I'll be posting my own reactions to the TATE awards in the next day or two. But in the meantime, here is a guest post by Whit Hanna, presented in full and without comment.
"The 2016 TATE awards did nothing to help the Tulsa theater community. Now before you lambast me, let me back up for a second.
For those of you not aware, the last eight years, the Kaiser Family Foundation has given twenty grand in prize money to four winning shows in the name of theater excellence. The submitted productions are viewed by a secret group of judges who are supposed to attend all the submitted shows. Said judges then rate aspects of the production on a secret worksheet, and all of that information is handed to a private firm that tallies votes and puts them in sealed secret envelopes. The big selling point being; nobody knows who's going to win. The money breaks down from a ten thousand dollar top prize, five thousand dollar runner up, twenty five hundred dollars for third, and twenty five hundred for a "youth" category. Any 501(c)(3) that fills certain requirements can submit a production. There is a limitation on how many productions can be submitted by any one 501(c)(3). It's a nice chunk of cash, IF you win.
The award ceremony is called the "TATE Awards" which stands for TULSA AREA THEATER EXCELLENCE, and one would assume that the most excellent show will always walk away with some money and a nice statue. But, we have all experienced (at one time or another over the last eight years) that this is not the truth. In fact, sometimes is just blatantly obvious to everyone in the Tulsa theater community that some show or the other got the shaft. Why? Well it all comes down to who the judges are. I'll get to that in a minute.
There are two other awards given during this ceremony: The "Mary K. Place" lifetime achievement award, and the "Distinguished Artist" award. In fact most of the evening is spent on these two awards, with the majority of the time being used for the "Distinguished Artist". Past "distinguish artist" award winners have included Mrs Place, Tim Blake Nelson, and Wes Studi. This year it was Gary Busey. Aye there's the rub: as I said before most of the evening is spent on this particular award, and yet, so far, it has been given to a "celebrity" who is famous for their film work. Film, not theater. Furthermore, this person's "tie" to Tulsa is that they were at some point living in this area. They do not live here now. That is important. These people, who we spend an hour and a half glamorizing at the TATEs, are NOT a part of Tulsa's theater community. Should this award really be the cornerstone of the "Tulsa Area Theater Excellence" award presentation? In contrast the "Mary K Place" award has always gone to someone deeply entrenched in our community. Is it wrong to think that maybe this award should be the cornerstone of the evening? It is these artists that have committed their lives to the Tulsa Theater community.
The shortest section of the evening is dedicated to the aforementioned "excellent" pieces of theater. A wild dash to the finish, sprinkled with short speeches, and as we have all learned, it is anyone's guess who's going to be a winner. I suppose that should make it interesting, but in reality and has an opposite effect.
You see, this year started off with a bang. Not that it hasn't happened in the past, (Wes Studi I'm looking at you). The community knew ahead of time that Gary Busey was going to be receiving the distinguished artist award. Anybody who is been able to turn on the television in the last couple of decades knows just what a "shit show" Gary Busey is. What is his tie to Tulsa? He played some high school football here, then quickly disappeared into Lala land, got himself a Oscar nod, became a celebrity bonfire with his antics, and even got himself "fired" by a presidential nominee.
Unsurprisingly, Gary Busey lived up to all of our expectations. I haven't laughed so hard in a long time. But in many ways that is what makes it so sad, here is a man who has no ties to our theater community, who makes a farce out of the ceremony meant to celebrate the community, and we crown him with the title of "distinguished artist"! It delegitimizes the entire event. This is not a ceremony for our community, this is misguided and misplaced ego stroke for some celebrity that took a weekend of their time to do some "slumming" in Tulsa. I believe I echo my peers in saying if it wasn't for the money, we wouldn't even bother showing up. Cheap beer and boxed wine that runs out too quickly isn't enough...
But the elephant in the room is the awards for Theatre excellence. As I said before, we've all had an experience at this point seeing that the best nominated shows not only do not win, but sometimes don't even place. And really, all conspiracy theories aside, this comes down to nothing more than: who are the judges? Well, funny thing, at this year's ceremony there were white paper place markers suspended above every black table cloth in Cains Ballrom. They listed the names of the 501(c)(3) theater companies. Some for Gary Busey's contingent. Even one for the people carrying the "secret" envelopes. But the paper place card that I like the most said "Tate judges". We all speculate that we know who the judges are, and some of us have pretty much figured out who might be a judge, but for the first time I got to see who the judges were. At least who sat at that table. They quickly took down that paper place card, by the way.
I stared at those people for a long time. I would like to think that I have a pretty good idea of who is intimately involved in our community. I could be wrong, but I didn't recognize any of those people. Another thing, they all seem to be late 50s to middle 70s in age, baby boomers, and Caucasian. Why is that important, you ask? Well, when we look at the shows that win, we often ask why one would place over another. When judges fit into a certain demographic, they are going to like a certain type of product and they are going to a vote accordingly. Also, if this group of judges are outsiders to our community, perhaps people who do not know much about theater, then how would they be able to recognize true excellence and innovation in the work? It makes sense that this group would love a production like Catch Me if You Can; A non-challenging, lighthearted, comedy musical that takes place in the 1960s. It's a baby boomers wet dream. In contrast to the production of Our Town which used heavy tech, asked its audience to interact with their personal smartphone throughout the show, with live Facebook posts, Google searches, and streaming pictures on multiple video screens in the theater. It's a baby boomers worst nightmare. The mystery of why certain shows win over others, in my mind, has been somewhat solved. I get it. I would vote for what I like also. I would favor the things I identify with.
I readily admit there are an awful lot of assumptions in this. Remember I'm just going off of the paper place card. But I did happen to overhear a man right at the end of the awards ceremony angrily proclaim, "I'm one of the Tate judges and I don't have a fucking clue what these people are thinking" as he stormed out of the Cains. Take that as you will.
So what do we do to fix all of this? First we get rid of the distinguished artist award. Turn it into a series of awards celebrating best actor, best actress, best supporting actor, best supporting actress, best director, and best production design. It is about celebrating the Tulsa theater community, right? Then make the focus of the evening the lifetime achievement award. These are people who should be rewarded by our community for their commitment to our community. Lastly, we need Tate judges that have some working knowledge of the Tulsa Theater community, and we must diversify their race and age.
These steps need to be taken, because as of last night, this award ceremony became an absolute farce. Myself, and many of my peers, left shaking our heads at the utter absurdity of it all. I'm not trying to knock the Kaiser foundation. We greatly appreciate the money, but wouldn't it be better served if it was disbursed evenly amongst all of the community, instead of huge chunks going to one group or another based off of a judging committee that really isn't interested in awarding excellence, just their own aesthetics? As it is, the Tate Awards do nothing to help our community, only unnecessarily pitting us against each other, creating needless animosity, and slowly tearing the community apart."
Indian Springs Barber Shop
Odeum Theater Company
Arts Alliance Tulsa
Green Room OK
Tulsa Little Theatre
Tulsa Weekly Roundup
Am. Theatre Co.
BA Community Playhouse
Clark Youth Theatre
G Rated Theatre
Midwestern Theater Co.
Muskogee Little Theatre
Owasso Comm. Theatre
Sand Springs Comm. Th.
Sapulpa Comm. Theatre
Tulsa Latino Theatre
Tulsa Project Theatre
Tulsa Rep. Musicals
Tulsa Spotlight Theatre