Feeling feelings about the 2017 Barrymore Awards for Excellence in Theatre

It's (theoretically) her party and she'll feel sad if she wants to

The Barrymore Awards happen tonight, and I am delighted for those who have been named and happy that our thriving community will have a night to celebrate all we’ve achieved! Just kidding: I feel janky and weird.

Bi Jean Ngo, in with the Barrymores' in-crowd after winning the 2016 F. Otto Haas Award for an Emerging Artist. (Photo via theatrephiladelphia.org.)

I’m not disappointed; I was not, nor have I ever been, eligible for an award. But I was never going to be prom queen either, and when that list went up I also had feelings. I don’t know how to not have them.

When people post on Facebook about “theater prom,” it seems apt. I’ve been smoking behind the porta-potties all year, mostly not caring what the popular people do. Prom, though, cannot be ignored. It’s narrative-defining (that’s why all teen movies end there). You might hate the prom, but that itself is a choice, and it’s the choice to be an outsider.

Inclusive but still exclusive

Until Jennifer MacMillan’s essay appeared in Broad Street Review, I never saw anyone publicly criticize the Barrymores. On the way home from rehearsal? Sure. But not in mixed company. In such a small community, vocally rejecting one of the few things that bring us together seems petty.

My favorite reason to be petty about the Barrymore Awards used to be their exclusivity. But the new guard is making an earnest effort toward inclusion. They’ve intentionally worked to diversify the voting pool’s background and expertise. When someone dared to criticize, decision makers listened and took notes.

And it’s hard to hold a grudge when Philly Theater High is a school where most of the popular kids are actually pretty cool. Sure, they had a part in a big theater in the spring, but in the fall they were devising that SoLow piece with you. We’re not stratified enough for proper resentment. The winners are usually people you’re happy to see getting the recognition.

Another rationale I use for hating the Barrymores is that they’re only for theaters that can afford to participate. The idea is that salary minimums will drive up actor, director, and designer wages, because a desire to be eligible will lead theaters to raise pay, but that’s specious, since the theaters that can afford to pay the minimum do, and it’s hardly worth bragging about. Those who can’t don’t because they can’t.

To some, this reads,
To some, this reads, "Do not touch. Ever." (Photo via Creative Commons/Wikipedia.)

But even this unfairness isn't doing it for me this year. Why should the awards have a responsibility to include everyone? Creating well-funded productions in traditional houses is a particular skill and there’s nothing wrong with recognizing it.

Getting real

So, it seems my real problem with the awards is feelings. What’s hard for me isn’t that the awards fail to include everyone; it’s that we act like they do include everyone. The Barrymores are a great opportunity for our bigger-budget theaters to market themselves to funders and subscribers. The problem is that we talk about the event like it’s the prom.

With it comes the specific feeling of knowing that the party is happening and you are not there, and wondering to what degree it’s your fault. You are invited (it’s a school function, after all), but then again, not really. I’m pretty sure those who attend the Barrymores are happy for the winners. I’m happy for the people who go and feel loved and supported. It’s also true that it makes me sad. Any time there’s something for all of us that’s not really for all of us, it’s sad.

I don’t care that the Barrymores are exclusive, I’m just ashamed that when they come up, I have to face the fact that they make me feel lonely. Without the defiant loneliness of the visionary who sneers at popular art, I have only the loneliness that asks, “What am I doing? Why did I slave away on a feminist trapeze piece that ran for three afternoons in the park?” Even if I loved every minute of working on my feminist trapeze piece.

To go to the party and have a seat and know that you belong must feel really good. Or maybe it doesn’t. Maybe most people who are there to support the colleagues they love are eating appetizers in sparkly dresses and thinking, “What am I even doing here?” Maybe those who win walk off the stage thinking, “How is this the thing everyone liked?” Or maybe they wake up the next morning and think, “Back to being a fraud!”

If they do, then we are a community after all. A community of vulnerability and longing and effort that includes everyone brave enough to tell stories even as we wonder, “What am I even doing?” That, I would love to celebrate. 

Our readers respond

Dan Rottenberg

of Center City/ Philadelphia, PA on November 01, 2017

No one has publicly criticized the Barrymores? I did, right here in BSR, way back in 2007. Click here.

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