Pleasure With the Payne
If show folk across Austin are pulling out their spiffiest duds and stocking up on cash for the bar, it must be time for the B. Iden Payne Awards, our town's longest-running celebration of outstanding work onstage. Tonight's ceremony, starting at 8pm at Stateside at the Paramount, will be the 38th time local thespians have gathered for these honors.
Of course, it wouldn't be the Paynes without a little controversy. From the outset, when voting for the awards took place at the actual ceremony and the show that arrived with the largest company took home the most trophies, the awards have been a source of almost as much discontent as pride. Charges of bias and conflict of interest have been leveled at the committee that selects the nominees, and the winners dismissed as the most popular choice rather than the highest quality. To its credit, the Austin Circle of Theaters, which founded the awards and sponsored them for decades, sought to shore up the Paynes' credibility through repeated reforms of the process – several of which this writer was part of – and the current B. Iden Payne Awards Council, established after ACoT evolved into the Creative Alliance, has followed suit. And yet they never manage to douse the flames completely. The coals stay warm and, before you can say "Aristophanes," whoosh! – another firestorm has ignited.
This year it was sparked by the Payne Awards Nominations Committee's decision not to field any nominees in the Outstanding Direction of a Musical category. The category of Outstanding Production of Music Theater included a full five nominees – Ragtime and White Christmas from Zach Theatre, The Secret Garden from Mary Moody Northen Theatre, Avenue Q from Austin Theatre Project, and Passing Strange, the debut from Half & Half Productions – which struck some viewers as a major disconnect. How could all of these productions be worthy of nomination and none of the artists responsible for staging them be? Doesn't the director provide the production's artistic vision and coordinate all the disparate elements – performances, choreography, music direction, design – into a cohesive whole?
The questions went public when Juliana Wright posted a commentary on the Austin Live Theatre website's announcement of the nominations. (That commentary was later sent to the Chronicle and published in our Postmarks section.) As the co-artistic director of Half & Half, as well as a Nominations Committee member for several seasons and the executive director of the council for the first two years after the awards spun off from ACoT into their own nonprofit, Wright has a lot of skin in the game. In both her original post and a later email to me, her concerns had as much to with the credibility and public perception of the council's integrity as with the artists who were not recognized with nominations.
Kelsey Kling, Wright's successor as council ED, posted a response on the council's website and Facebook page, leaning heavily on the word "excellence" to explain the decision not to nominate any directors of musicals. "While we certainly felt that there were many good examples of direction of a musical, we felt it was our duty to adhere to the level of excellence mandated by our guidelines, as represented by the balance of categories/nominees," she wrote. Kling went on to describe an hour-long discussion on the matter during the council's marathon 14-hour session to determine the nominees. She calls the decision, made after repeated reviews of the season and councilmembers' evaluations, as "agonizing … for all involved," given their passion for theatre and considerable investment of time in the awards process. "Nobody wants to recognize excellence more than we do."
Kling's reply did little to satisfy Wright, who believed the council should still reverse its decision. Rumbling continued in the theatre community for another few days. Then, almost a week after her last post, Kling announced that the council would be making an addition to the ballot for voting on the awards: a write-in option for the category of Direction of a Musical. "Our primary directive is to recognize excellence, but that directive is in service to this community. If in our service, we fall short, we want to remedy that shortcoming. You have asked for this very directly, so we want this award to come from you directly." How the community responded and who might be the winner is a question that will only be answered tonight.
In case you're looking to handicap the rest of the awards, you might be interested in the following data. The show receiving the most nominations was White Christmas, with seven, but right behind it, with six nominations each, were Ragtime, the Vortex production of Gabriel Jason Dean's Qualities of Starlight, and the UT Department of Theatre & Dance's premiere of Suzan Zeder's The Edge of Peace. The drinks and schmoozing start at 7pm at the Stateside, 719 Congress. The ceremony starts at 8pm. For more information, visit www.bidenpayneawards.com.