The Australian Oxford Dictionary defines the word ‘award’ as ‘A prize or other mark of recognition given in honour of an achievement.’ Within the Australian Theatre community today, there are many said ‘prizes or other marks of recognition’ which annually honour the achievements of talented artists in a number of performing and visual art strands. However, who has the right to decide if one is worthy or even eligible to receive one of these awards? How can we be assured that these awards aren’t infiltrated with underlying threads of bias? Is there a ‘perfect’ model for a theatre award?
When observing awards currently being given and received in the Australian theatre industry today, it is quite difficult to delve into too much research before one comes across the Helpmann Awards, named after theatrical chameleon, Sir Robert Helpmann (1909-1986.) As written on the homepage of the Helpmann Awards website, “The annual Helpmann awards recognise distinguished artistic achievement and excellence in the many disciplines of Australia’s vibrant live performance sectors including musical theatre, contemporary music, comedy, cabaret, opera, classical music, theatre, dance and physical theatre.” Established by Live Performance Australia in 2001, one of the principle objects in establishing the awards is to “nationally and internationally serve and promote the Australian live performance industry by ensuring the awards are the most prestigious awards in the industry and the highlight of each season.” The rule manual for the awards, available on the website, certainly supports and demonstrates how this statement is made a reality, with a thorough outline of eligibility standards, the nomination process, rule breaches etc. It becomes quite apparent whilst reading the aforementioned manual, that Live Performance Australia take standards of morality and conduct extremely seriously, having put in place a number of preventative measures to block any unfair nomination or voting. For example, Chapter 2, Rule 4 regarding the nominating bodies for the awards outlines
3. Each Nominating Panel must consist of:
(a) 2 nominees of the Executive Council who will act as Head and Deputy Head of the Nominating Panel; and
(b) Not less than 9, and up to 20, persons appointed by HAAC who:
i) Agree to use their best efforts to attend each eligible production falling within the Artistic Discipline of the Nominating Panel
ii)Have each made a prominent contribution to that Artistic Discipline or are recognised by HAAC as a practitioner or professional in the industry and having expertise within the Artistic Discipline; and
iii) Collectively provide a reasonable representation of the Artistic Discipline.
The only clause which rings alarm bells within the rule manual is rule 5, point3, whereby on any one voting committee there can be a previously nominated or successful recipient of a Helpmann. In such an interconnected industry, it appears that this may be a scenario where for example, if one of the nominating bodies has worked with a potential nominee previously, they may develop a bias stand (whether consciously or subconsciously.) Is there anyway of regulating this? Honestly I don’t see how, but as Chris Thompson the president of the Greenroom Awards states these panels “Demand people, who are seeing the work and making the decisions and who are practitioners of a high calibre or respected… you would hope their opinions and viewpoints are the same.”
Mr Thompson who has been involved with the Greenroom awards for over a year now is the president of the organisation and undertakes a number of duties on a daily basis, both short term (governing the organisation) and long term (strategic planning for the future.) When asked how he could assure any community member that the Greenroom awards are not a popularity contest, Mr Thompson pointed out that whilst the Greenroom organisation is voluntary, it draws membership from within the industry, therefore the organisation places a great deal of trust in the integrity of its panel members. There is also a strong emphasis placed on each panel being balanced with a number of people from different disciplines within the industry so each aspect of any one production can be appreciated and voted on accordingly. “We don’t want a whole panel of directors or actors or designers or dramaturges, but we do want all those varying people on the panel.” There is also a very strong tradition within the association and policy on conflict of interest, which is extremely difficult within an industry award and as everyone seems to be connected in one way or another. In this case the individual with the conflict of interest does not get to vote on the particular work at the source of the conflict. “ It’s frustrating but reassuring when someone who’s opinion you value or respect has to withdraw, but reassuring that they aren’t able to sway the decision one way or another,” states Mr Thompson. “It’s an imperfection you choose to live with.”
Thus, with an industry insider dropping the term ‘imperfection’ the question does arise- is there a perfect method to handing out awards and avoiding bias? Mr Thompson believes that “There is no perfect system, but you can aspire to get as close to that as you can.” I agree 1000% with this statement. Regardless of what measures are put into place to prevent favouritism within a vote or a nomination for any award, whether it’s a Helpmann, a Greenroom or a student of the week certificate in primary school, as human beings there is always going to be a sub conscious pull to a certain person or piece of work. This is purely a difference in appreciation and not a malicious attempt to create a bias industry! Awards aside however I can guarantee that any performer, director, musical director, set designer or any industry professional for that matter will tell you, that the greatest award of all is the rapturous applause heard from audience members at the end of a live performance. That is the sign of a true winner.