With the first hint of Spring comes a veritable flurry of theatrical gong-giving, and this week sees not just our very own Whatsonstage.com Theatregoers' Choice Awards, but also the bash hosted by the Critics Circle proving (probably) once again that what the theatregoer loves, the professional critic detests.

And then, not two weeks later, comes the "Daddy" of British theatre awards, the Oliviers. Though technically, it is only really the "Central London" theatre awards, excluding as it does any work that wasn't presented in a SOLT (Society of London Theatre) member's auditorium.

Of course, the Evening Standard awards have already been and gone, their favours having been bestowed back in November. A cynic may think the timing has more to do with them needing to free up the spring for the more glamorous ES Film Awards. But, who knows, there may be an unexplained logic to why an awards event to celebrate the year in theatre is hosted before the year is over. It's a busy old schedule anyway, whichever way you look at it.

Who cares & does it matter?

Naturally, it depends on your point of view. If you aren't nominated and you don't win then, of course, awards are a trivial bit of fun. But, if you are in the running for a prize, things become a little more serious. Press an actor or director who professes to be "only doing it for the art," and you'll likely as not get an acknowledgement that it feels good to be recognised by one's peers or public.

Unlike the Oscars, where a win can quantifiably add millions to a flagging film's fortunes, the economic benefit of theatre awards is hard to gauge. Often the winner's run has closed before the presentation but, if any of the prizes provide increased impetus to a show's marketing and encourage new audiences to seek them out, they have to be seen as a good thing.

With such a spate of ceremonies and announcements we can be thankful each award has its own characteristics and idiosyncrasies to keep them all from looking a little "me too".

Trial by Public

Unashamedly starting with our own little contribution, the Whatsonstage.com Theatregoers' Choice Awards make no excuses for putting the views of the ticket-buying pubic, en masse, at the head of the queue.

Yes, this approach is always open to criticism and, God forbid, populism in the roster of victors but then, ultimately, shows stand or fall based on what the public is prepared to part with cash for, not what people who are given their tickets for free think about them.

From humble beginnings two years ago, our Theatregoers' Choice awards are starting to establish themselves and so they should (in our obviously biased opinion!). This year some 16,000 people took the time to vote on their selections for their favourite shows, performers and creative team members, in addition to the 1,100 who participated in the much more arduous nominations phase.

Keeping Up Standards

The Evening Standard Drama Awards have the longest pedigree but also have the greatest mystique. A small voting panel of professional critics, including the Standard's own hard-to-please Nicholas de Jongh, have always determined the choices here.

The winners are informed of their status in advance of the 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 restrict itself to arbitrary divisions of London theatre into West End and Fringe and generously includes what it considers to be the capital's best theatre, no matter the venue.

The Critics' Circle

The Critics' Circle is the corduroy blazer with leather elbow patches of the awards calendar. The perception (if not the reality) is of a rather stuffy gathering of intellectuals, which has been dishing out plaudits regularly 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.

The Critics' Circle, though, was also the first to recognise the importance of giving separate awards to most the promising playwright and most promising newcomer (other than a playwright), and to have a separate award for Best Shakespearean Performance.

Larry's Still the Daddy

Whatever the change in fortunes of other awards events and their popularity, there can be no argument, however, that Larry is still the Daddy of theatre awards. Presented, each spring, by the Society of London Theatre - 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 Theatre (SWET - you can appreciate the name-change, surely), in 1984 these awards were renamed in honour of England's most celebrated stage actor, Sir Laurence Olivier, and their status improved.

But with the glamorous Sunday evening award ceremony now replaced by an on-the-hop weekday lunchtime event, the Oliviers are no longer seen as exclusive as they used to be or, arguably, should be. Certainly, the BBC has done a grand job of shuffling them into the scheduling equivalent of a broom cupboard for the last few years, starving the industry of a much-needed national showcase of why theatre is still relevant.

The Oliviers remain, however, as predictably unpredictable. With long-list input from SOLT members, they awards are decided by an invited jury of professional experts in conjunction with members of the public who apply 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.

The sadness of the Oliviers is that they only represent those shows put on in the West End and ignore many great works at venues further a field. Legitmately, SOLT would argue that it's a members club, but it is hard to see how such an event can be representative when some of London's most interesting producing spaces, such as the Almeida, don't qualify.

Like 'em or loathe 'em?

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.

In what can best be described as "difficult" times for the industry, it can only be hoped that the announcement of an award, any award, helps to bring in a bigger audience to sample what the theatre at its best is all about.


News, 16 Jan 2003, for a full list of this year's Olivier nominations.)