Duck and Cover: Gloria Shanstrom takes on all your Henry Awards questions

Gloria Shanstrom speaking at the 2014 Colorado Theatre Guild Henry Awards, which return to the Arvada Center on July 20. Photo by Brian Landis Folkins.

Gloria Shanstrom speaking at the Colorado Theatre Guild’s 2014 Henry Awards, which return to the Arvada Center on July 20. Photo by Brian Landis Folkins.

One day each June, Gloria Shanstrom releases the Colorado Theatre Guild’s annual Henry Awards nominations honoring outstanding achievement in Colorado theatre.

And the next day, she says … “I duck and cover.”

Shanstrom says that with the experienced laugh of an administrator who annually suffers the slings and arrows of outraged misfortune – namely, from whoever feels egregiously slighted by the latest Henry Awards nominations.

“This year, the nominations came out on a Thursday,” said Shanstrom, the Guild’s General Manager, “and on Friday, I spent a fair amount of time having conversations with people who had concerns. Then I had more conversations over the course of the weekend … and I still have a couple more phone calls to return.”

Shanstrom, who runs her own publicity company called Full Court Press, is one of the few people dedicated full-time to the betterment of the Colorado theater community. Administering the Henry Awards is a year-round and largely thankless task. Soothing myriad hurt feelings and calming frayed nerves may be her single biggest job, Westword’s Juliet Wittman once wrote.

Shanstrom has nurtured the Henrys through several controversial voting iterations since the awards were started 10 years ago in honor of producer Henry Lowenstein, who died last November. The ceremony that goes along with the awards serves as the Colorado Theatre Guild’s annual fundraiser. It replaced a lightly attended annual gala the Guild called “Celebrate Colorado Theatre.”

Turns out, if you want people to turn out for your fundraiser, you have to hand out some awards.

Shanstrom has shepherded the expansion of the Henrys statewide and has quadrupled the number of eligible productions from the earliest days. When the 2015 awards are handed out on July 20 at the Arvada Center, the winners will come from a record-high field of 187 productions, up from 174 last year.

But the Henry Awards remain a burr in many, many a bonnet in the Colorado theatre community, with most complaints fixed squarely on a capricious voting system that tends to heap disproportionate bounty on certain companies one year, and often ignores them the next.

As an officer for a statewide theatre-advocacy organization, Shanstrom has no say in the results – with one major exception. She alone determines which five companies are nominated for Outstanding Season – and which one wins. She bases her decision on each company’s overall performance in the nominations, which she does not control.

But with the absence of many of the state’s perceived top theatre companies from the nominations this year – namely the Aurora Fox, Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company, Colorado Shakespeare Festival, Creede Repertory Theatre and The Catamounts – the barking sounds louder than ever.

Some of the year’s best-reviewed shows, including Town Hall’s Next to Normal and Creede Repertory Theatre’s The Last Romance, were shut out. So, too the Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company’s Grounded and Stupid F##ing Bird, both of which received four-star ratings from The Denver Post.

What’s going on here?

Shanstrom took on that and every other tough question we could think of about the Henrys Awards. Here are excerpts from our conversation:

Gloria Shanstrom. Photo by Brian Landis Folkins. John Moore: What do you think is the overall greater good of the Henry Awards?

Gloria Shanstrom:  The Henry Awards, although by no means perfect, is a way to bring our community together once a year to celebrate each other and to have a night that is our own. And when it comes time to write grants, those awards and nominations mean something. For me personally, it’s a night to just be there with 600 of my favorite people.

Moore: And it’s a show.

Shanstrom: It’s a great show. Thanks to (Director) Jim Hunt and our hosts (Steven J. Burge and GerRee Hinshaw) and the companies that come and perform. It’s gotten more fun as we have expanded to welcome, say, the winners of the Denver Center’s high-school Bobby G Awards as performers. Those kids are going to be dancing on the Broadway boards next.

Moore: For those who don’t already know, let’s explain who is eligible for the Henry Awards.

Shanstrom: Your company has to be a member in good standing with the Colorado Theatre Guild. You have to let us know that you are willing and wanting to accept our judges at your shows. And with those two simple conditions met, I send judges to your theatre.

Moore: And how many judges have to see a show for it to qualify for awards consideration?

Shanstrom: Six. And here is something that is very important for people to know: The judges have to see the same cast. So if you have two people sharing a role, those actors are out of the running, because all six judges haven’t seen the same cast.

Moore: So what happens if only five judges make it to a show?

Shanstrom: Then the show does not qualify.

Moore: And what happens if 12 judges happen to score the same production?

Shanstrom: Once we have all the ballots back, they are placed face-down on a table, and then a secondary person will pull six of them out at random. Those six ballots are eliminated, and the remaining six ballots are the ones we use. We keep the eliminated ballots in case we need one for a tiebreaker. We try to spread the judges out, though, so that we can get as many shows qualified as possible. This year, I think the most judges I had at any one show was nine.

Moore: So say you have nine judges at one show. Why not just count them all by adding up their scores and then dividing by six?

Shanstrom: That suggestion has come up many times. We looked at that, and one of our judges who is a statistician made a very passionate mathematical case for why that method is not as fair as simply using six ballots. It is also simpler for us to just have six ballots for every show, and eliminate anything that is not six.

Moore: How many judges are there?

Shanstrom: At the moment, I have 46.

Moore: And who are these people?

Shanstrom: These people are theatre professionals such as current and former writers and reviewers; they are current and retired theatre educators; they are artistic directors; and they are people who have been active in the theatre community for a long time as audience members. And there is a process by which they are chosen. The application asks questions that will give us key information about their backgrounds, and their tendency to look at the shows they are seeing.

Moore: How do you avoid conflicts of interest?

Shanstrom: It’s very simple: They are not allowed to judge shows for companies they have worked for.

Moore: And these judges are spread out throughout the state.

Shanstrom: Yes, they are all over the place: Colorado Springs, Glenwood Springs, Fort Collins, Aspen, Kremmling and more. The biggest concentration of judges, course, is in the metro area.

Moore: Is there any concern that a judge who is based in a remote region of the state might tend to favor their own hometown companies? 

Shanstrom: That should always be a concern. But while there are a few judges that stick pretty close to home, the vast majority – 29 of my 46 judges – travel statewide to see shows. I also cycle the judges in my show-scheduling. I keep lists, and if a judge saw the most recent show produced by a company, I typically don’t send them back to judge the current show. But as for potential homerism, I keep an eye out for that sort of thing – as I do for any judge in the metro area who also might lean favorably toward any one individual company. I’m looking for a pattern. I am looking for those ballots that are out of line compared to the way other judges have scored the same show.

Moore: What do you do when that happens? 

Shanstrom: I have a check-in with that judge. I want to make sure they understand the scoring process, and that they have reviewed the criteria we provided them. If they have misunderstood something, or are unclear as to the voting guidelines, or simply have strayed from the prescribed method of scoring, we will talk through the ballot in question and then decide if the judges want to revisit their scores or stand by them. I have had judges do both.

Moore: That’s a touchy area, though, isn’t it? If a judge goes off the rails either by scoring a show too high or too low, that kind of interjection on your part can be seen as a bit of untoward direction, can’t it?

Shanstrom: I had one judge submit a whole batch of ballots with scores that were out of line compared to the other judges. I simply picked up the phone and said, “This is what I am seeing,” And I was told back, “I stand by my scores.”

Moore: So what did you do?

Shanstrom: I stood by his scores.

Moore: People have often suggested over the years that you should simply eliminate the high and low scores.

Shanstrom: That isn’t being done because, on many occasions, we only have six judges for a show – so all ballots must stand. Better to have the discussion, clarify and look at the reasons rather than discard the ballot.

Moore: So as a representative of the Colorado Theatre Guild, you work for the advocacy of Colorado theatre as a whole. 

Shanstrom: I think that’s fair.

Moore: So you have no dog in the fight when it comes to who gets nominated.

Shanstrom: I have none whatsoever.

Moore: So what is it like for you when the nominations finally do come out?

Shanstrom: Usually after the nominations come out, I take the day off. Because usually by then, I am exhausted. Then people start calling. I always end every call with, “I am happy to have these conversations with you anytime.”

Moore: Is the number of people you have had to answer to this year higher than in previous years?

Shanstrom: It doesn’t feel like it. One thing that feels different this year is that we had more productions by out-of-town companies last summer whose ballots really stood the test of time and led to many nominations: Theatre Aspen and Springs Ensemble Theatre, for example.

Moore: Well, it certainly did not work out that way for the Colorado Shakespeare Festival.

Shanstrom: It did not work out that way for Colorado Shakespeare Festival, and it breaks my heart every year to see some of these wonderful companies shut out.

Moore: Let’s approach this with rose-colored glasses first. On the one hand, you have 25 Colorado companies that received at least one nomination. You see Midtown Arts Center in Fort Collins on the list, along with Springs Ensemble Theatre in Colorado Springs, Lake Dillon Theatre Company in Dillon, and more. There is a wide geographical representation of the entire the state of Colorado, which is exactly what the Colorado Theatre Guild was hoping for when it went statewide three years ago. 

Shanstrom: One of the big thrills for me each year is seeing a name appear on the list of nominees that hasn’t been there before – be it an actor, be it a theatre company, be it a designer – because I can only imagine how thrilling it is on the other end. But as happy as I am for the nominees, it breaks my heart that I can’t give an award to everybody. We all know that there are always more than five or six people who are deserving of recognition.

(Photo at right: Laura Norman won a True West Award for ‘Grounded,’ but the show was shut out of Henry Awards consideration.) 

Laura Norman won a True West Award for 'Grounded,' but the show was shut out of Henry Awards consideration.  Moore: For all of the carping about the Henry Award nominees over the years – much of it admittedly done by me – there can be no claim, from my estimation, of any built-in, institutional bias. There can be bias from an individual judge, but there can’t be bias from the standpoint of the Colorado Theatre Guild. And yet, when you look at the list of nominees, some inequities stand out: You see nothing for the Aurora Fox, nothing for the Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company, nothing for the Colorado Shakespeare Festival, nothing for the Creede Repertory Theatre. These are generally presumed to be some of the finest theatre companies in the state – and they are all on the outside looking in this year. Again, you don’t have any say in that, but surely you can see why that is going to rub some people the wrong way.

Shanstrom: I do.

Moore: So what do you tell those people?

Shanstrom: Most of it seems to come from a misunderstanding of how the process works. Some people out there agree with us that we needed to put more Colorado in the Colorado Theatre Guild’s Henry Awards by expanding outside the metro area. And there are those who think we should have kept it smaller, tighter … and less competitive. It’s a double-edged sword. We either keep it small and have the same theatre companies being represented year after year, or we open it up and make it more embracing. One of my biggest complaints from our membership outside the metro area is that they don’t feel like they are part of this. So there are times when I feel like the Lady Justice statue, where I am holding the scales in my hands, trying to balance those things that are good overall. But there is no perfect system, and we go into every year knowing we can’t make everybody happy. But we can try to be as fair and balanced as we can.

Moore: The way the nominees and winners have been determined has evolved over the first 10 years of the Henry Awards. As you say, this is not a perfect system, but why do you think this is the least imperfect system?

Shanstrom: This is all done on a numerical system. The judges are given 50 points to work with in each category. We strongly suggest to them that when they walk into the theatre, they walk in with that midway, halfway point of 25 in mind and work up or down from that. The nice thing about that is there are no politics involved in this process. No one can take us to dinner and try to persuade us. No amount of advertising can change the voting system. No one can slip me money under the table to make things happen, because as I go through the process of verifying these scores, there is always someone in the room with me.
Moore: What do you tell those companies that want to see their scores?

Shanstrom: That I will happily do it. The names of the judges are simply removed from the ballots. That way, companies can see where they are falling on the 1-50 point scale. They can see where they need to improve or if they are showing consistency. If a company uses the same technical people and designers for every show, they can see if there is a pattern in the scoring. And if they hire a different designer for each show, they can see which of their designers are scoring best.

Moore: What do you make of the fact that every year, one or two major companies in good standing with the Guild remove themselves from consideration? Over the years that has included the Denver Center Theatre Company, BDT Stage, Colorado Shakespeare Festival, Germinal Stage-Denver and, this year, the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, which staged two of the best productions of the season in Mary Poppins and 4000 Miles. When the nominations come out, people can’t know that those shows weren’t considered; they will just assume they were considered and rejected. So what is your response to a member company that removes itself from Henry Awards consideration?

Shanstrom: It is usually the choice of artistic management to pull out of the awards. What makes my heart ache is that the actors and the technicians may not be aware that their work is not being judged for the Henrys. And audiences don’t know. They just think that they got shut out. And that may not be so. 

Moore: But for all of those nearly 200 shows under consideration, there often seems to be an unusual amount of grouping. Last year, for example, Curious Theatre won eight Henry Awards for The Whipping Man – that show won an award for every category it was eligible to win. For a reporter like me, it makes for a great story when, say, Billie McBride wins the Colorado Theatre Guild’s Lifetime Achievement Award – and then comes back to score three individual nominations the very next year. Every year we see both actors and technicians landing multiple nominations. But you would think with such a broad base of shows that there wouldn’t be as much clustering anymore – and so many companies getting shut out. What do you make of that?

Shanstrom: Nothing.

Moore: Nothing?

Shanstrom: I can’t make anything of that. I find it to be an anomaly most years. I doubt seriously that this will happen again next year.

Moore: Well it tends to happen every year – it’s just different people.

Shanstrom: It’s just different people. But I can’t make anything of it because it is what it is. I can’t change it. I can’t make it different. This is what the judges told me they saw, and this is how the tally ended up.

Moore: Another area of great misunderstanding and ongoing confusion is the separation of your companies into large-budget and small budget tiers when considering the four technical categories: Scenic, Lighting, Sound and Costume Design. What is that budgetary dividing line now?

Shanstrom: The cutoff between small and large companies is a $1.2 million annual budget. So in Tier I you have the Denver Center, Arvada Center, Curious Theatre and (Colorado Springs) TheatreWorks; and (everyone else) falls into the Tier II group. That gets a bit contentious because there is a heck of a lot of difference between a company with a $50,000 budget and a company with a $100,000 budget and a company with a $1.15 million budget. But this is where we came to with this. If there is an upside: It does give more designers the opportunity to be acknowledged with a nomination.

Moore: Certainly, because you now have eight nominations for each category as opposed to five. But last year you had one lighting designer (Shannon McKinney) score a record five nominations – three for her work in large-budget shows, and two for her work in small-budget shows. It was all outstanding work, but that’s not really spreading the booty around.

Shanstrom: I think last year was another one of those anomalies.

Arvada Center scenic designer Brian Mallgrave ilanded three of the four nominations for Outstanding Scenic Design: 'She Loves Me,' 'Harvey' and, pictured above, 'The Archbishop’s Ceiling.' Photo by P Switzer.  Arvada Center scenic designer Brian Mallgrave landed three of the four nominations for Outstanding Scenic Design (large budget): ‘She Loves Me,’ ‘Harvey’ and, pictured above, ‘The Archbishop’s Ceiling.’ Photo by P Switzer. 

Moore: I think because there are so few companies that are designated as Tier I, the end result is far more multiple nominations for those few designers working in Tier I shows.

Shanstrom: And this year that was not so true. 

Moore: But this year you have Brian Mallgrave with three of the four nominations for Outstanding Scenic Design in Tier I shows. Again, all outstanding work, but …

Shanstrom: But Brian was the only one. In the other three categories, there is a pretty good mix of nominees. As long as we are using this system, I don’t see any way to fix that. Maybe after this year, that is something we should revisit. People have suggested taking the Equity (union) theatres and putting them into a separate category – but how do you do that with guest contracts? Or it’s been suggested that we take the Denver Center out and make it its own special category. For now, I have to stand by our system. It just gives more people the opportunity to be recognized, and that’s what we want to do – especially in the design categories.

Moore: What about the acting categories then?

Shanstrom: We have looked at that and come to the conclusion that acting is acting.

Moore: I completely agree with that.

Shanstrom: Technical work is based not only on skill, but also on what you can do with tiny budgets or huge budgets. 

Moore: Money matters.

Shanstrom: Money does matter.

Moore: And money shouldn’t matter when it comes to good acting.

Shanstrom: Exactly.

Moore: I will say that those people acting in the Tier I shows presumably have had more training and experience – and that does cost money. 

Shanstrom: That has been brought up.

Moore: Still, I believe that anyone who walks on a stage, no matter how bare, has the power to transport the audience. 

Shanstrom: Me, too.

Moore: So the Henry Awards ceremony itself, coming up on July 20 – what’s new this year in terms of the live ceremony? 

Shanstrom: It hasn’t all been determined yet, but the organizers have decided that any performances will have to be live. So there will be no B-roll or video used as a substitute for a live performance. We also have decided that we don’t want more than a couple of the live pieces to be solos or duets. We’d like to do our standard five production numbers, and we would like very much for three or four of them to be big production numbers.

Moore: So I know the Henry Awards are very personal to you, and administering them takes up a huge part of your professional life. Is there anything you think is a fixable problem that you haven’t already considered?

Shanstrom: I don’t know that we have looked at everything. There is nothing so crazy that we won’t hear you out. No, we don’t have the best system, but we have the best system that we have. And we are always looking for ways to improve it.

Moore: Is it going to be particularly meaningful for you going into your first Henry Awards since the death Henry Lowenstein?

Shanstrom: Oh, yes. Not seeing him at the back of the theatre  … It’s going to be really hard not having him there.

John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist, where he is the editor of a new media outlet that covers the Colorado theatre community.

2014-15 Henry Awards
6 p.m. Monday, July 20
Arvada Center. 6901 Wadsworth Blvd.
Tickets: $23 for CTG members, $30 non-members or $50 VIP. Tickets go on sale July 6 through the Arvada Center website or by calling the box office at 720-898-7200. Any remaining tickets will be sold at the door for $35.

Previous NewsCenter coverage of the 2015 Henry Awards:
DCPA, Arvada Center lead balanced Henry Awards field: The complete list of nominations

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