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Daniel Evans: It’s a slippery slope to allow awards to define who we are

Imelda Staunton in Follies at the National Theatre. Photo: Tristram Kenton Imelda Staunton appeared in The Stage 100 list for 2018. Why not Sharon D Clarke? Photo: Tristram Kenton
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Around 10 years ago, I was in New York and an American actor mentioned how fortunate it was that I could be there during ‘awards season’. It was the first time I’d heard the phrase and found the notion peculiar and slightly distasteful. Soon, however, I came to understand why the period between March and June got its name.

In the 19th century England, aristocratic families and the gentry would decamp to London for the ‘season’ of parties, balls and charity events. Its contemporary equivalent is the New York awards ‘season’. Peppered with galas, lunches and parties, attendees are required to turn out well, walk the red carpet, give grateful interviews, endure over-long ceremonies and smile regardless of the outcome. I got to experience all of this after being nominated for a Tony in 2008, with the show Sunday in the Park With George.

Now, was it fun? Oh yes. I remember having my leg squeezed by Patti LuPone just as Liza Minnelli read the names for the category in which I was nominated. I remember the Tony nominee luncheon at the top of Rockefeller Plaza, mainly for the stunning Manhattan views. I remember Frances McDormand, who sat behind me at the Drama Desk Awards, recommending the best place to get chicken in Hell’s Kitchen.

But was it also ridiculous? Undoubtedly. You couldn’t help question whether so many awards were absolutely necessary (New York has the Tonys, Drama Desks, Theatre World, Outer Critics Circle, Drama League, etc).

I could never work out who was paying for the meals or the floral arrangements. My fellow actor Jenna Russell and I were often called upon to sing at a gala on our day off in order to canvas more votes for the show, which became tiring.

Most importantly, it was somehow impossible to resist the temptation of linking how I valued our show with how many awards it won or how much press coverage it got. I returned to the UK a tad depressed, but having learned a lesson.

The UK has gone the way of the US with its awards in recent years. Now, the Oliviers are accompanied by the UK Theatre Awards, WhatsOnStage, Broadway World, The Stage Awards, etc. And yes, The Stage 100 list.

Now, I understand why awards are important. In these days of diminished state funding, attention is often drawn to our industry’s instrumental value to the national economy, so it’s also good to recognise the intrinsic value of what we do. Last year, the Harry Potter double-bill won a host of awards because it was good – and that recognition was a pleasure to witness.

It’s a slippery slope, though, if we begin to lay too much store at this recognition and let it define us. Take The Stage 100 list this year. (A disclaimer: I’m included in it – and pleased to be so.) I couldn’t help but question its subjectivity. If Imelda Staunton, why not Sharon D Clarke? Why so few designers? Why favour commercial producers over regional theatres? Then I realised that it’s as a tool to draw attention that such awards and lists work best. Holding the results lightly is the only way to stay sane.

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