And the Drammy Goes To...

Circumstances, either real or imagined, have prevented me from attending the Drammy Awards for the past five years. What a pleasure, then, to arrive at the Crystal Ballroom on a balmy Monday evening to find hundreds of festively-dressed artists, administrators, and enthusiastic theater groupies celebrating no fewer than 110 stage productions of the past theater season. The unofficial theme -- from comments on stage to the tagline in PCS's ad in the program -- was "a year of kick-ass theater."

My blogging collaborator Mighty Toy Cannon successfully lobbied for (or predicted?) several of the winners, including Sarah Gagahan for costumes in James and the Giant Peach, Sharonlee McLean for best actress in The Receptionist, and Chris Rousseau for sets in How To Disappear Completely and Never Be Found. In fact, How To Disappear shone in all of the technical categories, winning for sound and lighting to boot. Sadly, no awards were given for nudity.

A complete list of winners can be found here, with required follow-up reading here in the form of Alison Hallet's pertinent commentary. (Had I known you couldn't liveblog, Alison, I might have been tempted to do so myself, but in the end I must say it was nice to just sit back and "enjoy.") Within Alison's post there are some good critiques, both small and sweeping. Two comments in particular seem to be part of an age-old debate in the local theater community, so I will regurgitate them here:

1. Risky Theater vs. Safe Theater. This year's awards for outstanding productions went to Les Miserables and Into the Woods. I know it's not as simple as the straightforward dichotomy that some others have suggested (popular theater gets rewarded at the box office, and edgy theater gets rewarded by the critics), but really, what are we rewarding here? I recognize that the Drammy Committee does not need to share their criteria with all of us, but I'm curious what they're grading on. These awards would seem to indicate only an appreciation for execution, and no matter how good the execution was, I would recommend taking other important factors into account, such as, oh, showing me something I haven't seen before. I'm not saying that tried and true musicals should be removed from consideration, nor that these productions don't deserve the accolade. I'm just surprised they were the only two citations in a year of what we all seem to agree was a "year of kick-ass theater." Which begs the question, then: what made it so kick-ass?

2. Established artists vs. New talent. Or worse, shipped-in talent. This debate has been raging since the early days of Portland Center Stage -- ie, the 1990s -- when producer Dennis Bigelow, and Pat Patton after him, and then Liz Huddle, routinely shipped in talent from other communities. You could make a case that such a practice was warranted then because so few Equity (union) actors lived in Portland. Now the theory seems to be that there are so many extraordinary professional (and semi-professional) actors in Portland that we don't need any more, and we certainly don't need to ship in more talent to produce our plays, thankyouverymuch. The trouble with this theory -- for me -- is that it doesn't take the audience's experience into account. When I go to the theater, I want to see the best damn actor you could find for that role. I don't care if he's established or emerging. I don't care if he's a professionally-trained actor or a lawyer who plays in a garage band at night. I don't care if she's from Portland or Peoria or New York City. What I don't want is to live in a city that performs 110 plays in repertory with a company of 50 "resident" actors who sometimes do and sometimes do not fit the bill. (We've had a version of this discussion here.)

I feel strongly that actors like Lisa Renee Pitts and Storm Large, who gave us undeniably some of the most extraordinary theatrical moments of the year, are uniquely qualified and deserve to be recognized accordingly. That's no disrespect to the actors who live and work here -- and I believe that many of them can and do perform in other cities to critical acclaim elsewhere. Should they not be eligible for critical awards in those other places? Or if the sentiment is more blatantly xenophobic, that local talent is somehow entitled to every role and award that's available, and our very survival is threatened by the invasion of newcomers and imports who are stealing these things away, well, obviously I don't buy that. In fact I believe that the local arts community has gotten much stronger over the past ten years as a direct result of greater exposure to, and sustained influx of, bar-raising talent.

Being less of a comment whore than my aforementioned blogging collaborator, I heartily encourage Culture Shock readers to comment on these and other critiques of the Drammy Awards on Blog Town if not here. (Although you are welcome to do both!) And if any of you can consider Alison's plea for a better local theater blog... I concur! (Thanks for the related compliment, by the way.) I'd really love to know what's going on more of the time in the local theater community, both behind the scenes and on stage, and god knows we can't all make it to 110 productions a year.


Anonymous said...

Uh, Storm has lived here for like 10 years.

culturejock said...

Yes. I'm sorry. I didn't mean that she is a newcomer to Portland, I meant that some folks in the theater community complain that she is a newcomer to theater. Her local theater debut was a year and a half ago in Cabaret. And all I can say is, thank you Storm and PCS. I told her the other night that I hope she will do as much theater in this world as she possibly can.

cynseattle said...

Excellent recap, CJ. I, too, was attending for the first time in many years, and felt that the event had taken some great leaps forward. It felt more like the "celebration of Portland Theater" that it touted to be in the past. The old days at the Benson Hotel, even older days at Erickson's Saloon, often felt a little, well, icky.

The out of town actor issue has been present in every city I've worked in in theater (now numbering four!), and where I've always worked at the "big" theater. I know a lot of actors who actually welcome the opportunity to work with "fresh" faces from out of town, and enjoy the new energy, the challenge of finding a new rhythm rather than the comfort of the one they know, etc. I think the mix is healthy. At the same time, I'm certainly sympathetic to the actors' life in the U.S., in theater in particular. It's one of always looking for the next job, always dealing with the reality that you will spend a chunk of every year away from home if you want to work consistently at the Equity level. Not a life that any of us would find easy or, indeed, choose, if we didn't have the strong desire it takes as an artist to do that work. I'm grateful so many do make that choice!

And a P.S. to your note; Denis Arndt and Bill Geisslinger, while spending years at Oregon Shakespeare Festival in their careers, are out of town actors who were honored at the Drammys this year, too. Well-deserved for their work at ART in "Seafarer."