Drammys: Where’s the party?

DramaWatch: Attendance dropped and the drama crept behind the scenes at this year's Portland theater awards. What comes next?

Once upon a time I had a dream about the Drammys.

I don’t mean dream as in a sleepytime movie, but rather a hope, a wish, an ideal of a future. When I first began to care about the Drammy Awards, the annual celebration of Portland-area theater was held at the Crystal Ballroom. At one end of the oblong room, outstanding theater work was honored onstage. At the other end, the combination of the entrance and the bar catalyzed a sometimes raucous social scene as friendly acquaintances convened. There was tension between the two elements, with the loud, lubricated chatter from the back sometimes drowning out the official proceedings, but it had the feel of a fabulous party. That feeling continued once the event was done, as the crowd spilled outside into a stream of sidewalk clusters stretching around the block and into Cassidy’s, which suddenly boasted more actors than you could shake a script at. 

Drag clown Carla Rossi was emcee at this year’s Drammy Award ceremony, where attendance was down. Photo: Scotty Fisher/Sleeper Studios

I was writing about theater for The Oregonian, and was thrilled about all the interesting and talented local artists I was encountering. Seeing so many of them all together, as one big, convivial community, celebrating one another and the fine work they’d done over the past season, was exhilarating. 

I figured that excitement should be shared.

Maybe the Drammy Awards could be more like a big-time awards show. That is, maybe it could be built into something that made that excitement more visible and accessible, creating a buzz that drew in more casual followers of entertainment and culture, creating new fans of the form. 

A decade later, the Drammys have gone through lots of changes – in venue, in format, in internal processes. (It even endured a few years with me on the selection committee.) Yet this year’s annual ceremony, held earlier this month at the Armory, suggested that we’re further from my Drammy dream.

Mostly because, um, nobody was there.

Well, not nobody, quite, but a mere 230 folks, according to a count by the Armory’s house manager. The ceremony, hosted by Anthony Hudson in the guise of drag-clown character Carla Rossi, was tartly entertaining (if grievously long, at more than three hours). But what really was missing was the sizzle, the feeling that this was a party worth wanting in on, that this was the place to be even if you didn’t have skin in the game. 

At one point I stepped outside to chat with the terrific actor Dana Millican and some friends of hers and we puzzled over the low turnout. Had interest waned because Portland Center Stage and Artists Rep pulled their shows from consideration a few years ago? Were folks put off by this year’s elimination of gender distinctions in acting categories? And of course there was a conjecture I’ve heard often in recent years: Years back, artists never knew if they might win or not and attended just in case; since the selection committee began announcing finalists in advance, many of those not still in the running don’t bother to show up. 

Then again, this year’s ceremony took place on July 1, a couple of weeks later than usual (apparently because someone neglected to make the Armory reservation in time). Maybe that made the difference.

And attendance didn’t seem to be the only issue. In brief chats around the lobby, I heard that it had been a turbulent, contentious year on the committee, with several defections and longtime member Darr Durham stepping down as chair midway through the season. In a comedic “Drammy FAQ” delivered during the ceremony by Jason Rouse, the answer to a question about how often the committee meets may not have been a joke: “Knowing what I know, I just don’t think these people want to be in a room together.” 

Drammy service — which usually has required attending at least 50 plays per year, plus several committee meetings — can be a grind, and the committee sees some turnover every year. But a handful of departing committee members lamented, in recent conversations, about the quality of deliberations in the past year. Members weren’t all getting out to enough of the shows to evaluate them, or attending enough of the group’s meetings. Discussions often lacked the specificity, technical expertise and aesthetic discernment that are crucial to the process. Instead, they said, the committee found itself mired in interrogations of its own procedures, with considerations about “EDI” (equity, diversity and inclusion) and social justice often crowding out the art itself.

“We’re in a time where tonal moderates have no place at the table,” the writer/director Matt Zrebski said of his departure. “I’m a radical progressive, but I’m a tonal moderate. In the past, discussions sometimes got heated, but any bickering was about disagreements over the art. That’s not at all what last year was about.”

“Outstanding work reveals itself,” said Antonio Sonera. “I think we got it right in awarding Cabaret. I think we got Fences and Crowns and lots of others right. Awards are the results of the work (put on stage). And I worked for years at a Latino-American theater company;  I understand the importance of justice in terms of people of color, of non-binary gender expression and so on. But it doesn’t start with the Drammy Awards. It starts with boards of directors, with the leadership of theater companies, with the selection of plays, with the hiring of casts and crews.”

Durham, long the committee’s genial if occasionally blunt den mother, found herself in the center of the conflicts. “Hounded” and “mutiny” were terms I heard about how she was treated by some newer committee members. 

“In most of these discussions, I was made to feel like I was defending a personal position rather than policies that had developed over 40 years and were written down,” she told me.

She elaborated in a follow-up email: “Over the course of my 20 years on the committee, I saw a particular pattern over and over again.  A new member comes in with preconceptions about how the committee works (which are generally wrong) and how it should work (from the standpoint of an outside observer).  When the majority of the committee had been on for a few years, they modeled good behavior in terms of how one discusses, how one evaluates, how one listens respectfully, etc.  Within their first season, new members came to realize the committee functioned really well and was committed to excellence. It was not at all what they thought before they joined.  They realized people took their viewing seriously, attended meetings, discussed thoughtfully, and voted as if their lives depended on it. … As the 41st season progressed, I really felt that the camaraderie and sense that we are here to celebrate the outstanding work of our theatre community was lost, or at least seriously dissipated. There is such a thing as an organizational lifespan. The 41st season felt like the Drammys were running on borrowed time.” 

By January, she “felt it was right to just get off the train. …Time to step aside and let a new generation make of it what they will.”

Having observed that train from on board and off, and hoping it might go a particular direction, I’m sympathetic to the complaints.
But then again, getting the Drammys right – both as an adjudicative process and as a promotional event – is a surprisingly tricky business. A move to improve one area can create problems in another. (For instance, although moving to the Newmark Theatre and now to the Armory has allowed the award ceremony to be a more orderly and polished production, it no longer feels much like the city-wide cast party of old — in part because no single post-show hangout has kept the energy going the way Cassidy’s used to.)

And then there’s the view from new committee co-chair Tamara Carroll, who, along with Jessica Dart, stepped up to replace Durham mid-season.

“Anti-racism, anti-oppression work is part of the purview of every organization — or should be,” Carroll replied when I asked if they sought to make social justice a core part of the Drammy mission. “Speaking only for myself, I think we should consider how ethical or necessary is a production. Or you could just take it back to the question, ‘Why this play now?’”

As much as I believe that such awards should be based on art, not politics, I also agree that context matters, and that intention, as well as execution, has meaning.

A lot of Carroll’s comments about the committee’s outlook sound less like a radical re-direct than like the reiteration of longstanding – if perhaps inherently elusive – goals. 

“It needs to more clearly define its identity and its role in the community,” Carroll said. “Our approach is to try to open more avenues of transparency and communication, so that people understand that we’re not just an enigmatic secret society of deciders. What I hope we’re moving toward is having a committee that’s broader in all respects, larger and more representative of the whole theater community. We’re looking for people who share the values that we have, of celebrating and elevating the work.”

Carroll talks about ways to make theater companies feel more involved (such as by letting them suggest committee members), about the importance of spotlighting small companies and independent artists, about the need for more working artists on the committee, about refining the (essentially, unavoidably) subjective process of judging the art through the development of guidelines.

All of these things are to the good, I believe. So here’s hoping the organizational lifespan of the Drammys still has a way to go. And that more folks will be inspired to join the party. 


OPENING


Catherine Egan (in last year’s Handbags) performs at CoHo’s Summerfest Ruckus.

IN WHAT MOSTLY IS THEATER’S DRY SEASON, CoHo Productions’ Summerfest provides a refreshing splash — of stylistic variety, of experimental spirit and of a wild will to entertain. At the end of a series of performances drawing on clowning, movement, music, etc., all of those qualities get compressed and accelerated into Summerfest Ruckus, a weekend of nightly variety shows. The lineup shifts slightly on some evenings, but most shows will include the dancer and interdisciplinary artist Catherine Egan, actors Claire Rigsby and Keegan Kyle, “world wild accordion diva” Jet Black Pearl, singer/storyteller Matt Sheehy, and dancer/clown/”rogue theology” artist Julia Brandenberger.

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“RED OCTOPUS THEATRE COMPANY is well known for edgy scripts, superior sets, technical expertise and the highest caliber of actors on the Central Oregon Coast.” So says Oregon Coast Today, in a quote placed prominently on the theater’s web page. I can’t say that I see On Golden Pond, Ernest Thompson’s sunset snapshot of loss and reconciliation, counting as edgy, but it has its compensating charms. And with other fare such as John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt ahead on the season calendar, maybe this Newport theater will edge its way onto your schedule.  


CLOSING


John San Nicolas and Annie Rimmer Weeks in Sherwood: The Adventures of Robin Hood. Photo courtesy Clackamas Repertory Theatre.

CONSIDERING THAT WE’RE ALREADY INTO DEBATES for the 2020 presidential election, perhaps the economic populism inherent in the story of Sherwood: The Adventures of Robin Hood – Ken Ludwig’s brightly comedic take on the familiar, forested tale of wealth redistribution – counts as politically topical programming on the part of Clackamas Rep. In any case, a cast that includes such stalwarts as John San Nicolas (as Robin) and Todd Van Voris (as Friar Tuck) should be worthwhile, for richer for poorer.


BEST LINE I READ THIS WEEK


“Like a piece of ice on a hot stove, the poem must ride on its own melting.”
– Robert Frost, in the essay “The Figure a Poem Makes,” as quoted in an article in The New York Times about (go figure) NBA point guard D’Angelo Russell

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That’s all I have for now. I’ll try to do better the next time. 

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