Guest columnist Margie Lamb on the Henry Awards: Something doesn't add up

Editor’s Note: The DCPA NewsCenter offers a weekly guest column from a variety of local and national voices covering a wide range of theatre topics. To submit a proposed guest column, email your name and topic to jmoore@dcpa.org.

By Margie Lamb
Denver Actor

Margie Lamb quoteI have been a part of Colorado’s theater community for almost 25 years. I trained for 10 of those years under the direction of Bill McHale, a well-known and respected director at the Country Dinner Playhouse. Bill taught me the basics of theater both on stage and off: How I should not question the outcome of auditions or the dreaded reviews that followed every opening weekend. So, out of respect, I never did. 

I sat by and watched as actors, directors, designers and musicians were nominated for the coveted Denver Drama Critics Circle Awards – or, conversely, went unrecognized for their work. I never questioned the outcome because at the time, I felt deep down inside that the Critics Circle Awards were in good hands: The good hands of experts who were highly respected in the theater community. Although I didn’t always agree with the outcome, in the end I trusted their opinions because of their experience.

But those awards went away in 1999. And now the closest thing we have left resembling a traditional awards program are the Colorado Theater Guild’s Henry Awards. On July 20, the Guild will host its 10th annual awards honoring the best in Colorado theatre among its member companies. But the outcome of these awards is not in the hands of the dwindling number of remaining legitimate theatre critics. Now, 46 Henry Award judges with a wide range of theater experience consider the participating shows. The judges are made up of former and current writers and reviewers, retired educators, artistic directors and, making up the largest group by far: Citizen judges whose primary qualification is that they are avid theatregoers.

Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company's 'Stupid F##king Bird' got a four-star review from The Denver Post - but was shut out of the Henry Award nominations. Pictured: Luke Sorge and Jaimie Morgan. Photo by Michael Ensminger. Now I watch the Henry Awards each year as productions that received outstanding reviews by respected critics are not even being nominated by the Henrys in any category. This year, that list includes Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company’s Stupid F##ing Bird, Grounded and The Aliens. The Aurora Fox’s She Kills Monsters and Beets. Creede Repertory Theatre’s The Last Romance. All My Sons by Cherry Creek Theatre. Ham McBeth by Square Product Theatre. Curious’ In the Red and Brown Water. Vintage’s Harold and Maude, and Mack and Mabel. The Colorado Shakespeare Festival’s The Merry Wives of Windsor. Colorado Springs TheatreWorks’ As You Like It. Equinox’s Bug. Mizel’s Kindertransport.

All of these shows received 3½ or 4-star reviews from The Denver Post. None of them got a single Henry Award nomination.

My question is this: Were the critics wrong … or the Henry Award judges?

(Photo above: Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company’s ‘Stupid F##king Bird’ got a four-star review from The Denver Post – but was shut out of the Henry Award nominations. Pictured: Luke Sorge and Jaimie Morgan. Photo by Michael Ensminger.)

The cats of Town Hall Arts Center's 'Next to Normal' (clockwise from left): Jared Ming, Margie Lamb, Daniel Langhoff, Jacquie Jo Billings, Josh Bess and Ethan Knowles. Photo by Michael Ensminger. Last season, I was part of an ongoing passion of mine called Next to Normal, which I performed for a third different company: The Littleton Town Hall Arts Center. My work in this show has been recognized by the Ovation, Marlowe and Westword awards, so I consider myself abundantly blessed. But my heart breaks for the many other artists on and off stage whose work on those very special productions has never been acknowledged by the Henry Awards.

I would and can accept this, if I knew for certain that all of the Henry Award judges have real and practical experience in the theater field. But I don’t. And I question how someone who simply has a history of merely sitting in an audience watching theatre has earned the credibility to be a judge. I don’t doubt that the judges all love theatre. But how can they possibly know the complexities of acting, or of executing a vocal track? How can they know the intricacies of sound and set design; of orchestration, direction or choreography?

(Photo above: The cast of Town Hall Arts Center’s ‘Next to Normal’ (clockwise from left): Jared Ming, Margie Lamb, Daniel Langhoff, Jacquie Jo Billings, Josh Bess and Ethan Knowles. The Director was Nick Sugar. Photo by Michael Ensminger.)

READ MORE: OUR INTERVIEW WITH THE HENRY AWARDS’ GLORIA SHANSTROM

The Next to Normal score is incredibly difficult. And I can’t help but wonder if that fact is easily recognizable to the untrained ear. A successful production should make it look easy. That doesn’t mean it was easy. Year after year, I see newer and cutting-edge musicals passed over by the Henry Awards, and I can’t help but think the judging pool might benefit from an infusion of younger (while still qualified) judges who might be more receptive to less traditional material.

I’m also concerned at how the voting process actually occurs. In order for a show to qualify for awards consideration, six judges must attend the show during the course of the run. Judges are allowed to choose which shows they want to see, as long as they don’t go to the same venues every year. If only five judges make it during the run, the show does not qualify. If 12 judges attend, all completed ballots are then turned upside down on a table, and six are blindly selected as that show’s official scores. The other ballots, some of which might have been filled out by qualified, professional critics, simply don’t count. Luck of the draw.

Perhaps the Guild should take the bull by the horns and simply assign a considered mix of six judges to every show – no more, no less. If there aren’t enough interested judges, reach out to our community of vocal and acting coaches, choreographers, sound designers and former music directors. They are out here, and they are more than willing to be a part of this process. They might just need to be found and asked.

This is what has raised my eyebrows in the past. And after 10 years of sitting back and watching the Henry Awards process unfold, this is what now makes me want to speak out. 

The Henry Awards wisely distinguish between large-budget and small-budget productions in considering the nominees for its design categories because, as the thinking goes, money matters in those areas of production. There is no distinction in the acting categories, because acting is acting. And I agree.

But judging is not just judging. If the Colorado Theatre Guild wants the Henrys to be truly seen as “Colorado’s Tony Awards,” as it advertises, listen to our voices. Together let’s make a credible awards program we can all respect – whether an individual or a production is nominated or not.

About Our Guest Columnist:
Margie Lamb was most recently recognized by Westword as 2015 Best Actress in a Musical for her work in Next to Normal at Town Hall Arts Center. Her work has been seen across Colorado, including The Aurora Fox, Boulder’s Dinner Theater, The Arvada Center and Breckenridge Backstage Theater. She will be appearing at the Miners Alley Playhouse in Pump Boys and Dinettes from July 17-Aug. 23.

Previous Guest Columns:
Bryan VanDriel on Lloyd Norton: A name that will live on in Greeley
Jessica Jackson on Creede Repertory Theatre’s 50th anniversary season
Susan Lyles on 10 years of staging plays for women in Denver
 
Be Our Guest (Columnist)
The DCPA NewsCenter offers a weekly guest column from a variety of local and national voices covering a wide range of theatre topics. To submit a proposed guest column, email your name and proposed topic to jmoore@dcpa.org.

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 720-898-7200. Any remaining tickets will be sold at the door for $35.

Previous NewsCenter coverage of the 2015 Henry Awards:
The Henry Awards: The complete list of nominations
Duck and cover: Gloria Shanstrom takes your Henry Awards questions

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