And the drama prize goes to . . . Theatre Washington
Hayes Awards flap, budget cuts and vacancy at top hobble group
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.”