Even in the world of commercial theatre, or movies, where the awards are as much about marketing as about quality, I’m not so naïve as to suggest that popularity doesn’t play into them. At that level, though, there ARE steps to try to maintain a focus on quality of work. The Tonys are nominated by a rotating, select nominating committee coming from across the spectrum and people aren’t supposed to either vote in a category where they haven’t seen all eligible productions. In the case of the Oscars, the nominations in most categories are made by the members of the specific craft involved (directors nominate directors, etc.). Final voting is wider, but there is an attempt to eliminate the “popularity contest” aspect of award giving.
I’m not alone in my lack of enthusiasm for awards, however. There ARE others who are less than enthralled with awards, even in the commercial world (where I see much less potential for damage than in education). Witness below from an interview Time Magazine did with Paul Newman (and Tom Hanks) a few years ago.
Time: Paul, you usually don't go to the Oscars even when you're nominated. Why? …
NEWMAN: I don't understand why competition has to exist between actors. Some guy starts with a marvelous character, and the script is all there. All he has to do is show up. Another guy digs it out by the goddamn roots with a terrible director and turns in this incredible performance. And someone says one is better than the other. That's what's nice about car racing. It's right to a thousandth of a second. Your bumper is here. That guy's bumper is there. You win.
I think Newman had a real point. Acting (directing, design, etc.) isn’t a race and its value shouldn’t be based on what’s “best.” A great deal of what we consider to be great art and/or great music wasn’t considered “great” when it was first created. Shakespeare (rather well thought of as an author today) was fairly well known before the end of his career, but he wasn’t considered the “best” of his contemporaries as either a poet or playwright. In fact, his plays were considered pretty “old-fashioned” by the time they appeared in the First Folio and were virtually always performed in “improved” versions from the time of the Restoration until fairly late in the Nineteenth Century, because they were considered to need assistance to make them palatable. Yet, today, his works are considered by many (including me) to include some of the greatest dramatic works ever written.
But who cares? The plays are there, whether one likes them, or not. They’ve been preserved because, over time, a lot of people have thought they contributed something to the theatre, to art, to life, to whatever. If they hadn’t been viewed this way, they’d be as forgotten as a lot of other’s works.
I’d suggest that what theatre (and motion pictures) are really all about is that they represent an author’s ideas translated by other artists and craftspeople into a theatrical experience for the purpose of having some effect on an audience. That can be as simple as just providing a diversion for a time. Or, it can be as complex as changing one, or more, people’s lives completely in some fashion. I’ve been struggling with how to express this idea for a long time. I finally had something close to what I was trying to say hit me when I saw the movie, Saving Mr. Banks a couple of years ago. Now I had seen the ads for it on TV for quite a while before I got around to actually seeing the movie and, I confess, while I was expecting a bit of diversion, there’s this scene, fairly near the end, which just leapt off the screen and hit me in the face. In it, Walt Disney (played by Tom Hanks) has followed P.L. Travers to London in a final, last-ditch attempt to convince her to let him make a movie of Mary Poppins. He says:
Give her to me, Mrs. Travers. Trust me with your precious Mary Poppins. I won’t disappoint you. I swear that every time a person goes into a movie house - from Leicester to St Louis, they will see George Banks being saved. They will love him and his kids, they will weep for his cares, and wring their hands when he loses his job. And, when he flies that kite, oh! They will rejoice, they will sing. In every movie house, all over the world, in the eyes and the hearts of my kids, and other kids and their mothers and fathers for generations to come, George Banks will be honoured. George Banks will be redeemed. George Banks and all he stands for will be saved. Maybe not in life, but in imagination. Because, that’s what we storytellers do. We restore order with imagination. We instill hope again and again and again. (emphasis added, RSB)
I think this comes as close to what I’ve thought for years as I’ve ever seen (or heard). We are “storytellers.” We make (or try to make) order out of chaos. We try to instill the hope that humans are worth something and that we are struggling to understand ourselves, and each other, because that’s important and the arts are one way of doing that. That’s not about being “best.” It’s about trying to accomplish something, knowing that we probably won’t ever succeed, certainly not for everyone and all times, but trying anyway because that’s what we do. That’s why theatre is an incurable disease. Once you have “caught the bug” you’re stuck! From that point on, you need the “something” which comes from doing your art/craft. You know that there isn’t a permanent solution, but that doesn’t stop you from trying to alleviate the symptoms temporarily with your work on whatever is your current project. As with other artists, one doesn’t do theatre because she/he wants to, not really. You do it because you can’t do anything else and achieve any real satisfaction with Life; it’s the only way to do something about those symptoms. It’s because you are just a little bit crazy.
Most people think of this as a quote from Steve Jobs because he was responsible for its use in a series of ads for Apple a while back, but it’s really a poem by Jack Kerouac:
Here’s to the crazy ones.
The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers.
The round pegs in the square holes.
The ones who see things differently.
They’re not fond of rules.
And they have no respect for the status quo.
You can praise them, disagree with them, quote them,
disbelieve them, glorify or vilify them.
About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them.
Because they change things.
They invent. They imagine.
They heal. They explore. They create. They inspire.
They push the human race forward.
Maybe they have to be crazy.
How else can you stare at an empty canvas and see a work of art?
Or sit in silence and hear a song that’s never been written?
Or gaze at a red planet and see a laboratory on wheels?
While some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius.
Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world,
are the ones who do…
Welcome to the theatre!