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Kevin Kline Awards group seeks to close curtain on its own drama

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 14, 2011 - The local group awarding prizes for excellence in drama is embroiled in a drama of its own.

Simmering dissatisfaction erupted into full-boil brouhaha when the Professional Theatre Council (PTC), presenters of the Kevin Kline Awards, revised the rules for theater company participation last year. Now, with the sixth annual awards ceremony just more than one week away, opinions are flying about what's wrong with the awards, how to fix them and whether they can -- or should -- even continue.

Dramatic License Theatre Company artistic director Kim Furlow is giving the organization one more year to demonstrate a commitment to its mission "to promote and celebrate excellence in professional St. Louis Theatre." For Furlow, promotion is paramount, and whether or not the awards can grow her audience is literally the bottom line.

"The most important part is to help us get butts in our seats," Furlow said.

The Plot Of The Controversy

Among the revised rules, effective this coming August for existing members, are minimum escalating pay standards for theatrical productions: $800 for directors, $400 for designers, choreographers and musical directors; and $25 a performance for actors and stage managers, as of 2014. Previously, the rules required compensation but did not specify amounts.

Another change is an increase from six to eight in the number of performances staged for an eligible play. The Muny, which runs seven nights, was exempted; other companies can request an exclusion for fewer performances.

Theater companies were invited to participate in the revamping process, according to Jason Cannon, PTC co-founder, former board member and now judging coordinator, by reading through multiple drafts, attending roundtables and approving modifications by straw poll.

"We did not force these changes onto our constituent theaters," Cannon said in an email.

Three companies -- New Line, Stray Dog and St. Louis Shakespeare -- subsequently dropped out. Gary Bell, Stray Dog's founder and artistic director, said he's raised his pay scale to above the PTC minimum, but those increases were already planned. He resents being told how much to pay and said he left partly to support other companies that can't fulfill that requirement.

"If it's going to hurt other people, we thought it was a bad idea," Bell said.

A Two-tiered System?

That so many other smaller companies are still participating in the Kevin Klines surprises Bell. Midnight Company founder/artistic director Joe Hanrahan is among those staying in, but he's proposing a two-tiered awards system.

The St. Louis Repertory, Stages St. Louis and the Muny have more resources than most of the three dozen other theater companies, and they bring in out-of-town talent for each production. The Black Rep is also sometimes considered among the big guys. But whether you number them at three or four, Hanrahan wants the bigger players to compete among themselves and the smaller theaters to vie for a second set of awards.

"Those three or four companies get most of the award nominations, they get most of the money, and they use more of the out-of-town folks," Hanrahan said.

This year's nominations list shows the Muny leading with 21 nominations, followed by the Rep with 17 and Stages with 15. The smaller but fully union Upstream has nine, the Black Rep has seven, St. Louis Shakespeare has six, Mustard Seed has five, and HotCity and New Jewish each have four. Winners will be announced at the March 28 awards ceremony.

In 2009, 15 awards went to the big three, two to the Black Rep and 10 were split among the smaller companies. In 2008, the three larger companies won 12, the Black Rep won three and the others took home 11, total.

Two awards systems is a "smart idea," according to Bell. "You can't compare apples to oranges," concurred Muny publicist Laura Peters. Others disagreed. A split would "dilute the awards," in the opinion of PTC board theater representative Kathleen Sitzer, New Jewish Theatre's artistic director.

Furlow, a public relations professional, hadn't made a firm decision but predicted that "from a PR perspective it may appear that the second tier theater companies seem to be lesser companies than the first tier."

PTC board member Edward Coffield used to be dead-set against a two-tier system based on percentage of imported talent, company size, revenue, union status or any other factor. Recently, that changed.

"We've been having conversation about it, and somebody asked, 'What's the downside of doing it?' And I realized I didn't have a downside," Coffield said. "My own thoughts on the topic have now shifted."

All About The Money

After leaving the awards group, Bell and New Line's Scott Miller both cited the organization's discontinuation of education outreach and marketing as a reason. For a few years after the PTC's 2004 founding, students got free tickets and lobby posters advertised member productions. But not any longer.

"The awards have become ridiculously silly; they have no meat anymore," Bell said.

A lack of money is the reason the education and advertising programs ground to a halt. Now, $20,000 in debt, the PTC is struggling to stay afloat. Shutting down altogether is not out of the question, according to Sitzer.

"There is always a chance of something like that because it all depends on resources," Sitzer said. "The organization is strapped, no question about that."

Upstream's artistic director Philip Boehm complained that too much money was spent on the awards ceremony early on. "It would have been great had the focus had been a little less on the awards gala and more on the other aspects of the mission," Boehm said.

The first Kevin Kline Awards event is said to have cost up to six figures, Coffield said. Last year, the price tag was down to $18,000 and this year's gala will cost $10,000. Gala ticket sales contribute to the PTC's budget, along with other fundraisers, private and corporate donations, and grants.

A committee is brainstorming fundraising ideas for reinstating educational programs. Advertising posters are returning soon, Coffield promised. A new website, paid for with a matching grant, will be up in a few weeks.

"We heard from participating theaters about where we had failed them," Coffield said. "That was difficult to hear, but we've had a long conversation about setting our priorities."

Do The Awards Even Matter?

Even when national actors receive a Kevin Kline Award, St. Louis wins, Sitzer said.

"Say Kathleen Turner wins a best actress award, which she could because she's nominated, and then goes on to win a Tony because that show's going to Broadway; that gives lot of credibility to the St. Louis theater scene," Sitzer said.

Whenever Furlow tells her audiences that Dramatic License has been nominated or has won a Kevin Kline, they respond with kudos.

"There is some prestige in it," Furlow said. "Audience members will say, 'That's wonderful -- you guys must be doing well.'"

But Bell, who had to check before responding to a question about how many Kevin Klines Stray Dog has won -- the answer is three -- believes the awards are of no importance to theater-goers.

"If I can't even remember how many I've won, then I'm pretty sure my audience doesn't care," Bell said.

No corporate, community or private donors with whom the Beacon spoke cited the awards as a reason they give to one company or another. The Arts and Education Council, which allocates more than $1 million to the arts each year, does not ask applicants about awards or other honors.

BJC Hospital supports many theater companies through Council donations, as well as directly helping to fund the Black Rep, using criteria unrelated to awards.

"It doesn't have anything to do with the Kevin Klines," said Debra Denham, BJC's director of community affairs

Celebrated arts patron Mary Strauss contributes to the Black Rep, New Jewish, Stray Dog and several others. "You name it, I support it," she laughed. Strauss, who was involved in the formation of the PTC but is no longer an active participant, still believes the Kevin Kline Awards are good for the city.

"I think the awards are a great thing for St. Louis and the theater companies," Strauss said. "I hope they can reorganize and make them relevant and important again."

Editor's Note:

Among the people interviewed for this article was Nicole Hollway, who is a member of the PTC board and the general manager of the Beacon. The Beacon is one of the sponsors of this year's awards and is providing ticketing services.

Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.