The local theater community’s annual orgy of self-congratulations—The Ivey Awards—was as raucous and entertaining as ever Monday night. But it was also a night that highlighted both the strengths and weaknesses of the Ivey Awards.
Don’t get me wrong: I like a good orgy as much as the next guy. And I actually enjoyed the way the Iveys handled the seamier element of the show: the need to mention every sponsor who coughed up more than a dollar of support. In a bravura display of theater’s transformative power, local actor Ari Haptman rode onstage in a vehicle provided by event sponsor BMW, and proceeded to turn what could have been the most boring part of the evening—the obligatory thanks to sponsors—into a brilliant comedy bit. Adopting the guise of a German professor, he listed the sponsors in a faux-German accent, which magically made them funny, thereby rescuing some dignity from what is traditionally the most shameless part of the evening. Bravo.
One of the best things about the Ivey Awards is that it recognizes how painfully dull and pretentious awards shows can be, and does everything it can to avoid falling into that trap. Hosts Randy Reyes and Christina Baldwin had an ongoing bit where, just as they were about to read from a serious script, a fight would break out: ninja battle, knife fight, sword fight—anything to break up the anticipated monotony of a tender, heartfelt moment. This was meta-clever comedy, because it simultaneously lampooned the creative impulse to insert “action” sequences wherever possible, while also showcasing the talents of people who execute those scenes onstage. Bravo again.
But there was plenty of disconcerting weirdness to go around as well—the kind that calls the credibility of the event into question, even as a judgment-free zone of unqualified cheerleading for all of the fantastic theater that gets produced in the Twin Cities.
As most people know, the Ivey Awards deliberately do not operate like the Academy Awards or Emmys, in that they do not have any specific award categories, and an award for “recognition,” “excellence,” “emotional intensity,” or whatever can be won by literally anyone in the audience. In fact, Ivey award categories are often invented to fit the recipient, the way awards for schoolchildren are manufactured to recognize worthy but unconventional talents like the ability to sit still and shut up for hours at a time while a teacher lectures at you. This reluctance to turn the Iveys into a conventional awards competition has become one of its strengths, because in the past it has meant that many unsung heroes of the theater world—set designers, lighting technicians, and sound engineers, for instance—have just as much chance of winning an award as actors and directors.
Seasoned Ivey-goers have been conditioned to overlook the capricious, nonsensical nature of the Ivey Awards and embrace their unpredictable equanimity. But that was hard to do Monday night.
Example No. 1: Of the 12 awards given out, two of them went to Yellow Tree Theatre’s production of the Hitchcock adaptation The 39 Steps. The show’s director, Anne Byrd, won an award, as did the show’s principal actors, Nathan Cousins and Tristan Tifft.
Now, I did not see this show, and for all I know it was fantastic. What I do know is that Yellow Tree Theatre operates out of Osseo, 15 miles outside the metro, and The 39 Steps, while entertaining, isn’t exactly a groundbreaking theatrical achievement. It’s the sort of safe, populist fare that appeals to people who would rather be watching TV or a movie than going to a play.
Seen through the egalitarian prism of Ivey “recognition,” the fact that a small theater outside the metro can win an Ivey might be viewed as a triumph. But for one production by a small theater to win two awards—well, that suggests that whoever reviewed Yellow Tree’s The 39 Steps for the Iveys gushed so enthusiastically about it that their praise somehow crowded out hundreds of other worthy performances. Or—more damning—that the anonymous volunteer reviews on which the Iveys are based are actually written by three or four people who don’t really get out to see much theater—or who, like Yelp reviewers, heap praise in places where, if anyone looks too closely, things start to look suspicious.
Example No. 2: Another conspicuous recipient of Ivey love was actress Sally Wingert, who won an Ivey award for the “Intellect and Emotional Intensity” (an invented Ivey category) involved in her one-woman show, Rose, produced by the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company. Wingert also won another Ivey for her cumulative work in 2013-14 over four productions: the aforementioned Rose, The Receptionist (Dark & Stormy Productions), Cabaret (Theatre Latte Da), and Tribes (The Guthrie).
Now, I love Sally, and think she’s great and deserving, etc., etc. And again, the fact that she could be recognized for delivering a consistent level of artistic excellence in multiple productions is a testament to the creativity and flexibility of the Ivey Awards to shine the light of recognition where it doesn’t normally go. However, giving Sally Wingert two awards in one evening, with some thematic overlap in the case of Rose, is gilding the lily a bit too much. It’s an overabundance of “recognition” that inadvertently does precisely what the Ivey awards are (I think) trying not to do: a). It devalues the performances of other actors in town who were arguably just as deserving, b). it diminishes the value of Sally Wingert’s own accomplishments by over-emphasizing them to the exclusion of all others (which is a little embarrassing), and c). it suggests—whether true or not—that some sort of favoritism or bias or lack of diversity in the Ivey reviewing pool yielded this bizarre result.
Neither of these situations should have arisen, but they did—and that is, I submit, something the Ivey Awards committee is going to have to sort out if it wants the Ivey Award itself to retain any integrity in the future. On the other hand, if the goal is to get people to take the awards less seriously than they already do—then mission accomplished.
Not to take away from the other worthy Ivey Award winners, of which there were many. Following is the complete list of honorees:
Lifetime Achievement: Michael Robins and Bonnie Morris, Illusion Theater
Emerging Artist: Tyler Michaels
Overall Excellence: Cabaret, Theatre Latte Da and Hennepin Theatre Trust
Overall Excellence: Ordinary Days, Nautilus Musical Theater
Intellect and Emotional Intensity: Rose, MN Jewish Theatre Co.
Recognition: Sally Wingert—four productions in 2013-14
Recognition: Director Anne Byrd, The 39 Steps, Yellow Tree Theatre
Recognition: Nathan Cousins and Tristan Tifft, The 39 Steps, Yellow Tree Theatre
Ensemble recognition: Driving Miss Daisy, The Jungle Theater—Wendy Lehr, James Craven, Charles Frasier
Recognition: Playwright Seraphina Nova, Dogwood, Candid Theater Company
Set Design/Costumes: Eduardo Sicangco, Cinderella, Children’s Theatre Co.
Properties Design: Sandy Spieler and Julie Boada, Between the Worlds, Heart of the Beast
Congratulations to all the winners. And here’s hoping that the Iveys spread the love around a little more broadly and generously next year.