And the drama prize goes to . . . Theatre Washington

Hayes Awards flap, bud­get cuts and va­cancy at top hob­ble group

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - BY NEL­SON PRESS­LEY

Theatre Washington has been no stranger to con­tro­versy in re­cent years: Howls were raised as the for­mer He­len Hayes Awards la­bored to trans­form into a full-time ser­vice or­ga­ni­za­tion and painstak­ingly ex­pand the awards along big troupe/small troupe lines.

Even so, when Linda Levy sud­denly re­tired as pres­i­dent and chief ex­ec­u­tive af­ter ma­jor surgery this win­ter, the oft-crit­i­cized group looked en­tirely rud­der­less. April’s Hayes Awards, nor­mally pro­duced with a touch of glitz and long dubbed the Dis­trict’s “theater prom,” were so slow to take shape that the cer­e­mony’s usual pro­duc­ers re­signed. No plan was de­vel­oped to dis­pense twice the prizes in two hours. Win­ners were com­manded to race.

The re­sult was an ig­no­ble spec­ta­cle, with fash­ion­ably dressed ac­tresses sprint­ing to the stage, tot­ing their high heels in their hands.

“It was a bit of a joke,” says ac­tress Nanna Ing­vars­son, a win­ner in the new “He­len” cat­e­gory for her solo per­for­mance in “The Amish Pro­ject.” “There wasn’t time for recog­ni­tion of all the nom­i­nees’ hard work. It doesn’t have to take long, but the foot race was kind of ridicu­lous.”

That night — which re­ally ruf­fled feath­ers when the af­ter-party started late, leav­ing guests stand­ing out­side the Howard Theatre— has be­come em­blem­atic of Theatre Washington’s dan­ger­ously di­min­ished for­tunes. Its staff was eight at the2011 launch, but now is down to two: Brad Watkins, vice pres­i­dent of theater com­mu­ni­ca­tions, and Michael Kyri­oglou, theater ser­vices man­ager. A search to find Levy’s re­place­ment shows no signs of ur­gency. The group looks wounded.

Levy’s per­sonal for­tunes have been worse,

in­volv­ing a ter­ri­ble string of losses — both par­ents and her ro­man­tic part­ner, quite rapidly — even be­fore the spinal surgery in De­cem­ber that un­ex­pect­edly left her re-learn­ing to walk. The par­al­lels be­tween the hob­bled Levy and the reel­ing or­ga­ni­za­tion she once led are strik­ing.

“It’s dif­fi­cult,” says Watkins, a long­time friend and col­league of Levy’s, “to sep­a­rate the two top­ics.”

Aleader’s tri­als

To be­gin with Levy: She was raised in Bal­ti­more and stud­ied theater man­age­ment at Emer­son Col­lege, putting that pro­gram to­gether her­self. (Arts man­age­ment cour­ses weren’t yet widely avail­able.) She worked briefly in Bos­ton and in 1981 moved­toWash­ing­ton­fora­nen­try-level theater man­age­ment job. Levy’s tasks in­cluded get­ting cof­fee and re­port­ing the box-of­fice wraps.

That busi­ness shut­tered in 1983, and Levy latched on with the Har­le­quin Din­ner Theater in­Mont­gomery County, which was launch­ing a non-Eq­uity tour­ing op­er­a­tion called Troika Pro­duc­tions. The press rep­re­sen­ta­tive had just re­signed. Levy took the job.

Be­fore the decade was out, her mother was di­ag­nosed with lym­phoma, her Type A fa­ther suf­fered a ma­jor stroke, and Levy wanted to ease up.

“I think there’smoreto life than­mak­ing­sure peo­ple come to ‘ Sugar Ba­bies,’ ” Levy re­calls think­ing.

She free­lanced as a con­trac­tor, work­ing with lo­cal, tour­ing and out-of-town com­pa­nies on sub­scrip­tions and pub­lic­ity. By 1994, theHayes Awards hired her full time, and she worked her wayupthe lad­der. Down­shift­ing didn’tseemto be in her na­ture.

“Linda never stops,” says Kurt Crowl, chair­man of Theatre Washington’s board of di­rec­tors.

“She’s one of the most com­mit­ted peo­ple to any­thing she does,” Watkins says.

InSeptem­ber2012, Levy’s par­ents died within weeks of one another. The fol­low­ing June, Levy’s ro­man­tic part­ner, Zev Remba, died sud­denly of a heart at­tack. He was 51.

Levy, now 55, had been ex­pe­ri­enc­ing mys­te­ri­ous pain in her legs and then in her neck. Doc­tors even­tu­ally told her she needed what she calls “gar­den-va­ri­ety spinal fu­sion surgery” to re­lieve pres­sure that ul­ti­mately made walk­ing a chore and stairs im­pos­si­ble. “It was sup­posed to be sim­ple,” Levy says. She went into the hos­pi­tal Dec. 16, ex­pect­ing to re­turn to work in Jan­uary. De­spite a bat­tery of tests and scans, what the doc­tors found dur­ing the op­er­a­tion was a sneak­ily in­va­sive growth deeply en­twined with nerves. A two- or three-hour pro­ce­dure be­came 10 hours of neu­ro­surgery.

Levy was still in a post-sur­gi­cal fog when she dimly heard doc­tors say­ing things like “para­ple­gia” and “won’t know for a few days.” Oh, my

God, that poor sch­muck, Levy re­calls think­ing of whomever they were talk­ing about. Even­tu­ally she re­al­ized, “The poor sch­muck was me.”

By Fe­bru­ary, un­able to walk on her own and faced with the prospect that re­cov­ery would take at least six months and per­haps a year, Levy re­tired, although she with­held the an­nounce­ment un­til af­ter April’s Hayes Awards. Look­ing back, she feels she over­worked as The­atre­Wash­ing­ton tried to find itsway and so mu­chof her per­sonal life fell apart. In­May, over lunch in a Con­necti­cut Av­enue diner, tears sud­denly got the bet­ter of her.

“I didn’t re­al­ize how much grief I was still cop­ing with un­til af­ter the surgery,” Levy says. “I hadn’t got­ten the bulk of it out of the way.”

Am­bi­tions un­ful­filled

TheHe­lenHayes Awards, which just turned 31, were only a year old when Levy vol­un­teered as a nom­i­na­tor. The or­ga­ni­za­tion was founded and ini­tially run by Bon­nie Nel­son Schwartz, who was suc­ceeded by Betti Brown. Levy be­came ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor in 2001 and pres­i­dent and CEO in 2008.

“Bon­nie birthed it, Betti raised it to ado­les­cence and I got to take it to col­lege,” Levy says. In 2011 Levy led the Hayes out­fit’s tran­si­tion into a ser­vice or­ga­ni­za­tion.

“We had, I think, a very well-in­ten­tioned idea to unify the theater com­mu­nity,” she says, gri­mac­ing now and then as she tries to sit com­fort­ably on a couch at home. (It’s June, and she’s still walk­ing gingerly, some­times lean­ing on walls for sup­port.) “And I don’t think we ac­com­plished that at all.”

The name “The­atre­Wash­ing­ton” was meant to con­vey a big­ger mis­sion than just awards. Arts ad­vo­cacy, mar­ket­ing re­search, coun­sel­ing about in­fra­struc­ture — the list of pos­si­ble ser­vices the or­ga­ni­za­tion could of­fer city the­aters was tan­ta­liz­ing. Pay­ing for the staff and ac­tiv­i­ties was another mat­ter, though. The bud­get of $1.5 mil­lion in 2012 was half that a year later. Cor­po­rate spon­sor­ships, which long un­der­wrote the glitz and drew na­tional celebri­ties (Kevin Spacey, Jer­ryHer­man, Chita Rivera) to the an­nual Hayes cer­e­mony, have been hard to come by.

“Where we went wrong was with the fund­ing,” Levy says. “We should have had more money be­fore Theatre Washington went out there.”

Ini­tia­tives such as a cast­ing data­base de­signed to help the­aters find ac­tors have yet to launch. Co­or­di­nat­ing and mar­ket­ing of this fall’s city­wideWomen’sVoic­esTheaterFes­ti­val, which fig­ures to draw na­tional at­ten­tion, has been taken on by the the­aters them­selves. The big­gest troupes are col­lab­o­rat­ing on their own mar­ket re­search stud­ies. A rift fes­ters about man­dat­ing a “pay floor” of min­i­mum artist com­pen­sa­tion to be el­i­gi­ble for the Hayes Awards; a de­ci­sion on that was re­cently de­layed yet again.

As Theatre Washington bogged down, Levy says, “it felt like we were los­ing in­vest­ment from the theater com­mu­nity. They were like, ‘Come on — let’s get Theatre Washington go­ing.’ ”

By in­vest­ment, she means faith, some­thing the Hayes Awards have strug­gled with for­ever — depend­ing on whom you’re talk­ing to. Small and in­de­pen­dent the­aters have charged that Theatre Washington is a pup­pet of the big out­fits. The big the­aters have com­plained that the bizarre judg­ing sys­tem killed the awards’ cred­i­bil­ity.

That judg­ing process was re­vised last year, fi­nally ex­pand­ing the awards into two cat­e­gories roughly along Eq­uity lines. (Full dis­clo­sure: I sup­ported this change and was a Hayes judge un­der a dif­fer­ent sys­tem from 1996 to 1998.) The new guide­lines re­placed a sys­tem that was lit­er­ally ran­dom, with eight (of 60 or so) judges watch­ing and vot­ing on a show one night, a dif­fer­ent eight vot­ing on another show the next night, etc. Now there are ded­i­cated pan­els specif­i­cally eval­u­at­ing plays, mu­si­cals and new­works.

The April awards were the first un­der the up­dated ar­range­ment, but in­stead of chat­ter­ing about how it did or didn’t work, peo­ple were gob­s­macked by the slap­dash qual­ity of the event. Watkins says there was a mo­ment when it wasn’t clear that the awards would hap­penthis year; DanielMacLeanWag­n­er­says he, Jeff Davis and Cary Gil­lett — con­tracted to pro­duce the cer­e­mony— re­signed roughly two months be­fore the April 21 awards date. Wag­ner, a busyD.C. light­ing de­signer, had a hand in putting to­gether nearly ev­ery Hayes cer­e­mony un­til this year.

“Jeff, Cary and I to­gether sent a let­ter to the board,” Wag­ner says, “ba­si­cally de­clin­ing to par­tic­i­pate this year be­cause of the lack of in­for­ma­tion and the lack of com­mu­ni­ca­tion on the board’s part with us in terms of a bud­get, a venue— you name it.”

The show was even­tu­ally pro­duced by John Moran, Crowl says, and it was a hot dog eat­ing con­test: 49 awards wolfed in 70 un­cer­e­mo­ni­ous min­utes. Crowl heard com­plaints but also praise. “Therew­erepeo­ple­wholoved the speed and energy,” he says. “We tapped into this energy I had not ever seen.”

Is the theater com­mu­nity still buy­ing in enough that the Hayes Awards and Theatre Washington can move for­ward? “There’s an im­por­tant role that could be played by an ef­fec­tive, vi­sion­ary ser­vice or­ga­ni­za­tion,” says Mag­gie Boland, Sig­na­ture Theatre man­ag­ing di­rec­tor . “Sig­na­ture and I are hun­gry for that.” Ford’sTheatre di­rec­torPaulTe­treaultem­phat­i­cally says the same thing.

“I think they’re watch­ing us,” Watkins says. “Look­ing for ev­i­dence. And rightly so. We have to cre­ate a prod­uct that has value.” The Hayes Awards, he says, “have to be the jewel in the crown, not the crown. . . . I didn’t come here to run the He­len Hayes Awards. I came here to build The­atre­Wash­ing­ton.”

Ing­vars­son tes­ti­fies that at least one of Theatre Washington’s pro­grams does good: its per­sonal emer­gen­cies fund, Tak­ing Care of Our Own, which raises part of its money through the an­nual “Sum­mer Hum­mer” fundrais­ing con­certs at Sig­na­ture Theatre. Ing­vars­son re­cently faced large health-care bills for an is­sue with her son when an in­sur­ance plan hadn’t kicked in. “They gave me a huge grant to help cover that, which I will be eter­nally grate­ful for,” Ing­vars­son says.

Crowl isn’t an­tic­i­pat­ing a rad­i­cal new mis­sion when­ever Theatre Washington names its new head, but find­ing money will have to be near the top of the in­com­ing leader’s list of pri­or­i­ties. Ap­pli­ca­tions were due June 15; Crowl says there is no timetable yet for fill­ing the po­si­tion.

Still: Will Theatre Washington and the HayesAwards be around in five years? Crowl is quick to say yes. Levy pauses for a long time.

“It’sup­tothe the­ater­com­mu­nity,” she fi­nally says.

Linda Levy had to re­tire as CEO.

MATT MCCLAIN/THE WASHINGTON POST

Linda Levy, who re­tired as pres­i­dent and CEO of Theatre Washington, lost her par­ents in 2012 and her ro­man­tic part­ner less than a year later. Then her own med­i­cal or­deal led to surgery and a long re­cov­ery in which she had to re­learn how to walk. “I didn’t re­al­ize how much grief I was still cop­ing with un­til af­ter the surgery,” Levy says.

JUANA ARIAS FOR THE WASHINGTON POST

Vic­tor Shar­gai, then chair­man of Theatre Washington’s board of trustees, with Levy in 2012. “We had, I think, a very well-in­ten­tioned idea to unify the theater com­mu­nity,” Levy says of her group’s aims. “And I don’t think we ac­com­plished that at all.”

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