This year’s Barrymore Awards:♦
One step forward, two steps back
Some folks— mostly local theater producers, directors and actors— hang on the results of Philadelphia’s annual Barrymore Awards competition. For the rest of us, what’s interesting about these annual ceremonies is seeing how the local theater community presents itself to the world.
Unlike movies, cable, DVD and Broadway hit shows that run for years on publicity from awards, every production nominated for a Barrymore has already closed. No play can benefit or suffer by winning or losing a Barrymore. Instead, we’re dealing with history and tradition, with setting a tone that will attract new audiences to see other plays in the future. That’s why the quality of the Barrymore ceremony matters.
The event receives international coverage, but in the past Philadelphia’s theatrical producers often came off as bush leaguers. Last year I chastised them for talking about how great they are instead of showing us. (Click here.) This year the speakers were disciplined. Recipients kept their remarks brief and kept their bragging to a minimum.
Learning from the Oscars (not)
But this year the Theatre Alliance of Greater Philadelphia, sponsor of the Barrymores, made another change that’s inimical to its own interests. For the first time in the event’s 13-year history, the ceremonies were switched from a theatrical setting to a banquet hall: the Crystal Tea Room in the Wanamaker Building.
In previous years attendees gathered at the Walnut, Merriam, Annenberg Center or other theaters for music, comedy and award-giving, followed by a party nearby. This communal celebration is actually better than what happens after the Tonys, where everyone splits up to attend private parties.
This year the entire evening (October 1) took place in a huge dining room where a meal was followed by presentations from a makeshift stage while free drinks were available at a bar in the rear.
By comparison, the Academy Awards were inaugurated in 1929 at a banquet in the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. And when Broadway’s Antoinette Perry Awards were launched in 1947, the Tonys were handed out over dinner at the Waldorf Astoria. But the movie people and the Broadway folks abandoned those settings after the first few years. Now the Barrymores have moved in an opposite direction.
Cheap, convenient and shortsighted
The main advantages of the banquet format: It’s cheap and convenient. No need to walk from one place to another for an after-party, and no expenditure for setting up two rooms. Disadvantages: Let us count the ways.
The banquet format resulted in a smaller, more elitist audience, drawing from a narrower social and economic segment of the theater-loving public. The higher ticket price of $150 prevented many from attending (although employees of Alliance-affiliated companies had to pay only $50, while nominees got in for $25 each). Attendance was 850, down from the numbers that packed the Merriam in recent years. Those discouraged by the higher cost included young people, who should be a target audience. I missed the enthusiastic cheering by kids, which was a part of previous celebrations.
Because the Crystal Room is huge and everyone sat at large round tables, the audience was spread out and sight lines were bad. Some tables had no view of the stage at all. Others were blocked by thick columns. TV monitors only partially alleviated that problem. Jorge Cousineau, accepting an award for sound design, said: "Wow, this place seems like a stadium and I can’t see anybody." The feeling was mutual.
Fatal attraction: Free drinks
Free drinks available throughout the program added to the evening’s conviviality. They also added to the noise level. The buzz of conversation and laughter sometimes drowned out what was happening on stage. If you were a curious incipient theatergoer who scraped up enough bucks to get in, wouldn’t you be turned off by the rudeness of people gathering around the bar? Distinguished accomplishments deserve to be honored, not drowned out by cocktail kibitzers.
The show itself was smoothly directed by Vincent Marini. Writer Don Montrey made clever use of the co-hosts, Greg Wood and Chris Faith. But much effort was expended on unneeded chitchat. Why can’t a host just say: "Hello, great to be here, now let’s see some memorable performances by talented Philadelphians"?
To read responses, click here and here.
To read a response by Dan Rottenberg, click here.
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