Ovation Awards Rule Change Sparks Outrage

A controversial change to the judging criteria for the L.A. STAGE Alliance’s Ovation Awards is roiling the Los Angeles theater community and could lead to an “evolution” of the rules. The peer-judged awards are meant to recognize excellence in Los Angeles–area theater. But whether that’s recognizing theater produced in and around Los Angeles, or whether that’s theater produced by Angelenos—that is the question.

A change to the 2011–12 Ovations judging criteria meant that if a show was originally produced in another location and contained multiple members of the original production team, it was a “presented” production. That meant it couldn’t be considered in individual award categories.

The new rule led to some confusion among theaters in their submissions and by the alliance in its judging. As a result, the alliance had to disqualify several nominees, including Center Theatre Group’s “American Night: The Ballad of Juan Jose,” which had received nods for costume design, lighting design, and sound design in the large theater category.

In an email, the judging committee told the producers: “Unfortunately, the Ovation Awards Rule Committee and the Tabulators have discovered that AMERICAN NIGHT was not, by the official awards rules, eligible for nomination—because it had been previously produced at several other theatres with essentially the same production team.”

Several members of the production signed an email in response to the committee saying they were prevented from “fairly and legitimately participat[ing]” in the awards.

They noted “American Night,” which ran at the Kirk Douglas Theater from March 9 to April 1, had originally been produced at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2010. And the next mounting of the production was at the La Jolla Playhouse as a co-production with CTG.

“So to the contrary AMERICAN NIGHT was not produced at ‘several other theaters.’ The production was produced at only one other theater, The Oregon Shakespeare Festival, as the La Jolla Playhouse production was a Co-Production with CTG,” the email states. “Your rules obviously allow for Co-Productions with Los Angeles theaters.”

The email, which was obtained by Backstage, goes on to cite several productions that received awards despite being staged at an original theater and then one in Los Angeles.

Douglas Clayton, the director of programming and operations at the L.A. STAGE Alliance, acknowledged past productions staged elsewhere had won Ovation Awards but said the rule change was meant to put a halt to that. He noted that the touring production of the Broadway show “The Lion King” cleaned up at the Ovations in 2001, taking home seven honors.

In the past, Clayton told Backstage, the Ovations “would just go to something that was a hit in New York and came to L.A.” These well-oiled, fervently workshopped productions would be competing against a show with an original team that had rehearsed for just six weeks, Clayton noted. “The rules did evolve as the community evolved,” he said.

Look at CTG’s or the Geffen Playhouse’s recent seasons, and what stands out is the number of productions that were originally staged elsewhere, Clayton said. “Those theaters have been moving in a certain direction with how they produce [shows].”

A spokeswoman for the Geffen noted that in the past two seasons, the playhouse has hosted seven world premieres among a total of 16 productions, the majority of which have been completely original shows. “We don’t do any touring productions—every production that is put on the Geffen stage is staged for our theater,” Allison Rawlings, a Geffen spokeswoman, said in an email.

As the debate over “originality” continues, actors are caught in the middle. Even if the cast members of a production are L.A.-based, they cannot be considered for individual honors if some members of the production were involved in a previous staging. That could eventually change, Clayton said. “We will undoubtedly see an evolution” of the rules.

“It’s a no-win situation,” he said. “There’s no way to make everyone happy.”