Thursday, April 22, 2010

Thoughts on the 2010 IRNEs

The Independent Reviewers of New England had their big shindig on Monday night at the Cyclorama, and I heard a grand time was had by all (and Diane Paulus didn't make off with the bar tab, as some feared - aw, just kiddin' Diane, I love ya baby!). No, I didn't attend, because one or two people nominated have threatened me with bodily harm over the past few years - and that always makes for an un-festive atmosphere, don't you agree? Plus there are a few more nasties who show up regularly that I'd rather just avoid.

But of course I'm interested in who actually wins the awards, so I hate having to wait for the news - especially as this year I'd participated more forcefully in the nomination process. I confess I had a motive (though not an ulterior one) in doing so; I'd been a bit disturbed by the preponderance of awards given to a single company last year - a company I admire enormously, btw. Still, it seemed to me that inclusion and diversity should be a hallmark of the IRNEs, and so I was interested in making sure that the IRNEs were perceived as devoted to serving the entire Boston area theatre community. Thus, after much debate, we opened up the nomination process to five nominees (generally) for each category, and we considered nominations from as far away as Ogunquit and Hartford. In the end, we wound up giving nominations (excluding the musical nominations) to some 37 different companies (at top). What's more, 24 different companies walked away with at least one award.

The "downside" to this kind of approach is that the eventual winner sometimes wins by a hair. And of course I disagree with a few of this year's winners (as I'm sure everyone does); that's what makes a horse race, as my mother used to say. But overall, the benefits of throwing a wide net out to the community I think have been proven. The pendulum swung hard against last year's big winners this time around, but newer companies and lesser-known actors - some of whom have never been reviewed by the major dailies - got their first taste of wider recognition, which is great for them, and great for the IRNEs, too, because it re-inforces our reputation as being the critical voice for Boston's home theatre, the folks who will help us grow from the bottom up into the next Chicago or Seattle.

The Nortons, meanwhile, look more and more like the remnants of an old guard that's only interested in looking from the top down - at least that's the way it seems judging from their recently-announced nominations. As you can see from the chart above, the Nortons agree with the IRNEs that the Huntington and SpeakEasy Stage are the most reliable theatres in town, but note that the Nortons offer far fewer nominations; this is partly because their nominators have done their winnowing at the front end, by limiting the number of nominees to only three.

But they've also smashed together all musical performance into just a single award - and done the same favor to every kind of designer. The Nortons have also spread their nominations across only 16 local companies, less than half the number the IRNEs reached - indeed, more companies won an IRNE this year than were even nominated by the Nortons. What's really striking about the Norton list, however, is the number of players who have been shut out of the game. Trinity Rep down in Providence got zero nominations. The New Rep got nix. The Lyric Stage got zip. Lowell's Merrimack got nada. Meanwhile these four major companies pulled down 29 IRNE nominations. That's right - 29 to zero. Many smaller theatres were likewise ignored completely, even though the Nortons distinguish between "Mid-Size," "Small" and "Fringe" companies: Gloucester Stage, Stoneham Theatre, and the entire fringe scene at the Factory Theatre and the Central Square Y came up a cropper. What's most troubling about this situation is that there are well-known personal connections between some of the small companies that got nominated and a few of the nominating critics.

There are, of course, two companies that could claim the opposite snub - Orfeo Group and the Gold Dust Orphans were both recognized by the Nortons, but ignored by the IRNEs. Still, the discrepancy between the two award programs looms large; the IRNEs ignored two of the Norton companies, but the Nortons ignored almost ten times as many IRNE nominees.

It would be hard to argue that this gap is due to a higher standard over at the Nortons - because frankly, despite that supposed "winnowing," many of their judgment calls look - well, let's just say there's no accounting for taste. But the more likely reason for the concentration in the Nortons is that its critics just don't get out that much. The Boston Theatre Critics Association, which puts on the Nortons, is comprised of Caldwell Titcomb, Terry Byrne, Carolyn Clay, Iris Fanger, Joyce Kulhawik, Louise Kennedy, Sandy MacDonald, Robert Nesti, and Ed Siegel. Only one of these people - Louise Kennedy - has a full-time gig as a critic (the IRNEs are in the same boat), and as two more Nortoneers are her second-stringers at the Globe, her taste looms rather obviously over this year's nominees (as does the gap caused by her sabbatical last fall). The bottom line about Louise, of course, is that funny as it may sound, she's not really a theatre person. She's hardly insensitive, and she has a lovely writing style - but she's not really going to seek theatre out unless her editor tells her to. And other members of this merry band seem unlikely to take up the slack - there are fewer of them than there are of IRNE voters, of course, so it's unlikely they'll see as many shows to begin with (and none of them are as addicted as the most avid IRNE critics). Indeed, about half of them simply don't review regularly. The result is a critical vision that looks a lot like tunnel vision.

But then again, that probably maps well to an awards show that (let's be honest) is really for people who don't like theatre all that much, either. The categories are smashed together, the number of nominees has been reduced, and most of Boston's companies don't stand a chance in the selection process because the Nortoneers are more interested in celebrity than the art they critique - and so are the people they're trying to attract. One lack of passion seeks out, and validates, the other.

Of course every cloud has it silver lining. Poor SpeakEasy Stage, which was showered with IRNEs last year, got the shaft this season. But they can look forward to winning a Norton award - they have to, they're the only nominee for "Best Director - Mid-size Company." They've also got "Best Mid-Size Production" and "Outstanding Musical Performance" pretty much covered (2 out of 3 nominees in each). Company One has pulled the same trick in the "Fringe" category. Likewise the Huntington has to win "Best Actress, Large Company" - they're the only theatre in the running!

So while the Norton Awards won't be too long, they also won't be too suspenseful.