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Take Five: Edward Coffield talks about choosing Kevin Kline Award winners

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 25, 2011 - And the winner is ... ! Who gets to decide how to fill in the blanks when it comes to the Kevin Kline Awards -- and how?

Since 2004, the Professional Theatre Council has endowed the St. Louis theater community with its very own Hollywood-style awards event. The PTC rolls out the red carpet for its gala every spring; this year it's Monday, March 28. The gala completes a process that starts each fall when the PTC accepts applications from which they will choose 12 to 20 new judges from as many as 150 candidates. Each will serve a three-year term, with a third of the judges terming out every year.

This past year, judges selected the best work from among 30 member theater companies; 58 actors, directors, choreographers, playwrights, composers and designers; and 13 acting ensembles. Nominations were, as is customary, released in the winter. When there is a tie, winners share the prize.

Judge candidates are chosen not by the PTC board but by a separate committee of theater professionals and some board members. While applicants are often actors, directors or others working in or teaching theater, a judge doesn't necessarily have to have formal theater training, according to PTC board member, gala planner and awards judge Edward Coffield.

What kind of background or skills do you need to be a judge?

Coffield: We look for a mix of theater experts and civilians. They can be highly informed audience members or anyone else who may be interested. So there's a wide variety. We're looking for people who appreciate theater and also seem to understand how it all goes together and all the components you would look at when you're judging. Candidates fill out an application with standard information about themselves, and we also ask them to submit a review of something they've seen in town. Then, all that goes to judging committee. We really try to look for people who seem most qualified based on the review they submit and what they bring to the table, for example, if they're big theater goers. We have some people who are former theater professionals and they're retired, so that's a perfect candidate for us. When we choose any theater professional, we look to have a strong mix: directors, actors, designers and so on, a little bit of everything.

How do you ensure that judges aren't biased for or against any particular companies?

Coffield: If you're selected to be a judge, you have to state if there is a theater that might pose a conflict of interest, such as whether you've worked for a theater company in the past year or you know you're going to work for one. For example, I direct for New Jewish Theater, I work for The Rep and I direct for Insight, so those are theaters I will never, ever be assigned to. Or let's say that my partner was in a show at the St. Louis Shakespeare Festival; I would have to recuse myself from judging it. Theaters know who their judges are. If a particular theater doesn't want a certain judge to judge their show because they perceive that person has a conflict of interest, they have the right to say I don't want that person judging, and we swap out a judge. It happens all the time.

Do the judges use a standardized checklists for judging or does the judging more subjective?

Coffield: Every year all the judges go through an orientation training where we talk about expectations because the awards really want to signify excellence. We want them to compare what they're seeing to everything they've ever seen in their lives. Seven judges are assigned randomly by a computer to each production. If a judge has a conflict with that theater company, then someone else is chosen. Let's say they go see "Grease," the musical. The judges won't know who else is judging it. It should be about each judge's individual experience, and no one is supposed to speak to anyone about their work as a judge or their judging. They have a ballot and there are 23 categories: actor, actress, supporting actor, supporting actress, director, scenery, lighting and so on. They rank their ballots from zero to three. So, let's say the show had the most amazing choreography, ever. I may mark that as a three. But if the set served the show but it wasn't the most amazing set you've ever seen, you may give it a zero but that doesn't mean there is anything wrong with it, but you really try and push for excellence.

Who sees the ballots?

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Coffield: The ballots go to the St. Louis accounting firm of Anders Minkler & Diehl. Nobody else ever sees them until after the ceremony. The accounting firm will issue the nominations list and it already knows who the winners are, but no one else does. None of us ever sees what they've put into the envelopes until they're opened that night. One year before I was producing the awards, they pre-engraved all the trophies and so they had to keep them locked up. We don't do that anymore but the envelopes are licked and stickered and very well guarded. We monitor the ballots at the end of every year to see how judging broke down. We're looking for a certain sort of scoring to make sure it's very accurate. There are a percentage of ballots that might, say, over the course of the year, be all zeros. Early in the process, we had some judges who were extremely generous and some who were extremely harsh. If we have a judge we think is too lenient or too harsh, we speak to them about it.

Does Kevin Kline participate in the judging and can we expect him to attend the ceremony?

Coffield: No, and no. Mr. Kline has been invited every year but he's a very busy working actor. It was very fortunate that he was able to be here the first year, and of course we hope that someday he will return.

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.

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