The Washington Post

February 8, 2006
Hayes Awards Announces Nominees
Group Reports Drop In Theater Attendance
By Jane Horwitz

The nominations for the Helen Hayes Awards, announced last night at the National Theatre, came as welcome news to numerous area theater companies -- but numbers released with the nominations indicate a dropoff in attendance.

The Shakespeare Theatre Company received 19 nominations -- one more than Signature Theatre -- for the awards, which honor Washington area theaters for shows produced last year.

The Hayes Awards organization, however, reported an 8.5 percent drop in attendance compared with 2004, as well as a decrease in the number of theater companies producing shows. In recent seasons, the usual fluctuation in attendance had been plus or minus 4 to 6 percent.

The Hayes Awards' executive director, Linda Levy Grossman, said she does not see gloom in the attendance drop because most of the decreases occurred at spaces that bring in touring shows, such as the National Theatre, the Warner Theatre and the Kennedy Center. "Eighty-two percent of those decreases occurred at theaters that traditionally present mostly non-resident work," she said.

In other words, she said, the problem is not with local theater.

"I don't know anything about the touring companies," said Jennifer L. Nelson, president of the League of Washington Theatres and artistic director of African Continuum Theatre Company. "I know only anecdotally from other theaters -- and of course from my own theater -- that pretty much across the board, people were experiencing some decline in shows," especially this past fall, she said.

According to the Hayes Awards, nine fewer local troupes were producing last year (56, compared with 65 in 2004). There also were more than 5 percent fewer performances (7,169, compared with 7,582 in 2004), and 8.5 percent fewer tickets were sold in 2005 (1,952,405) than a year earlier (2,133,731).

"This is a thing we have been talking about kind of amongst ourselves," Nelson said of those in the theater community, "but there hasn't been any kind of academic statistical data behind it."

As for the nominations, multi-nominated productions were more evenly distributed between musicals and straight plays -- a bit of a departure from past years, when musicals tended to dominate among the multiple nominees.

Signature Theatre's acidic musical "Urinetown" received a leading dozen nominations. Arena Stage's "Damn Yankees" got seven, one ahead of Ford's Theatre's "Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" and Signature's "Pacific Overtures."

Among plays, the Shakespeare Theatre's "Othello" received eight nominations, two more than Woolly Mammoth's "The Clean House." Round House's impressionistic riff on the Columbine shootings, "columbinus," and Theater J's "Hannah & Martin" each received five.

Helen Hayes judges include theater and arts professionals, academics, "learned theatergoers" and journalists, Grossman said. In a change of policy last year, the pool of nearly 60 judges was divided into three specialized panels: One focused on new works, one on musicals and one on straight plays. Productions must run at least 16 performances to be eligible.

The winners will be announced at a gala April 17 at the Warner Theatre.

In the ever-thinning, less differentiated categories for touring shows, the combinations sometimes verge on the bizarre. Under Outstanding Lead Actor in a Non-Resident Production, for instance, are card-trickster/raconteur Ricky Jay for "Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants," Jefferson Mays in the solo piece "I Am My Own Wife" and comedic stalwarts Joe Sears and Jaston Williams for "Red, White and Tuna."

Actresses nominated for lead roles in non-resident shows make for an improbable group, too: Vanessa Redgrave, railing against war in "Hecuba," is up against Stephanie J. Block as the misunderstood Elphaba in "Wicked"; Kendra Kassebaum as Elphaba's nemesis, Glinda; Keala Settle as the teen heroine in "Hairspray"; and Amy Ziff of the alternative girl-rock group Betty in "Betty Rules: The Exception to the Musical."

Notable nominations also went to Eunice Wong's extraordinary work as the teen genius in Studio Theatre Secondstage's "The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow" and Deidra Starnes's poignant and powerful rendering of a genocide survivor in African Continuum's "I Have Before Me a Remarkable Document Given to Me by a Young Lady From Rwanda"; Daniel Breaker's droll Dromio in "The Comedy of Errors" at the Shakespeare; Rick Foucheux's heartbreaking accountant in Studio's "Take Me Out"; Felix Solis's powerhouse work in multiple roles in "Passion Play, a Cycle"; and Jennifer Mendenhall's urgent work in "You Are Here" at Theater Alliance and "Sophocles' Electra" at MetroStage.

Blake Robison, during his first season as artistic director at Round House, saw his theater get 13 nominations, four of them for shows done under his first half-year there -- "Camille," which he directed, and "A Year With Frog & Toad."

Brad Oscar, who returned to his Washington roots from extended runs on Broadway and in London as Max in "The Producers," received a nomination as Outstanding Lead Actor in a resident musical for his turn as the Devil in Arena's "Damn Yankees." Journeymen Theater, the fledgling company dedicated to exploring Christian ideas in its plays, received a nomination for Lindsay Allen as supporting actress in "An Experiment With an Air Pump."

Now a salute to the good shows and performances that did not receive nominations: Synetic's "Bohemians"; Scena's rendering of Aeschylus's "The Persians"; Theater Alliance's "Headsman's Holiday" and its "Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde."

In addition: Catalyst's "Cloud 9"; Keegan's "Side Man"; Washington Stage Guild's "Incorruptible" and its "Humble Boy"; Rep Stage's "Kimberly Akimbo"; Washington Shakespeare Company's "The Royal Hunt of the Sun" and "Medea"; and Rorschach's "The Bard of Avon."

Other worthy shows not nominated: Gala Hispanic Theatre's "Yerma," Olney Theatre Center's "Omnium Gatherum," and Studio Theatre's "Black Milk" and "Afterplay." And what about Arena Stage's terrific "The Goat Or, Who Is Sylvia?," directed by Wendy C. Goldberg, and "Anna Christie," staged by artistic director Molly Smith? What about more nods for the Shakespeare Theatre's "Comedy of Errors" and director Douglas C. Wager? And do not forget Hunter Foster's priceless Ensign Pulver in the Kennedy Center's fine revival of "Mr. Roberts."


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