In the past, one could usually count on the annual Alamo Theatre Arts Council’s Globe Awards for Excellence to eventually recognize just about everyone involved in San Antonio theater. (My favorite example: the 18 awards for “Lead Actress” in the storied year of 2006-7. They were joined by an equally astounding 16 “Supporting Actress” awards, for a grand total of 34 `!` awards just for female acting.) This was never exactly acceptable — excellence, by definition, is an elite quality — but we let it slide, I suppose, in the spirit of camaraderie and love of theater. That the Globe Awards were largely devoid of meaning was the price we paid for ignoring Orwell and sipping our sherry.
In 2007, however, I also noticed the germ of a troubling trend: Not only did mediocre productions win Globe Awards for excellence, but shows that actually were excellent somehow didn’t. The Cellar’s production of Electricidad — a Chicano take on Greek tragedy by MacArthur genius Luis Alfaro — was top-notch, with especially strong female acting, and superb direction by Marisela Barrera. Its final award count? Zero. Was it not possible for even one actress in Electricidad to join the ranks of her 34 (again, not a typo) sisters?
At the time, I chalked it up to, I dunno, insanity, but now I’m more inclined towards the following hypothesis: that the Globe awards actually do a un-excellent job of judging excellence. I call to witness this year’s bizarre slate of award-winning productions and — just as importantly — a few of
the surprisingly un-nominated productions. Whereas the Cellar’s thoroughly under-rehearsed and infelicitously staged El Grande de Coca Cola will snag an award for excellence at the October 18 gala (not just for pretty-good-ness, mind you, but excellence), the main stage’s Altar Boyz — which was smashing and slick and wonderful and funny — gets nothing, not even for Christopher Rodriguez’s hilarious choreography. And while lightweight scripts like Don’t Dress for Dinner and The Odd Couple are showered with Globes, the AtticRep’s hard-hitting productions of Albee’s The Goat and Harrower’s Blackbird end up with bubkes. (I was AWOL for The Goat, but the town was still buzzing about Gloria Sanchez’s lead performance when I returned. How did she not get an award? Ditto for Johanna Valenta’s performance in the Vex’s Children of a Lesser God.)
So: I’m beginning to believe that the Globe judges’ generally conservative sensibilities tend to skew the results not towards excellence, but towards 1950; and that innovative artists, and plays that grapple with arresting contemporary issues, are therefore ignored. This is reprehensible. An award process that consistently ignores excellence is a farce (and no, ATAC shouldn’t award itself a Globe for comedy). To remedy the problem, I propose a complete revamping of the Globe Awards, along the lines of theater awards in other cities (including those with strong, emerging theater scenes, such as D.C. and St. Louis). A checklist:
1) Purge the judges’ ranks of conflicts-of-interest. Those too heavily invested in the local theater scene — particularly directors and producers — should bow out of the process. We must interrogate judges about potential conflicts-of-interest besides merely their spouses (and that includes co-workers, friends, furtive and drunken liaisons, etc.). If this leaves too few judges, cancel the awards. Excellence is not to be compromised. (St. Louis’ Kevin Kline Awards actually compel prospective judges to submit a sample review for examination: a great idea. This, too, will weed out inexperienced or biased judges.)
2) Eliminate the distinction between awards for comedy and drama. Besides being interpretively indefensible (Euripides’ Helen: comedy or drama?), the distinction seems to exist largely for the sake of distributing even more awards.
3) Adopt a nomination-and-winner scheme. The top five vote-getters in each category are announced as nominees; the top vote-getter is revealed as the winner at the award ceremony, amid much rejoicing. Of course, not everybody wins this way, but we are not in kindergarten. The current system — in which productions are designated as “recipients” well ahead of the awards gala, where, yes, they all “win” — is obfuscating and (ironically) not very dramatic. (The Globes are putatively modeled on the off-Broadway Obies, but the Obies cover a far greater number of productions with, significantly, far fewer awards. In 2007, there were five individual actress awards for all of New York City, as opposed to 34 for San Antonio. Let’s let that number sink in once more.)
4) Eliminate college productions. As a college professor, I’m a little ambivalent about this one, but it must be said: I find it bizarre that productions by actors-in-training are judged alongside those of more experienced, working artists. I don’t know of any other city that does this; but I also don’t know another city in which the gap in quality between college and non-college acting is so small. (And before the outraged letters pour in, let me point out that it’s ATAC that equates college and non-college acting, not me.) On the whole, I’m inclined to treat college productions as a separate category. This means that individual judges have fewer shows to judge, which will help with both equity and accuracy.
The Globe Awards, however well-intentioned, actually damage the San Antonio theater community by consistently rewarding mediocrity as well as excellence, thereby encouraging complacency: There’s never a goal to shoot for, because everybody’s already achieved it. Contrariwise, the recent snubbing of several fine productions can only serve to disillusion actors, directors, and patrons, who find that excellence in San Antonio is politically, rather than artistically, defined.
And in the spirit of fairness and excellence, I’m also establishing (to great fanfare) the first of a new round of awards to rival the Globes: the Current’s Dodecahedron Awards, celebrating the egregiously overlooked. Christopher Rodriguez (for choreography) and Johanna Valenta (for acting): these Dodecahedra are for you!
I end with some conciliatory words. Obviously there are astute and responsible judges and Globe organizers in San Antonio, but equally obviously the system itself is flawed. We need to rethink these awards from scratch. Why not make the 2010 occasion of ATAC’s 20th anniversary a new beginning for the pursuit of theatrical excellence in San Antonio? In this way, we can remember the Old Globe even as we innovate and institute the new. •