Task force will explore changes to Henry Awards

The Colorado Theatre Guild today announced it will form a statewide task force to address ongoing questions and criticisms about the administration of its annual Henry Awards program.

The 10-year-old Henrys celebrate achievement in Colorado theatre among its member companies. Under the present voting system, a team of about 45 volunteer judges evaluate shows in all creative categories using a 50-point scoring system. The top five in each category become the nominees, and the leading points-getter is the winner.

If only it were that simple.

Every awards show from the Oscars to the Tonys to the Westminster Dog Show engenders its share of carping. But as a small advocacy organization trying to administer a statewide awards program on a shoestring budget, the Henry Awards have long been vulnerable to vast communal grumbling. But by the time the awards ceremony takes place each July, the next judging season is already underway. That makes it nearly impossible to address and implement immediate changes.

But CTG President Pat Payne said the Guild must act now.

Pat Payne and Bill Wheeler“As an organization, we need to be listening to what is being said by our members,” Payne said. “We need to make sure we are doing whatever we can to present the most open and fair awards program we possibly can.”

Payne has appointed self-starting local theatre reviewer Bill Wheeler of Colorado Springs to head the task force, which is expected to include 12 to 20 individuals from theatre companies large and small. The standing title on Wheeler’s home page, ironically enough, is “Reviews for Colorado stages … without all the drama.”

Welcome to the Henry Awards, which is an annual emotional geyser. 

(Photo: Pat Payne, left, and Bill Wheeler, right.)

Much of the discontent stems from a basic lack of understanding about the process, more so than the process itself. Longstanding practical concerns have included how judges are chosen, how they are trained, and what are their qualifications and conflicts. Other lingering questions include how Guild staff determine the outcome of the prized “Outstanding Season” category, since judges don’t vote in that category.

In the four design categories (costume, lighting, sound and scenic design), the Guild separates member companies into large and small tiers based on overall operating budgets. Questions include why budget was chosen as the prevailing criterion, and why $1.2 million was chosen as the dividing line between big and small. That leaves only four companies in the Tier I group, while the Guild has 115 member companies.

Wheeler and his team will be asked to tackle these questions – and many more. And blowing up the present voting system and starting over is not off the table, Payne said.

The task force’s recommendations will be expected in January, Payne said. “And the Board of Directors will then implement those they believe will take the Henry Awards to the next level,” said Wheeler, whose blog can be found at theatercolorado.blogspot.com. Payne said those recommendations that are adopted and can be immediately adoptable will be, while others will have to wait for the next awards cycle.

“Our goal is to make the Henry Awards the best possible process for recognizing excellence in theater at all levels,” Wheeler said. “We will be seeking input from all interested theater companies and individuals to help us accomplish that task.”

Payne said Wheeler was chosen to lead the task force because he is an attorney, and because he is not affiliated with any one member company. “That makes him the wise, unbiased choice,” Payne said.  

At Payne’s direction, Wheeler is inviting targeted members of the theatre community to serve as full task-force members (including this writer). And the more contrarian, the better, Payne said. “We have to be willing to hear what the members of our community are really saying … or what’s the point?” That’s why actor Margie Lamb, who spoke out about her concerns about the Henry Awards in a guest column for the DCPA NewsCenter (“Something here doesn’t add up“), also has been invited. But Wheeler said any theatre company or individual who would like to contribute to the process will be welcome to do so, and can contact him at bilweeler@gmail.com.

How is it done now?

Under the present system, a show must be seen and evaluated by a minimum of six judges. The Guild succeeded in making a record 187 productions eligible for 2015 Henry Awards consideration, but the resulting nominations did nothing to stem longstanding questions about the system’s credibility. The Aurora Fox, Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company, Colorado Shakespeare Festival and Creede Repertory Theatre were among those companies that did not garner a single nomination. That has some observers questioning how consistent the judges are as a body in their overall scoring. And the Colorado Shakespeare Festival’s nearly inevitable annual exclusion from Henry Award nominations has had officials there asking for years whether judges are either biased against classical work, or, more bluntly, aren’t skilled enough in the form to fairly judge it.

The Henry Awards’ elusive climb to true credibility has been slow, but it hasn’t been from lack of trying. General manager Gloria Shanstrom, who oversees the awards program year-round, has implemented major changes throughout the first decade.

“It is my hope that with the formation of this (task force), the community will understand the Guild’s sincere desire to look for ways to improve the award process,” Shanstrom said. “They will be doing a lot of work over the next several months, and I look forward to hearing the results.”

When the Henrys began in 2006, the awards were decided by a group of about seven professional critics who voted for their five personal favorites in each category, much like an Oscar voter filling out an Academy Award ballot. But that system overwhelmingly favored those shows the most critics saw, because of the greater potential for points. (You can’t vote for a show you didn’t see.) That led to annual landslides that, head-scratchingly, continue to this day under a completely different voting system. 

In 2009, the last year under the old voting system, 72 percent of all nominations went to just six companies. In 2012, under the new judging system, more than 80 percent of all nominations went to the top six. So while the system has changed drastically, the imbalances have not.

The Guild also responded to member complaints by separating designers into budget categories in 2011. And despite overwhelming logistical challenges, it finally managed to expand eligibility statewide in 2013.

Change does not always lead to peace and resolution, however. Responding to one repeated suggestion, the Guild implemented a residency rule in 2007 that required all nominees be Colorado residents for at least six months of the year. DCPA Artistic Director Kent Thompson pulled his company out of awards consideration that year in protest, arguing passionately that where actors sleep is inconsequential when they are creating art for Colorado audiences. The Guild rescinded the residency rule in 2008, and the DCPA returned to the fold.

In the end, the Henry Awards exist primarily as the Guild’s annual fundraiser. But the biggest challenge the Guild has yet to face is the perception that the organization only exists to administer the Henry Awards. Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center boss Scott RC Levy chose not to pay his dues last year, he said, “because I refuse to pay to play” – meaning he equates membership solely with Henry Awards eligibility. Earlier today, Levy said he has decided to pay the $80 membership fee for this season, but he remains cynical about the value of membership.

New programming initiatives were announced at the most recent Henry Awards ceremony but, Levy said, until he sees them in action, “my concerns still remain.”

Payne, also artistic Director of the Cherry Creek Theatre Company, assumed the presidency in January 2014 acknowledging that the Guild had all but disappeared from public perception, with the exception of administering the Henry Awards. He knows the time is now to put up or shut up.

“We are well aware of the feelings of many in the theatre community, and it is our responsibility to make sure we are serving our membership in the best way possible.”


Here are our photos from the Colorado Theatre Guild’s 2015 Henry Awards ceremony held July 20 at the Arvada Center. Photos by Brian Landis Folkins and John Moore for the DCPA’s NewsCenter. To download any photo for free, click on “View original Flickr” image and choose from a variety of download sizes.


Here are our photos of people and faces at the Henry Awards. Photos by Brian Landis Folkins and John Moore for the DCPA’s NewsCenter. To download any photo for free, click on “View original Flickr” image and choose from a variety of download sizes.

Previous NewsCenter coverage of the 2015 Henry Awards:
Colorado Theatre Guild honors DCPA with 11 Henry Awards
The Henry Awards: The complete list of nominations
Video: 2015 Henry Award acceptance speeches
Video: 2015 Henry Award performance highlights
Videos: Our memorial tributes to departed artists in 2014-15
Duck and cover: Gloria Shanstrom takes your Henry Awards questions
Beth Malone, Colin Hanlon will perform at Henry Awards
Guest essay by Margie Lamb: Something about the Henry Award doesn’t add up

Haly Johnson accepts the 2015 Henry Award for 'Night, Mother.' Photo by Brian Landis Folkins
Haley Johnson accepts the 2015 Henry Award for ‘Night, Mother” as Outstanding Play.  Photo by Brian Landis Folkins.

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