"In terms of the national conversation, we were the lowest bar," Cannon says. "It was, if not embarrassing, a little eye-opening." While the Klines required only a minimum of six performances and that artists be compensated, the other cities had more rigorous requirements. Some spelled out how much artists had to be paid or specified that only Equity artists (that is, dues-paying members of the nation's premier theater union) be considered. All of them required more shows than the Klines did.

Cannon says that theater artists — and he's speaking from personal experience, as a Kevin Kline Award winner himself and prolific actor and producer of shows in St. Louis — feel more respected and produce better work when there's a check that comes with their role.

"There is a moral obligation as producers to compensate your artists," he says. "It's not even minimum wage. Yes, it's tight. That's a producer's job. The artists need a gesture that you are appreciated."

Tony Award winner Kevin Kline came to St. Louis for the first Kline awards ceremony.
Gerry Love
Tony Award winner Kevin Kline came to St. Louis for the first Kline awards ceremony.
Steve Isom at the inaugural Kline ceremony.
Steve Isom at the inaugural Kline ceremony.

So the board took the other cities' criteria back home to St. Louis and started drafting a version that would work here. ("We cribbed a lot," Cannon allows.)

The board reached out to local companies, holding roundtable discussions and crafting a document using input garnered through the discussions. He says the document has evolved through the discussions and e-mail chains and is likely to continue to evolve.

"We are trying to be as transparent as possible," he says. "All of these [criteria] are inspired by groups around the country. We sent it to all the [St. Louis] theater companies and solicited their input."

Ninety percent of the local theater companies are already at or close to the newly required compensation levels, Cannon says. He believes it's not too much to ask the others to get in line.

And the Klines, he says, are well within their rights to ask more of their constituent theaters. Winning a Kline, or even being nominated, lends prestige to artists and theater companies. Cannon says that as the new criteria are implemented, they'll only become more of a feather in artists' caps: "If you want our services, you have to meet A, B, C and D."

He's certainly aware of grousing, online and in person, from a few theater companies. He calls the critics a "vocal minority" and says, accurately, that much of the complaining has come from companies that haven't sent representatives to the council's roundtables anyway.

"I expect one or two may walk on philosophical grounds: They are seeing something sinister that is not there," Cannon says. "We're not in the business of trying to squeeze anyone out."

Despite his confidence that the changes are a good thing, Cannon is clearly feeling some pressure.

One week after a collegial, hourlong chat over coffee, Cannon sent an e-mail to Riverfront Times — attempting to retract the entire conversation.

One of the seven other theater awards that Cannon and the rest of the board looked at was the ariZonis, the theater awards for the Phoenix area. They've got about 45 member theaters and have been running for twenty years. The president of the ariZoni Theatre Awards, Eric Chapman, and vice president of its board of directors, Scott Withers, say the awards have undergone changes of their own.

Some theaters have dropped out, and others have joined; there's been plenty of griping. Yet the awards have continued.

When Withers came onto the board four years ago, the theater company he'd been working with had recently dropped out. "Most of the community was getting sort of 'over it.' We didn't feel like it was meaning much anymore."

Their main challenges, Withers says, were standardizing the scoring and teasing apart the awards for professional actors from a separate set for amateurs and youth theaters. (The ariZonis are one of the few awards in the country that consider youth theater.)

The Phoenix group looked at Philadelphia's Barrymores and started vetting and training their judges more extensively. Chapman says most of their rules are in the interest of simplicity of scheduling adjudicators and other administrative reasons.

The ariZonis explicitly created separate judging and awards for Equity versus non-contracted productions, which Withers and Chapman say made a big difference in the awards' perceived value.

"When you do this not as a hobby but as a living, you want to be adjudicated by people who you realize are also professionals in the field," Withers says.

Since the split four years ago, Chapman says that the awards mean more to everyone.

"You'll see on résumés, 'ariZoni winner,' 'ariZoni nominee,'" he says. "It's a validation."

But it wasn't smooth, the pair stresses.

"One of the major youth theaters pulled out," Withers says. "They haven't come back, but we ask them every year." A prominent contract theater company, too, has bowed out, saying they don't see how it's fair for them to compete, with all the resources at their disposal.

Pain or no, the ariZonis are growing — their awards gala this September was the biggest ever, drawing more than 600 people.

"There's always naysayers, that's true of any awards," Withers says. "There's people who just don't get into it. These changes have been in effect for just four years now, and people are getting more into it."

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