SECOND THEATRE AWARDS CONTROVERSY THIS YEAR
Reacting to the selection of nominees for the 28th annual Joseph Jefferson "Jeff" Awards, honoring excellence in Chicago's Equity theatres, four major Chicago theatres -- The Goodman, Steppenwolf, Victory Gardens and Marriott's Lincolnshire Theatre (known collectively as "The Big Four" -- pulled out of the nominating process for next season. The reason? The Jeff Committee's policy of not allowing multiple winners in categories.
It's the second major brouhaha over theatre awards in 1996. Earlier this year, the Tony Awards provoked controversy by failing to nominate Big and Victor/Victoria as Best Musical, leading to Julie Andrews renouncing her nomination as Best Actress.
The theatres' discontent with Jeff policy had been under discussion for 15 years, but the pull-out came as a shock to the Jeff Committee. Reached by phone, Jerry Proffit, Chairman of the Jeff's Equity Wing, said the severity of the move was as hurtful as it was surprising. "The initial letter from the theatres went out in late January. Our  members were about to vote on changing the procedure. The ballots went out, with a deadline of October fifth. You'd think the theatres would at least wait to see how that came out before doing this."
In response, managing director of Marriott's Lincolnshire Theatre Kary Walker pointed out that the four theatres involved approached the Jeffs back in March. "We held a meeting, and they seemed to listen, they asked questions... It seemed clear that we'd be part of the process of changing the system. But months went by -- nothing." When I respond that perhaps the Jeffs were waiting for the results of their Oct. 5 ballot, Walker countered that the vote was basically moot. "First of all, we [the theatres] had no input. It's this secret organizational ballot which the Jeffs want to present us with after it's all over. That's not the way it can work. Also, they told us the substance of what's in the ballot. But we asked, point blank, does the system you're voting on still allow for single winners? They said yes, and we said we're outta here."
"We warned them in March," Walker continued. "We actually gave them a long grace period because we were talking about the changes for THIS season [95-96]."
* The theatres' dissension strikes many as rather confusing, since the Jeffs are already known for resulting in ties in many categories (as opposed to, say, New York's Tony Awards, where ties are extremely rare). Jerry Proffit explained the difference between ties and multiple winners: "Multiple winners are judged by percentages. So let's say there are five nominees in a category. One was on 76% of the ballots, another was mentioned on 73%, a third on 72%. And then the other two were in the sixties and lower. Multiple winners would essentially create a tie for the top three."
Rather than spare non-winners' feelings, the new system could prove embarrassing, because losers would automatically know they lost by a significant margin. Proffit agreed. "But the theatres want their awards, for them it simply means more awards."
Kary Walker's response was markedly different: "It's about fairness. With the Tony Awards you're dealing with a finite number of big Broadway theatres. The Jeffs lump all the Equity playhouses together, no matter what size. The idea is to make it less competitive between the big and the small."
"I got here eighteen years ago," he continued. "Back then there were seven or eight Equity houses. Now these judges have to see over a hundred shows per year -- and that's not including the non-Equity stuff. It's too much work. But more important, my theatre, Steppenwolf, the Goodman -- these are the largest theatre budgets in Chicago. It's just not fair to the little guys to have to compete on that level. We're doing this for their sake, for the good of Chicago theatre in general."
Roche (pronounced "rock") Schulfer, Executive Director of the Goodman Theatre, echoed Walker in calling for "an ongoing formal relationship" between the Jeffs and the producers. "Chicago theatre is so large and diverse, and the current system can no longer do justice to it. The Jeffs Committees are very hard working and have done wonderful things for the theatre community, but it's a self-perpetuating committee... On Broadway, at least you're comparing oranges and oranges. In Chicago you can't take this wide a range of theatre and reduce it the same way."
* Proffit took a moment to explain some of the endlessly complicated and fascinating procedures involved in selecting Jeff Award nominees. His first clarification was the difference between Jeff Awards and Jeff Citations. Citations are given to non-Equity Chicago theatres, and they DO use a multiple nomination system. Because Citations are given to much smaller theatres, with less revenue and fewer resources, Citations are seen as more of a helping hand and a leg up. By contrast, regular Jeff Awards deal with professional Chicago theatres.
Back to the process: "Five members see an Equity production on opening night. That night, they phone in their ballots. If three of the judges vote for the same element in the show, and one other judge picks the same or another element, the show is officially a Jeff nominee. That's when the other 35 members have to go see it. By the end of the season, all the ballots are counted, and the official nominations are tallied."
* The difference in the current dispute ultimately boils down to the theatres wanting a non-competitive celebration of the Chicago theatre scene, while the Jeff Committee sees more value to a traditional, status quo awards ceremony.
Walker recalled that four years ago, Marriott pulled out of the Jeffs "for about a week" for roughly the same reasons. "I took so much heat and we were alone, so I bowed to the pressure. But the issue came up again, and this time the four of us said, `let's do it.'"
Despite the hard words, both Proffit and Walker see light at the end of the tunnel. "This doesn't affect the current season," both men affirmed, with Walker saying his shows would not boycott the awards ceremony (actors attend on their own nickel -- tickets are $35 for Equity members). "In our heart of hearts, we think this will all work out. On the other side of all the hubbub, changes will be a good thing for both sides."
Schulfer, Executive Director of the Goodman Theatre, was more uncertain. "It's been very painful to get to this step," he said. "And we had to do it before the Jeff nominations were announced or else it could look like sour grapes. Right now the ball is in the Jeff Committee's court."
According to Schulfer, so far the Jeffs have not been in touch.
The Jefferson Awards were named after Joseph Jefferson, a member of the first professional theatre company to play in Chicago -- in 1837. His father and grandfather managed the company. In 1867 he returned to Chicago; by then he was already famous for playing Rip Van Winkle and -- says the official Jeff statement -- "elevating the role of the actor in the theatre."
-- By David Lefkowitz