"I'll take any trophy. I don't care what it says on it." —Mary-Louise Parker
After the announcement of this year's Ovation Awards nominees — the awards will be presented Nov. 14 at a black-tie do at downtown's Orpheum Theatre — the Twitter feeds were buzzing with excitement. After all, the Ovations are L.A. theater's answer to the Tonys, which are like New York's answer to the Academy Awards, which are like the movie industry's answer to the Grammys, which are like the music industry's answer to the Emmys ... you get the idea.
Broadway producers concur that a Tony for Best Musical will create a box office spike. Yet the Ovations, along with all other L.A. theater awards ceremonies — including the L.A. Weekly Theater Awards — don't make a dent. By the time the Ovations happen in November, many of the front-running musicals in larger theaters have closed or left town. And for productions in a theater of 99 seats or less, the critical and word-of-mouth praise that predated their Ovations already has them doing well at the box office.
The Ovations are the only peer-judged contest in Southern California; they reward excellence in theaters that happen to be dues-paying members of the ceremony's producer, the Los Angeles Stage Alliance. This has raised charges of "pay to play," since a number of local theaters have bowed out of LASA membership on principle. "The pay-to-play exclusiveness has always bothered me," says playwright Colin Mitchell of local theater aggregator/commentary site Bitter-Lemons.com. "If they're not members, they don't even get a look in."
Mitchell says he's jazzed that so many people get excited by the Ovations and is reluctant to rain on anybody's parade, but he quibbles with the awards' nonjuried system. "I think pretty much anybody can be a judge who has an affiliation with L.A. theater. What happens then becomes a bit of a popularity contest," he says.
Doug Clayton, director of programming and operations for L.A. Stage Alliance, explains that of the 250 Ovation voters, half are artistic directors and half are independent voters currently working professionally in L.A. for at least five years. The application process involves submitting a résumé and writing an essay evaluating a show.
Each voter, within two weeks of seeing a show, creates a scoring sheet, voting 1 to 10 under specified categories. At the end of the year, Clayton says, "We take all the numerical votes and average them. It's just statistics. No revotes at the end. No meetings." (The rules committee can adjust categories.)
The larger issue may not be the worthiness of juried awards (such as the critic-judged L.A. Drama Critics Circle Awards, the L.A. Weekly Theater Awards and Back Stage's Garland Awards) versus peers (Ovations), but whether consensus will ever lead to rewarding work of the highest innovation and quality.
Dany Margolies, the L.A.-based executive editor of Back Stage, presenter of the annual Garland Awards, says that under their system, each critic submits a list with a prescribed number of nominees for the various categories. If a nominee appears on the lists of three or more critics, he or she receives a Garland. "And you know, if critics can agree on something, it's a major achievement," she says.
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Variety's Bob Verini, president of the L.A. Drama Critics Circle, says of his group's awards, "It's exciting to me that we don't have a hard and fast number of recipients in any category. This allows us to express our collective enthusiasm for achievements as we find them, not according to some artificial, preset limit."
Each of the awards struggles with what Verini aptly calls "collective enthusiasm," and whether that enthusiasm signals something that's excellent or something that's popular.
For more on the Ovation Awards, visit lastagealliance.com/ovation_awards.htm.