When the envelopes are opened and John and Jane Q. Public “ooh” and “ahh” at the Tony Award-winning stars, they may have already missed the announcement of one of the most prestigious prizes. It’s the Regional Theatre Award. There’s not usually much fanfare surrounding its presentation, but theatres all over the country cross their fingers and toes hoping to win.
This award is so important to regional theatres that members of the American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA), who help select Tony-eligible theatres, are not allowed to tell a theatre it is even being considered. That information remains top secret until the winner is announced with the official Tony Award nominations. If that secrecy is violated, then the theatre in question is immediately disqualified.
See the complete list of 2012 Tony Awards nominations.
Each year only one theatre in the country wins this prestigious award. The preliminary balloting procedure at the ATCA is overseen by 15-year member Chris Jones, who said that the award is so desired some have lobbied for it. But “there’s nothing a theater can do to win this award,” he assures everyone. “Critics all over the country nominate the theater of their choice.”
According to the ATCA, “The Special Tony Award For Outstanding Regional Theatre is presented during the annual telecast. The Tony Awards are exclusively run by the American Theatre Wing and produced by the Broadway League. It’s their award. ATCA’s role is purely advisory and the process leading to its recommendation is strictly confidential.”
The award, presented to a non-profit theatre that has accomplished artistic achievement contributing to the growth of theatre on a national level, was established in the late 1970s. It coincided with the Regional Theatre Movement and recognizes excellent work by theatres outside of New York; theatres in New York are not eligible. Jay Handelman, the Chair of the ATCA Executive Committee, explained that ““The Tonys are so Broadway-centric that this award was created to honor the work of the other theaters across the country.”
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“The Tempest” at Hartford Stage (credit: Hartford Stage)
While monetary prizes accompany this award, the big benefits come from the marketing and fundraising possibilities. Michael Ross, currently Connecticut’s Westport Country Playhouse’s Managing Director, was General Manager and Business and Box Office Manager at Hartford Stage when it won the Regional Theatre Award. He said that it had received a monetary prize, which was great, but the Tony also gave the Hartford Stage Company more prestige. “It gave the theater national visibility, and leveraged additional support.”
“It’s such an honor to win this award that when the Utah Festival Theatre in Cedar City, Utah won it, the city threw a ticker tape parade,” said ATCA’s Jones. Winning not only supports marketing and promotion, it can attract theatre artists and actors of exceptional quality to the facility. The award gives confidence to the people who raise and/or contribute funds.
Two theatres in Massachusetts have received the award. The American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge won it in 1986, and the Williamstown Theatre Festival won in 2002. Erik Kerns, Director of Development at Williamstown, said receiving the award is a unique credential. “It sets a standard. Once you receive it, you have to live up to it,” he said. But Williamstown is more proud that it not only produces quality productions, but also devotes time to training. “More than 30 of this year’s [Tony Awards] nominees have either trained or worked at Williamstown’s Theatre Festival.”
The 2012 Regional Theatre Tony Award winner is the Shakespeare Theatre Company of Washington D.C.
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