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

by John Moore | Jul 10, 2015

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

5 comments

Leave a comment
  1. Tim | Jul 27, 2015
    Well said. The Henrys are Denver's equivalent of the Tonys -- the quality of productions in Fort Collins and Colorado Springs are just as good, and in many cases, superior to many Denver productions. But every year, productions in the Springs and (even moreso) Fort Collins get the obligatory crumbs.
  2. E V Taniwaki | Jul 17, 2015

    Writer Margie Lamb asks only what is fair, that performances be evaluated by those who can appreciate the nuances of acting, singing, rehearsing, interpreting, staging.  To allow otherwise is the equivalent of armchair quarterbacking. 

    Having said that, mine may be untrained ears, but they nevertheless can attest that every performance Margie gave in Next to Normal was delivered with nothing less than absolute commitment, precision and passion.  This has been corroborated by Ovation, Marlowe and Westword, so maybe the real issue is NOT Margie's performance in Next to Normal.  Perhaps it is the "avid theatregoers" socioeconomically prejudiced view of NTN's subject matter.  Yes, that could definitely be the issue -- depression does not exist so how could it be taken seriously?

    Whether Margie will reprise her NTN role in a future production remains to be seen.  I hope she does -- and that a long overdue but justly deserved Henry Award comes of it.

  3. Bob Bows | Jul 10, 2015

    Thank you, Margie!

    From my perspective, the Denver Drama Critics Circle Awards were hijacked. We had worked very hard to come up with requirements for critics in terms of how many shows they had to see to qualify to nominate, and how many of the nominated shows they had to see to vote in each category.

    In addition, we had discussions and debates over various points, during the nomination and voting process, which we separated into two different meetings.

    And, as you note, all of us had to justify our opinions in print.

    With all due respect to all the incredibly talented people in our theatre community, I find myself cringing annually at the oversights in the Henry nominations. The idea that those who vote can just check off some names and never justify their opinions is a wholly unsatisfactory system.

    There are a lot more issues to all of this than I'm willing to go into at this point, but I do agree with you that the Denver, Front Range, and state theatre community deserves a better platform, as does an award named after Henry.

    Sincerely,

    Bob Bows

    ColoradoDrama.com

    KUVO-FM

    and, occasionally, Variety

  4. Nerve | Jul 10, 2015
    The critics were wrong, obviously. In Denver, the critics are almost always wrong. I've seen many horrible productions and rotten performances get great reviews from every critic in town.Critics can be corrupted by sympathy, friends or lovers in the company, clients or students involved in the production, etc.

    Anyone who thinks that a "qualified" opinion carries more weight than your standard theater-goer's opinion needs to get off of their high horse. Anonymous judges with little knowledge of the craft are a fantastic barometer, and make far better judges than insiders with personal connections IMO.

    Seriously - "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?" You have got to be kidding. That is as small town and Ivory-Tower-Intellectual as you can get.

    Nobody needs to know any of that crap to be able to tell if a show is garbage or not. The audience shouldn't have ANY of those things in mind. Those things should be seamless and invisible. If everything is professional and on the up and up, you have nothing to worry about. If you have a turd show that you try to polish with sets and orchestrations, then you need to reassess your business model.

    "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." - BRILLIANT! This is one of the best judging systems that I have ever heard of. Very fair and impartial. Really great IMO.

    "If there aren’t enough interested judges, reach out to our community of vocal and acting coaches, choreographers, sound designers and former music directors. " - These are the LAST people that you want judging your show. They are too embedded in the industry. Their livelihoods depend on successful clients. No way.

    At the end of the day, if you are a grown adult whining about awards for your hobby, you are broken, perhaps irreparably so. If you don't like the way that the Henry awards judges THEIR award show, then don't participate! There are plenty of awards that I have refused to participate in, and will never participate in because I think that their nomination and judging processes are bad for all entrants, but if someone else wants to get involved in it, that's cool. If you want some sort of stuffy "theatre critic's awards" or "the theatre insider awards", then get to work and make it happen. 

    Really though, I feel that if you are a hobbyist/amateur, and award nominations are a big focus for you, that you are in it for ego, and should quit.
  5. Eugene Ebner | Jul 10, 2015
    Rock on. I agree. Thank you for speaking your truth and bringing this to attention. What surprises me the most is that they nominate guest artists and performers from New You etc that don't live in Colorado and ignore amazing talent and skilled actors and performers from here.  I honor the performers in Colorado Theatre and thank them for their talent, hard work and for entertaining us all.

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    John Moore
    John Moore
    Award-winning arts journalist John Moore has created a groundbreaking new position as the DCPA’s Senior Arts Journalist. With The Denver Post, he was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the US by American Theatre Magazine. He is the founder of the Denver Actors Fund, a nonprofit that raises money for local artists in medical need. John is a native of Arvada and attended Regis Jesuit High School and the University of Colorado at Boulder. Email him at jmoore@dcpa.org. Follow him on Twitter @moorejohn.

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