SOLT must do to restore the Oliviers’ reputation and keep it as an award based on genuine artistic merit and not box office or starring names.”
Plays versus musicals
One of the most controversial and headline-grabbing decisions from this year’s list of nominations was Mourning Becomes Electra’s Eve Best, whose omission from the Best Actress category prompted outraged protests on the Whatsonstage.com Discussion Forum. Awards chairman Wilkins told TheatreVoice.com that SOLT members who may have voted according to reputation particularly where they have not seen a performance could account for why Best – a Critics’ Circle winner and Whatsonstage.com nominee - was overlooked in favour of her more high-profile co-star Helen Mirren.
However, the Whatsonstage.com source reveals that equally contentious amongst the panellists themselves was the Best Director category, in which, unusually, three of this year’s four nominees are directors of musicals. In addition to being influenced by the commercial preferences of SOLT members, the source believes this ‘outrage’ is due to the incongruous nature of having two panels. With panellists only permitted to vote for contenders from their respective genres, the advantage is heavily weighted towards musicals in crossover awards fields.
“Those on the Plays panel had 60 shows to choose from and many of those were excellent,” the panellist explained to Whatsonstage.com. “The Musicals panel had more like six shows to choose from, but our votes in technical categories are worth the same. The Plays people will generally have varying views on the best due to the sheer range, whereas the Musicals people have a more limited and obvious choice. Thus, in Best Director, our votes either cancel each other out, or give a boost to one of the few musicals against a split field of excellent plays.”
Calls for change
The Whatsonstage.com panellist calls for a major overhaul of the Oliviers process of selection, to include an abolition of the musicals panel in favour of one non-professionals panel that sees everything and the end of shortlist voting by the SOLT membership which “makes a mockery of the panel”. “All in all, I think most of the recipients this Sunday will be deserving, but the Olivier Awards certainly has a democratic deficit that is not good for the overall prestige or reputation of the awards.”
Mark Shenton, contributing editor to Whatsonstage.com and theatre critic for the Sunday Express adds: “Awards ceremonies are, by their nature, an imprecise and subjective science - there can only be one winner for each category - regardless of whoever it is who decides the nominees and the ultimate winners. But if they're to mean anything, they need a sense of transparency - a clear indication of who is deciding what so we at least know what's behind each choice. The Laurence Olivier Awards, by muddling the decisions of the panel they've appointed to see everything on their behalf, with the vested interests of their own members who can overrule the panel when it comes to the nominations process, fails at this most basic stage.”
Richard Pulford, chief executive of SOLT, told Whatsonstage.com that many of the points made by the public panellist were “rather non-sensical” and disputes that pressure was applied. In this year’s voting, he says, any last-minute nominations were added by panellists themselves rather than SOLT members. “There is nothing odd about an awards organisation in which its members vote,” says Pulford. “That is true of the Oscars and just about every other awards system. What distinguishes the Oliviers – and, I think, to our credit – is that members do not decide the eventual winners.”
- by Terri Paddock