So how is it going? Thirteen months ago, when the Kevin Kline Awards were announced as the catalyst for the newly formed Professional Theatre Awards Council of Greater St. Louis, no one knew what to expect. Could the new venture heighten awareness about local theater? Or would it become mired in petty bickering? In an act of rare unanimity, almost every area theater, large or small, decided to give the neophyte group a chance to try to forge something tangible out of that usually nebulous phrase "theater community."
The initial press release, dated November 1, 2004, predicted that "over 80 productions" would be considered for the new awards. And in fact 79 shows were judged in 2005 for direction, acting, choreography, design. With judging completed and nominations set to be announced in five weeks, we chatted with Kathleen Sitzer, artistic director of New Jewish Theatre, with two of the thirty-six judges Doug Finlayson, associate professor of theater at Webster University and Rob Townsend, producing director of the Shakespeare Festival of St. Louis and with PTAC executive director Steve Isom, to take stock.
Dennis Brown: The Kevin Kline Awards are not like the Oscars, where you wait till you've seen everything and then vote. Judging goes show by show. How did that play out?
Doug Finlayson: Every single time I went to judge a play, I was excited. Getting to see a wide mix of things was one of the benefits. I think I saw twelve plays, and never the same company twice. On the one hand, you'd see a big show at the Muny. But then you'd see something with two chairs and four lights. I did not find that discrepancy of experiences difficult to judge.
Rob Townsend: I too saw companies that I hadn't seen before. Spotlight, Stray Dog, Upstream I found that it was not difficult to look at each individual production on its own merits, based on the resources available to that organization.
Steve Isom: Judges are supposed to turn in their ballots within 24 hours. They are specifically instructed not to compare shows.
Kathleen Sitzer: I think one of the really important things that happened this year was the development of the Kevin Kline Awards poster. To go into a theater lobby and see that poster listing all the participating companies provides a tremendous service to the theater community. It also serves to level the playing field, because a company like Muddy Waters that is struggling for recognition is listed right next to the Muny.
Finlayson: Awards are nice, but the mission of this group is to increase the recognition and presence of theaters in St. Louis. The poster really goes to the heart of that purpose.
Townsend: I agree with Doug. If this were simply about awards, it might just promote competition, which is not what this is about. This is a way to encourage not just the theater community, but the entire community, that there's a lot of vibrant stuff going on in St. Louis.
What if the nominations come out on January 19 and New Jewish doesn't receive any? How will you feel then about awards?
Sitzer: Of course we want to get our recognition through a nomination and hopefully an award or two. But we know that there are twenty-five participating theaters; we know that there are seven judges for every production. Who knows what's going to happen? Of course I won't be happy if we get nothing. But I think this is a worthy cause, and if we don't make it this year, we'll make it another year.
Townsend: The Shakespeare Festival may be the least considered of all theaters, because we only do one mainstage play per year. I know I'm one of 79 productions, but that's the roll of the dice.
So, if there are 25 participating theaters and 79 shows to choose from, what if, after all that variety and collegiality, the Rep wins Best Play for Take Me Out and Best Musical for Crowns?
Townsend: I would not be disappointed if those two shows won. They were both superb examples of a theater using its resources well. I wouldn't be surprised if the Rep won several awards. Having staged fifteen productions, they have more opportunities than everyone else.
Sitzer: If that happens, I would not be at all surprised to hear a lot of sour-grapes talk in the theater community, but some of those out-of-joint noses will be people who don't understand the process. Those of us who are invested in the process trust it. And if the Rep does end up with a lot of awards
Townsend: it doesn't mean the rest of us did badly. It means they marshaled their forces and did a wonderful job. They should be recognized.
Finlayson: I think there is not an agenda, but a spirit among the judges that finding art where you don't think art is possible is a very powerful thing, and the judges will respond to that. I'm thinking about some of the scenic things that have happened at New Jewish this year. That space is three sides and a wall. And somebody makes magic in there? I think that is what is going to win the day in the end.
What is the definition of "professional theater" in St. Louis?
Isom: That was the first big issue we had to deal with. We decided to be inclusive, to include any theater that makes the effort to compensate its actors, designers and directors, and then stages at least six performances. Our goal is not to exclude, but to grow theater in St. Louis. If we get 1 percent of the Muny audience to go to some of these smaller companies, they're made.
Finlayson: I've been asking myself, what is the downside of the Kevin Kline Awards? And I don't see a downside. A small company gets on the poster, and that's enough. Maybe they don't get any nominations, but the idea of being considered as part of a larger community is such a positive, just as having the Rep be acknowledged as part of that larger community is valuable to the Rep as well.
Townsend: I do have one disappointment, which is that the Black Rep wasn't considered. They do strong work. They're a force to be reckoned with. Everyone should be clear that this was their choice. But their decision to exclude themselves makes the theater community weaker.
Sitzer: At New Jewish I'm producing culturally specific theater. The Black Rep's mission is very similar to ours, just a different cultural group. Their exclusion makes me sad, because I think they are missing a great opportunity.
Isom: I have great respect for the Black Rep, and for [producing director] Ron Himes. Of course we want them to be part of the process. We went to Ron very early. He was one of the first people we wanted to get involved. We do respect their right to not participate. It's their decision, and they made that decision. But on our side the door is open. Call me tomorrow and you're part of the process.
Between now and the awards ceremony on March 20, what is the worst-case scenario for the Kevin Kline Awards?
Isom: The worst-case scenario would be if the nominations came out and a lot of the theater owners were disgruntled and felt it hadn't been fair. I know everybody's not going to be happy; someone will feel they didn't get a fair shake. I just hope the fact that we tried so hard to make it a fair and credible process will ease us through that period. I of course would like all the nominees to be spread out over the theaters. But if it ends up going heavily with one or two theaters, that's just the way it is. We set up the system to be as fair as possible, and if that's the way it shakes out, it's fine.