SOLT plans to overhaul Olivier Awards judging

Presenters Ronan Keating and Kimberley Walsh with award winners from Matilda the Musical at the 2012 Olivier Awards. Photo: Helen Maybanks
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Major changes are being planned for the judging process behind the Olivier Awards to give members of the Society of London Theatre a greater say over who wins.

The overhaul is latest in a string of changes to the way the UK’s most high-profile theatre awards are run, which has included returning the event to a theatre setting and securing mainstream television coverage of the awards for the first time in a decade.

The changes, which are being proposed by SOLT’s membership, will see producers and theatre operators in the commercial West End and major subsidised theatres given the chance to vote on who wins in each category. Currently, SOLT members only have input at the nominations stage. This will bring the Oliviers more closely in line with similar industry awards such as the BAFTAs, Tonys and Oscars.

SOLT chief executive Julian Bird confirmed that proposals were being discussed by its board to “have the members involved in both stages” of the judging process. However, he declined to comment further on the plans, having told Variety: "We are the only awards that I know of where the membership of the organization is not involved in the final selection of the winners. We are out of kilter with the Tonys, the BAFTAs, the Oscars. The plan is to have a blend, in both stages, between SOLT members and the panel."

Due to the fact that the Olivier Awards have previously been chosen by a small group of judges, which include industry representatives and members of the public, they have often thrown up controversial winners – for example, when The Mountaintop won best new play in 2010 at the expense of Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem, or when Honk! beat both Lion King and Mamma Mia! to the award for best new musical in 2000.

Meanwhile, in recent years, the awards have been dominated by winners from the subsidised sector. It is thought that the new voting system might benefit shows emerging from the commercial sector, as the majority of SOLT members are commercial producers or theatre operators.

One West End producer told The Stage that he expected the changes to improve the chances for commercial productions. He added: “It’s an interesting one – on the one hand, it will create bias but, on the other, the Oliviers are notorious for ‘left-field winners’ which sometimes makes people feel that the small panel have their own bias.”

It is not known whether the changes will be in place in time for this year’s awards, which take place on April 28 at the Royal Opera House. Highlights of the event will be screened later that evening on ITV. The last time they were screened on mainstream TV was in 2003 on BBC2.