And what do you say when you get there? "Thanks, folks: I am the greatest"? Or "Wow--you guys respect me a lot more than I respect you!" There are so many ways to get into trouble. The big surprise? It doesn't get less itchy when you're on the conferring end. What we critics reward tends to indicate what (or, sometimes, who) we value. It also unavoidably discloses the exact size of the frame we've put around the thing we love: the dimensions of the box in which we keep our aesthetics--and, at times, our ethics. Our judgments tend to judge themselves.
They should. These are my caveats about annual awards--my own included.
I've never trusted the number 10, or five, or any other multiple of fingers on a simian's hand when it comes to recognizing excellence. Sooner or later, you either wind up stretching something's virtue to fill an empty digit. That, or chopping off a perfect extra finger or two just because they didn't fit the grid.
I don't trust segregating--and then rewarding--artists on the basis of their gender. I don't use the term "actress." I call these artists actors, and I attempt to evaluate their work by the same criteria. Any other consideration, I believe, is sexist.
I have chosen not to segregate by genre. While the terms may have been useful up until the last century, for decades now theatrical literature has consistently blurred the boundaries between comedy and drama. I am not concerned with whether Control-Alt-Delete is a dark comedy, a really dark comedy (with dramatic overtones), a comic drama or any other tortured mingling of these terms.
I am more interested in whether it's actually good theater; or, in the frame of this conversation, among the best work we saw this year. That's all.
This being the case, increasingly intricate combinations of the criteria above have always struck me as dilatory, if not absurd. Categories like "Best female supporting comic actor (left-handed)--Wake County" seem an obvious throwback to those childhood parties where no one was allowed to go home without a prize, no matter how bad they were at ring-toss.
Instead, I've simply been interested in the best acting, wherever it happened to be. Up to now, I have used two categories to assess that, regardless of genre, gender or zip code: lead and supporting performances.
But a brace of ensemble-based and post-postmodern texts has me reexamining this assumption. Who, pray tell, was the lead in White People? The Man Who? Angels in America I or II?
At the end, there's the unanswerable question of coverage. I saw 149 shows out of the 270 that went up on a stage in this region this year, to my best knowledge. That's 55 percent, which may well be the high water mark for a single critic trying to cover this area's total output.
My point is, it doesn't matter. This fact remains: What a critic doesn't see limits his or her judgment.
And you shouldn't take the critics' broken field of vision with a little salt. Use the whole shaker. Even where two equals meet without prejudice to compare lists of "excellent" shows thta the other hasn't seen, there's ultimately little objective basis to our calls.
Ideally, you need one person who's seen all the shows to have one consistent, critical viewpoint from which to view these disparate signals. Too bad--you can't have that. If it was physically possible for one critic to do that when I started 13 years ago, I can personally demonstrate it is not possible now. Regional theater has grown well beyond the scope of any single critic, and it may well have grown beyond the scope of all of us combined.
That's why I've never been comfortable calling these yearly celebrations "The Best of Theater." The term is probably dishonest, on a fundamental level, for it's not the best of everything. It's the best of what we saw. We tried to see as much as we could.
This humble and quite finite gift is the best we have to offer the artists we admire and the patrons who make that art possible in this season of gifts and much good will.
We hope it encourages artists to continue, and alerts theatergoers to creators, companies and venues they may not already be aware of. We hope it helps define--and praise--the truly good within us, and among us.
Here's our sincerest present. You have no idea how much we hope it really fits.
Best Production Design
Best Supporting Performances
Best Lead Performances
8. The Man Who, Manbites Dog Theater
7. Control-Alt-Delete, Blue Monday Productions
6. Suddenly Last Summer, Peace Theater
5. The Front Page, Playmakers
4. Copenhagen, Playmakers
3. Out of the Dark, Wordshed Productions
2. Angels in America I, Duke Theater Studies
1. Yellowman, Playmakers