May 11th, 2010 By Rick Pender | Arts | Posted In: Theater, Arts community

Local Theater Awards: How Much Is Enough?


Greater Cincinnati has two awards programs that recognize our excellent theater scene. Perhaps that’s good news, but you might wonder if this kind of competition between competitions is the best way to go.

First, a bit of history and background. The Cincinnati Entertainment Awards (CEAs) were established by CityBeat in 1996, using theater critics from all the local media to determine nominees; I have served as the CEA’s de facto organizer from the beginning. (CityBeat initially paired theater recognition with its celebration of the local music scene, but the two award programs were separated in 2005.) The Acclaim Awards were created in 2006 and are largely supported by The Cincinnati Enquirer and managed by theater critic Jackie Demaline.

The two programs take different approaches. The CEAs are modeled on the Tonys and similar programs in cities like Chicago, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. Every year as the theater season winds up, I assemble a panel of willing theater critics from various publications around Greater Cincinnati. (In the early years of the CEAs, Demaline joined our deliberations.) We discuss the year’s productions and outstanding work by various actors and theater companies in order to assemble five nominees for the established categories (20 in 2009).

With that process the CEAs have annually identified roughly 100 performers and productions. The public is invited to vote for nominees in 12 categories during a month-long period via CityBeat’s Web site; thousands regularly cast votes. The critics panel chooses the winner in eight additional categories best judged by people who see a lot of theater. Recognition is handed out at an annual event late in August, just before the new season begins. The evening includes honoring the recipient of the League of Cincinnati Theatres’ “award for continuing achievement” with induction into the CEA Hall of Fame.

Acclaim awards are announced throughout the year in The Enquirer and via a dedicated Web site, often while productions are still onstage. They're determined by a set of people drawn from a large panel of “critics, educators, practitioners and savvy theatergoers” who attend shows. The same individuals don't attend every production, but it’s assumed that Demaline is part of the decision-making since she reviews most shows, manages the judging process and writes the reports that appear in the newspaper when a production is granted Acclaim recognition.

Categories are loosely defined (and often invented to fit a particular situation, event or performance); distinctions are drawn between Equity and non-Equity productions and between university programs and professional theaters. Community theaters haven't previously been included in the Acclaims, although a new wrinkle this year will offer “audience voting” as part of the “Best of the Season” recognition; those attending the May 24 event at the Aronoff Center’s Jarson-Kaplan Theater will choose their favorite community theater and professional musical theater productions.

(Curiously, in announcing this new development in The Enquirer on April 25, the community theater nominees included two shows that hadn't opened yet — Cincinnati Music Theatre’s Curtains and Footlighters’ The Wedding Singer — and among the nominees for “professional musical theater productions” were two shows presented by area universities, CCM’s Hair and NKU’s Bye Bye Birdie.)

So far during the 2009-10 season, 64 Acclaim winners have been announced (the total includes 10 for Cincinnati Playhouse’s production of Three Sisters). The Acclaims, which have a stated purpose of “building audiences by identifying, celebrating and inspiring excellence in Cincinnati theater,” culminate with an annual event — it’s coming on May 24 — when “major category” winners are announced. That evening, which offers a pre-show reception and an after-party, also supports some of the Acclaims broader purposes, honoring outstanding high school teachers and “rising stars” from local university programs.

Funds raised by the annual event and during the season with various special performances and programs enable grants to small theaters that could not otherwise afford to hire professional actors. That makes for better theater for everyone.

Both the CEAs and the Acclaims are about recognizing excellence, but are two programs necessary? Would it be make sense to bring them together into one recognition event? What form should that take? Is it important to have outstanding performances cited while shows are still running? Should there be online public voting or voting by the audience at the award event, or should decisions be made by a group of informed insiders? Should various kinds of theater productions — shows by professional companies, alternative events, university performances and community theater productions that feature talented amateurs — be segregated or compared?

I personally think Cincinnati theater would benefit from one solid, well-managed program. I’m working behind the scenes to see what might be done.

Of course, I’m proud of and partial to the CEAs, since I’ve shepherded the program for 15 seasons now. But I also believe that the Acclaims have considerable merit, often recognizing many of the same shows and actors who earn CEAs. I also admire the program's broader impact on theaters, teachers and young performers.

I don’t have all the answers as to what a singular effort should look like, but I can envision a structure that would combine the best elements of each program. I have my own thoughts, to be sure, but I’d like to hear yours. I will keep writing about this topic, and I plan to use my CityBeat column and this blog to share thoughts from theater fans and those engaged in performing and presenting shows.

Check out the Acclaims later this month and be on the lookout for the 2010 CEA nominations in late June after the Cincy Fringe Festival. Your opinions matter.

05.11.2010 at 07:44 Reply
My comment is from the perspective of community theater. It would be great to have a forum for recognition of community shows that isn't just a popularity contest. There are wonderful small shows that never get noticed. Why the Acclaim nominees include two shows that hadn't even opened and don't include Drama Workshop's "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," which was extraordinarily fine, is explainable only by assuming a bias toward big, better known groups. Those shows may well deserve awards, but unless all community theater shows get a chance to compete equally, the awards are not meaningful.


05.13.2010 at 11:29 Reply
Agree with revajw! It seems like the same people and the same theatre groups are always getting the CEA nominations, and then the winners are purely based on who has the biggest cast and best PR. I would like to see the Acclaims and CEA's rolled into one, with separate categories for Community Theatre and Equity theatre. Honestly, I think there should be a better way of choosing winners than by the public voting, because again - smaller casts with less people to vote cannot compete, unless you make separate groupings (ie - casts of 1-10 people and casts of 10 ). The Acclaims have this huge panel of people allegedly nominating for Acclaims, but it seems like Rick is always the one who has to see the show in order for it to be given an Acclaim. And, no offense - I find you to be pretty off the mark a lot of times, Rick. How about one panel member has to go opening weekend, that person makes nominations, and then at least 2 other panel members have to go and agree in order for an Acclaim to be given? And with a panel of 20 people, you should be able to get people to ALL shows, not just those put on by the bigger groups.


05.26.2010 at 03:16
Rick Pender here. Um, sorry but I don't handle the Acclaims (that's the Enquirer and Demaline). The awards I manage, the Cincinnati Entertainment Awards (CEAs) use nominations by a panel of local critics who assemble a ballot at the end of each season. I'm part of that CEA panel, but the awards are certainly not only my choices.


05.14.2010 at 06:34 Reply
I wholeheartedly agree, and call on the Enquirer to grow up. They've demonstrated a level of selfishness wrt awards over the years: We endured a decade of phony "Cammy" awards, alongside CEAs, only to see them vanish like smoke as budgets axed Larry Nager. "Never mind our years of belligerent grandstanding, we no longer care about awards, pass the Crazy Sauce to the commenters/webbies please." So Enquirer: Why not get ahead of the game and bail now? You know you're gonna do it sooner or later, when things get a little tough. Be a good citizen and support a single platform, and make improving it the price of your participation. I know it's a long shot, and against your nature. But give peace a chance guys... Now, that said... CEA process isn't perfect. It can use some refreshing, and a merger provides the impetus and opportunity. As a long-time voting Grammy member, I've been disappointed by uninformed, poor choices based mostly on popularity in the "open" fields vs. the juried categories. But at the same time, I've seen some committees do even more violence to the concept of rewarding excellence - Best Engineer and Producer Grammys are often a round-up of The Usual Suspects, passing the bottle round to one another (last year saw a controversial but refreshing upset as an artist won the Engineering category). The key is to rotate committee assignments and to make responsibilities clear. Grammy committee members are asked to disclose conflicts of interest. Nominees are mixed up, and circulated in a way that ensures NY entries aren't placed before NY committees, for example. The same can be done here: Big company directors and staff could judge small company categories and vice-versa. Teachers and critics can chair, with a responsibility to keep their committees balanced and deliberations fair. The major failure is not public voting, but inconsistent and nearly non-existent standards for actually experiencing what you're voting for. This is as true of judges as the general public, and is what drives the sense that all awards are popularity contests. To some extent this is unavoidable, but it's not impossible to encourage informed voting. In fact it's an opportunity... Companies and the award team could partner to offer ticket packages that span categories where likely nominees might be drawn (the Usual Suspects in any scene are pretty familiar). Small companies would include seats for these packages, and commit to the program AHEAD of the season. Patrons who buy these packages would be eligible nominators, and in the final votes, be weighted greater than the general public, or even critics, because they presumably saw (or had opportunity to see) enough performances to have a valid opinion. Critics who see many shows would be weighted a bit higher as well, but their voice should be loudest in the nominating stage. To maintain their nominating credentials, they'd be required to review some minimum number of shows. The process above should improve both the quality of nominations and the results of voting. There are other paths to the same ends. But any merger of these awards should focus on making the theater community stronger, and growing audiences. Engaging fans and patrons by empowering them as nominators and super-voters in exchange for going out more gets that done.


05.17.2010 at 07:52 Reply
I agree as well to the comments above about seperating the university theatre with the professional theatre. Also, I was confused at the nominations when I saw "Curtains" and "Wedding Singer" up for best community production. While I have seen "Curtains" and wholeheartedly agree that it should be nominated...should it really have been nominated before it opened? The CEAs seem like a popularity contest...and if your group/university is not large enough, don't expect to even get looked at. Some of the best productions I've seen this year are missing from the nominations list. Just because a show is brighter and bigger, does not mean that it is better.


05.26.2010 at 03:23
Rick Pender here. I believe the nominations you're talking about are the Acclaims, NOT the CEAs. CEAs nominations for the 2009-2010 season haven't been chosen yet.


05.23.2010 at 08:05 Reply
The theatre community in Cincinnati is a small family. Truly. We belong to a very small world. We are a group of artists who love to tell stories. I would be in favor of telling one unified story, maybe stronger for its unity, maybe not, but at least it is an idea worth pursuing, a unified theatre awards ceremony. The theatre community is fortunate indeed to have two separate groups working to bring recognition to our work through local theatre awards. Thank you. But I agree that there is sense in discussing the value of one well managed program as Rick suggests. I too have been suggesting this in various ways, for the past decade, through the ebb and flow of life as a theatre artist in Cincinnati. I think that the suggestion to discuss this idea is an important one. To borrow a page from the current divisiveness in this country for a moment, what if we also tried to reach across the aisle, so to speak, and agreed to work together to make something new together? It is right there waiting for us to grab. Thank you for suggesting this Rick. It matters. What if we tried? Really tried. That's the question. -Richard Hess, Chair, CCM Drama


05.26.2010 at 03:21
Rick Pender here. Thanks for your thoughts, Richard. Sooner rather than later there will be a moment when the Jackie Demaline and I are no longer in a position to support our respective award programs. It's my hope that by merging what we've each cultivated we might end up with one STRONG awards program that lives on for a long time. I'm willing to give this a try.