Thursday, April 26, 2012

Oh, What a night!

Photo credit: Shannon Finney:  Kevin Spacey

by contributor Donna Shor
Photo credit: Neshan H. Naltchayan

The title of Frankie Valli’s signature song exactly described the 28th Helen Hayes Awards―oh what a night this was, a triumph of show business.

The parade of talent crossing the stage of the Warner Theater represented all the actors, artists and the craftspeople in the many fields whose contributions make the world of theater a magic one.

The three-part evening was as action packed as a three ring circus, the reception
first, with excitement in the air preceding the awards, and over 150 anxious nominees,
in the crowd, each thinking “Will it happen for me?”


Then the awards themselves, with all their suspense and with the chance for the members of the audience to see and applaud those who had contributed to their theater experience during the year.

To top it off, like a good third act, was the after party, when the audience moved en masse a block away to the nearby J.W. Marriott Hotel to sup, drink, dance and discuss the whole event at the Ovation Gala. 

For the evening to happen, the awards selection process involved 50 to 60 volunteer judges in a time-consuming and selfless process over several months. The gala kicks off a week-long presentation of performances, free theater classes and workshops, kid’s theatre activities, a Shakespeare’s birthday celebration at the Folger Shakespeare Library, a critics session with the Washington Post’s Peter Marks and others explaining their modus operandi, sing-along’s and musical events.

All this is under the aegis of the “theatreWashington,” rebranded from its former title of the limiting “Helen Hayes Awards” group.  Both Linda Levy Grossman, president and CEO of theatreWashington and Victor Shargai, its chairman of the board of directors, noted that this is the only organization devoted solely to supporting all segments of Washington’s theater community.

They stressed the vibrancy that theatre adds to life in Washington and its enriching values―as well as the millions of dollars spent here because it is a theater scene second only to New York in scope. 2011 saw 9,903 area performances with 2,261,509 audience members at almost 80 theaters and theater groups.

Bob Madigan (C) hams it up
The evening was long, but never boring, and the lively hosts, actress Felicia Curry of the Capital Steps, currently at Imagination Stage and Holly Twyford, actress and director in Washington for twenty years, entertained with dance and song while managing a rapid fire change of costumes during the awards.
As for those awards: Lead actress in a non-resident production was Cate Blanchett, in Kennedy Center’s “Uncle Vanya”; lead actor in that category was Sahr Ngaujah in “FELA!” at the Shakespeare Theatre Company.

Outstanding lead actress in a resident musical was Carolyn Cole of “Hairspray;” the Signature Theatre production won five awards during the evening.  Her counterpart was winner Euan Morton, in “Parade,” Ford’s Theater and Theater J.

Outstanding lead actor was Mitchell Hé Theater J’s “After the Fall.” Lead actress Erica Sullivan, in Studio Theaters “Venus in Fur” shared a tie with Rena Cherry Brown in “Wit” from the Bay Theater Company in Annapolis.  For Rena, a busload of 28 supporters came over from Annapolis to cheer her on.

For “King Lear,” Synetic Theatre’s Irina Tsikurishvili won once again for outstanding choreography.  This year she shared the honor with Ben Cunis, in one of the several awards accruing to the Synetic Theater, whose members are from the Republic of Georgia. They even had a diplomat to cheer for them, Temuri Yakobashvili, The Ambassador from Georgia to the United States who was in the audience..
The Pulitzer Prize-winning “Ruined,” by Lynn Nottage, Arena Stage, was named outstanding play and Aaron Posner was tapped as outstanding director for the play “Cyrano” at the Folger Theatre and Michael Barone for the musical “A Year with Frog and Toad” at the Adventure Theatre.

There were twenty-six award categories, each with two presenters, an announcer and the envelope opener, Oscar-style.  Among those doing the honors were television host Chris Matthews, US Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, Councilmember Jack Evans, NPR’s Nina Totenberg, Montgomery Council Executive Ira Leggett.

Further: Judith Terra, Chairman of the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities and Lionell Thomas, Executive Director of the Commission, Stephen Hills, President and General Manager of the Washington Post, US Representative Jim Moran, Helen Beth MacArthur, the daughter-in-law of Helen Hayes and widow of James MacArthur, and Juliette Rappaport, the daughter of James McArthur and granddaughter of Helen Hayes and playwright Charles MacArthur.   

Special awards: The Washington Post Award went to Paul Sprenger and Jane Lang for their innovative leadership in the theater community, i.e. their efforts to find more arts space turned an old movie theater into the Atlas Performing Arts Center, uplifting a whole neighborhood in northeast DC.

The John Aniello Award honored “Faction of Fools” as the outstanding emerging theater company.  Based at Gallaudet, their style is Commedia dell Arte, with all its flourishes.

Victor Shargai and Karen Akers
Jaylee Mead and her late husband Gilbert, major philanthropists in the region, revitalized Washington theaters with their generous support and encouragement.  Jaylee sponsored the Helen Hayes Tribute, certainly the high point of the evening in no small part because of the character and the history of the recipient, Kevin Spacey. It was a revelation to many to learn all he has done for others, unsung―or at the most very quietly sung― Kevin, we hardly knew ye!

Kevin Spacey has won two Oscars, a Tony, a Drama Desk Award and a host of others during his thirty-year career. He has worked as a director, screenwriter, and crooner and he has done stand-up and carried a spear in his first on-stage appearance.  He is the artistic director of the prestigious Old Vic, one of London’s oldest theaters, and has been named by Prince Charles a CBE, a Commander of the Order of the  British Empire for his contribution.
He was introduced, via video, by Bill Clinton, who told of Spacey’s consistent charitable involvement, and the star’s travels with him for the William J.Clinton Foundation.  Spacey is famed for his spot-on impersonations and the former president said “He has been doing a pretty good imitation of me on several continents.”  

Photo credit: Matt Humphrey
Spacey took the cue, and opened his remarks in that unmistakable Clinton drawl.  He has accompanied the former president on trips for the Clinton Foundation, which convenes global leaders to implement solutions to the world’s most pressing problems.  Along the way, the foundation treats HIV/AIDS and malaria, promotes economic opportunity and creates sustainable developments in Africa, where Spacey toured with him also.

Spacey spoke generously and at length and throughout his remarks, particularly of his mentoring by other actors, that he was setting goals for young actors and what they must do in their turn if success came to them, “Send the elevator back down,” he said, quoting his greatest mentor, Jack Lemmon.

Lemmon first saw Spacey work when he was fifteen, clapped him on the shoulder and told him “Go to New York to make it.”  The veteran actor gave him enormous career advice along the way, and years later, Spacey said, he had the thrill of appearing with Lemmon in productions.

He has said “I’m trying to do something with my success which is bigger than myself.  I’m no longer interested in my personal success.  I’m interested in the impact I can have on a lot of other people’s careers and on the audience.”
The recognition of imagination and uncompromising commitment to the theater is the requirement of the Helen Hayes Tribute, and Kevin Spacey richly deserved it.   

Helen Hayes, (1900-1993), the great actress the awards honor, was famous for her committed work ethic.  She was born in Washington, where made her stage debut at age five, by age nine she made her Broadway debut, eventually to be dubbed “The First Lady of the American Theatre.”  She married the successful writer Charles MacArthur, who later worked on the screenplay that earned her the first of two Oscars.  She also won a Tony, an Emmy and a Grammy and wrote eight books, all while raising a family and pursuing a soaring career. Their adopted son, the actor James MacArthur, was best known for his role of Danny (“book ‘em, Danno”) in the original Hawaii Five-O.

The Hayes-MacArthur romance began when Charles spotted the quiet, demure girl at a boisterous party. Offering her a bowl of peanuts he said, in what was certainly one of the greatest pickup lines of all time, “I wish they were emeralds.”

It obviously worked; they were married until he died almost three decades later.

 Join us at the party: