The Kevins Turn Two, Part 2

Week of February 8, 2007

[Editor's note: This is the conclusion of a two-part essay. For the opening salvo, see last week's issue.]In its brief two-year existence, the Kevin Kline Awards has done much right. The Web site is a fabulous resource; I am already dependent on it for information. High school students are seeing theater for free in Kline's name, which is a wise investment in the future. And last year's awards ceremony provided a deserved evening of fun and celebration; next month's party should have the same happy effect. But right now loud mutterings can be heard about some of the current nominations. Are people merely venting their disappointment? Or is this a systemic concern?

Let's consider the judging. The by-laws for the Professional Theatre Awards Council (which administers the Kevins) are clear: "The judging pool will be comprised of individuals with a broad knowledge of theatre...university professors, critics, knowledgeable audience members and members of the community...boards and staffs of theatres, actors, directors and designers." No wonder the results are confusing. By including everyone except ushers in the judging process (what's wrong with ushers?), the PTAC is trying to be all things to all people.

Perhaps the breadth of the judging pool should be narrowed. Here's a thought: Critics should not be allowed to vote for the Kevins. We already have our say. And by eliminating critics, you nip any hint of even an appearance of conflict of interest. Last year, for instance, I raved about Colleen Backer's dazzling turn in Act Inc.'s The Importance of Being Earnest. If I were also a judge (which I am not), and Backer was then to receive a nomination (which, alas, she did not), even if I had not been one of the pool of seven Earnest judges, nevertheless the rumor would have quickly spread that I'd wielded my influence to help get her a nod. (I'm hearing that same charge leveled against critics re: some of this year's nominees.) Better for reviewers to keep our distance and avoid double-dipping.

Another suggestion: Because shows are not to be compared with one another, judges are expected to submit their ballots immediately after seeing a production. That doesn't always happen; it should. Any judge who fails to meet the deadline for submitting a ballot should be summarily dropped. No first warning; no second chance. You're out! There's a waiting list of would-be judges who will take the job seriously.

Next: The categories for "Outstanding Ensemble" in a play or musical should be reworded to read "Outstanding Ensemble Acting" in a play or musical. Frankly, I don't understand these categories, and I don't think the judges do either. According to Webster's New World College Dictionary, "ensemble" means "complementary articles of dress." My own definition of "ensemble acting" has to do with actors reading each others' minds, anticipating one another and forging an onstage bond of such high caliber that not a single role stands out as a weak link. I don't know the definition for this year's "ensemble/play" nominees, but it wasn't that. All I remember, for instance, of The Probe is people tossing suitcases around. If you want to consider The Probe for choreography, fine. But if hurling a valise qualifies as ensemble acting, we might as well nominate the luggage handlers at the airport.

I did see five plays in 2006 that could have filled out a category for my definition for Outstanding Ensemble Acting in a Play — none of which were nominated. They were, in order of appearance:

· Yellowman (Rep Studio), in which the two-person cast was so bonded as to seem joined at the hip.

· Humble Boy (Rep Studio), where an acting ensemble mined the rich ore of a script that in New York had only panned fool's gold.

· The Sugar Syndrome (Echo Theatre Company) was made memorable by two lead actors in wonderful union, abetted by two supporting actors who held even with them.

· Drama at Inish (ACT Inc), wherein the entire company shared in the pleasure of elevating an obscure play into an evening of rare charm.

· Noises Off (ACT Inc) is the most inexcusably egregious omission of the five. Any judge who could not recognize this breathless farce as ensemble acting should voluntarily surrender his credentials and go back to paying for theater tickets — but only after a mandatory visit to his oculist.

It's not that the judges should only vote for the plays I admire. But what's needed here is the establishment of clearly defined, agreed-upon parameters for all the categories. Within those parameters, of course, there's room for latitude; that's what makes horse races and awards shows. There's no shame in an actor, director or designer not being nominated. Those who work at theater will tell you that their careers are not so much a quest for awards as they are a pursuit of rewards. But given the fact that the Kevins are here, they're constructive, and they're fun, every single person who is being judged at least deserves to know that he or she is being measured on an even playing field.

 
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