All kinds of objections can be raised against arts awards. Ray Lawler gave the most common when he declined to be involved in the founding of the Green Room Awards in 1982. The playwright wished the awards well, but believed that competition was inimical to what the arts – and especially a form as collaborative as theatre – should stand for.
The obvious riposte is that the strife of creative competition has ushered in some of the greatest periods in theatrical history. Would ancient Greek drama have flourished and been remembered without annual play contests? Would English Renaissance theatre – the decades that gave us Shakespeare and Jonson and Marlowe and Webster – have happened without London’s many playhouses and the intense rivalry between them?
Celebrating artistic achievement through awards has benefits, but only if the awards themselves have lustre and credibility. Unfortunately, most of the cachet the Green Room Awards now possess derives from the opposite of competition. As Melbourne’s only performing arts awards, they hold a monopoly. It really doesn’t matter how shoddy and compromised the judging processes become. If the alternative is no awards at all, the Green Rooms look good in comparison.
Unlike Sydney or Adelaide, where theatre awards are decided by critics, the Green Rooms are peer-based – judged by panels of artists, academics and commentators, with artists predominating. Artists rewarding artists immediately raises questions of conflict of interest, of transparency and accountability, and competence to judge purely on merit. The collaborative nature of most performing arts makes warm fuzziness and mutual backslapping particularly likely.
The fact that our 21st century theatre scene is so diverse and robust also means that, to adequately discharge their role, some judges (notably the independent theatre panel) must see more than a hundred productions a year. The risk is that the best and brightest artists won’t have the time – something a quick look at the panellists tends to confirm. Given that judges appoint new judges, it’s a slippery slope.
Seeing so much performance is an onerous responsibility – one that sources within the Green Room Association itself say judges often don’t meet. Of equal concern are claims that procedures designed to ensure the integrity of the awards – including panels meeting once every three months to discuss work, and limiting panellists to a maximum of three years to make the judging pool more broadly representative – have fallen by the wayside.
In spite of this, every year the Green Room Awards has its share of worthy winners. No fair-minded observer could begrudge Angus Cerini’s Save For Crying its slew of awards, nor Zahra Newman her Best Female Performer gong for the tour de force in Debbie Tucker Green’s Random. Yet, while there’s room for wide brown plains of disagreement about theatre in Victoria, every year there are indefensible decisions that insult the skill and vitality of our theatre scene and tarnish the credibility of the awards.
In 2012, two stand out. The first is the failure to nominate Red Stitch Actors Theatre for a single award. To anyone who saw the bulk of their 10th anniversary season, the strongest in years, that’s dingbats: Nadia Tass’s production of The Aliens, in particular, was one of the highlights of 2011. The other bizarre decision was the Music Theatre panel refusing to give an award for Best Musical, without giving any public reason. Why would they? It’s the Green Rooms or nothing, right?
I wonder whether we should we follow the example of Sydney and Adelaide and have theatre awards decided by critics. Of course, I’m a critic, so I would say that.
Apart from my (admittedly burning) desire to sit on yet another judging panel for no money, my concern is altruistic – to ensure that our theatre artists are awarded solely on merit, something small, peer-review panels seem incapable of doing with any consistency. (And it’s as much a problem at the Australia Council, which decides arts grants this way, as it is at the Green Rooms. Unlike the Green Rooms though, the Australia Council is in the middle of a public consultation about its process.)
The case for a Critics Award is overwhelming. Aesthetic evaluation lies at the heart of a critic’s craft, and transparency and accountability are built directly into our work. Critics must compose a written response and deliver it into the public domain, where it can be scrutinised and, in the internet age, often subjected to public correspondence and discussion.
Critics are well placed to attend the sheer quantity of theatre on offer in 21st century Melbourne, and would likely see a greater amount of it than some Green Room judges do. There would be fewer problems with judges not having seen the nominees. Shows from the start of the year would not be disadvantaged, as critics could refer back to their reviews. And the independence required of a critic means that conflicts of interest would be far less likely to occur.
All of these factors would enhance the prestige, credibility and relevance of theatre awards, and with the internet broadening the pool of quality critics operating in Melbourne, there has never been a better time to institute a Critics Award for theatre. Apart from anything else, it would give the Green Rooms some much-needed competition.
[This essay appeared in The Age, 26/3/12.]