Wednesday, June 5, 2019

FOUNDERS’ VERSION: History and Highlights of the IRNEs

1988 on: Precursor of the IRNEs: Activist/journalists in Boston have banded together and are intensifying their coverage of (a lack of) diversity in the arts. Papers large and small shine a light on institutions like the MFA. (The Gorilla Girls point out that the only way women are represented in museums is on a canvas and in the nude.) This small group of activist writers marches in support of the ICA when city counselor Albert ‘Dapper’ O’Neill threatens to close down the Mapplethorpe exhibit. There is a proliferation of new companies on the theater front and one member of the group, writing for the Journal Newspapers, realizes that these new companies are doing exceptional work and for the most part, are not being recognized. She forms another organization to honor their work, joining writers from the brand new, pioneering world of internet review sites (Theater Mirror and Aisle Say being the earliest of their ilk). Other papers join up. By the ‘90s they’re known as the “outer critics” to indicate that they do not write for the big papers. A confluence of events propels the group to its mission.

19881989: Beverly Creasey is also a member of the national Theater Communications Group (TCG) which conducts a country-wide survey of theatrical output, finding that 80% of all productions in the U.S up ‘til 1988 were all white efforts. In response, the TCG organized the Non-Traditional Casting Initiative. Boston is the third city in the nation to hold a “Non-Traditional Casting Conference,” organized by Creasey with the aid of Clinton Turner Davis and Harry Newman of the NYC TCG HQ. The June 1989 conference is co-presented by Black Folks Theatre and Playwrights’ Platform (with support from the Asian-American Resource Workshop and Boston Theater for the Deaf) and hosted by actress Jane White (daughter of the founder of the NAACP).

Artistic directors, actors, theater and film producers are invited to the conference, to see a video in which James Earl Jones presented scenes from Chekov, Williams and Wilde with actors of color—and to witness live scenes with Boston actors with disabilities, Boston actors of color and women performing in traditionally male roles. They rocked, by the way.

Attendees discover why this is advantageous to their theaters: Greater resonance for the material, a theater which reflects everyone and a wider audience for their productions, among other reasons. The conference is covered in the “papers of record” and television shows like City Line. (Up to this point, Wheelock Family Theatre is the only company casting “non-traditionally.” Underground Railway Theatre also tours Black History shows, but opportunities are few and far between for actors from The New African Company or Black Folks Theatre to break into the established white companies.) Actors report that some theaters don’t even allow them to audition. Others agree to, but say they “don’t know where to find actors of color.”

19891995: Creasey develops and administers the Boston NTC actors file to be used gratis by casting directors, artistic directors etc. Next step is the NTC playwright file, also free to anyone who is looking for a new script. After administering the files for six extremely successful years, they are incorporated into Stagesource’s member bank and are renamed “the unity files.”

1995 on: THE MISSION: Creasey and the original outer critics (Larry Stark, Geralyn Horton, Will Stackman et al) founded their awards to encourage inclusion and to shine a light on the smaller companies. What started out as the outer critic awards included Boston, western Mass and R.I. because that’s where our critics worked. In a year or two, with the addition of more reviewers, the Outer Critics became the Independent Reviewers of N.E., to reflect all the communities being reviewed. (There weren’t nearly as many theaters to cover as there are now. In fact our ballot was not divided into Small and Large until 2001!)

The IRNE Awards were not intended to compete with any other awards, just to fill a gap. Astonishingly, we hit a nerve. Our very first year, the Herald critic complained bitterly about us in his regular theater column calling us “witches around a cauldron.”

199899: IRNE expands and writers are added from outlets like The Bay State Banner (Kay Bourne), The Sino-American Times (Beatrice Lee), The Jewish Advocate (Jules Becker), the Lynn Item (Rich Fahey), South End News/Bay Windows (Creasey), The Journal Newspapers/Citizen Item (Creasey, Titus Steele) and Metro West (David Andrews).

The Process: To vote, a reviewer has to have seen a minimum of fifty shows that year, has no conflict of interest, (i.e., no ties to any theater), and has the tested ability to write and review fairly. Some see 200 shows a year. Most see approximately 100. Three (now deceased) members have radio or television shows and concentrate on interviews. At the end of the year, reviewers submit three nominations in each category. The nominations are then tallied up, the ballot with the nominations that received the most mentions is configured and is printed. The ballots are then sent to the members, with ties being broken by re-votes of those who have seen both productions. Much like the selection process for the Oscars, Tonys and All-star teams, this is not an exact science. Simply put, it’s by the numbers.

THE NUMBERS: Members collectively see 200+ shows a year. Here’s the math. Say there are 5 characters per show vying for either Best Actor/Actress or Best Supporting Actor/Actress. That’s 1000 actors hoping to be nominated in one of four categories in 34 slots (Small, Medium and Large, 5 people within a category, M and F, plus 4 musical slots). That leaves 966 people not even nominated! (Every company faithfully believes their actors deserve a nod. Many a list has been sent to us and many a company has been disappointed.) We view the entire field of 1000 and even though founder Larry Stark is fond of saying “all comparisons are odious” we have to make the cuts. It’s heartbreaking.

2000Present: IRNE representatives meet numerous times with small companies, to distribute our contact sheets, to explain the voting process or to offer seminars on writing press releases. We’ve had requests for more categories (puppetry, projections), less reviewers and a request to add a second (!) evening of awards. The IRNEs respectfully consider any suggestion. And we’ve accepted many.

2009 on: More Reviewers are added. The Improper Bostonian calls the IRNE Awards “Boston’s Tonys.” Nancy Grossman of Broadway World and Talkin’ Broadway joins longtime reviewers Creasey, Fahey, Becker and Stark (emeritus) in ‘09. At present Michele Markarian and Mike Hoban represent Theater Mirror. Scott Reedy works for Metro West Daily and others (through Gatehouse Newspapers), Sheila Barth covers Independent News Group), Robert Israel writes for Arts Fuse, Michael Cox represents The Edge/Theater Mirror, Susan Mulford does previews/reviews for Boston & Beyond, Charles Munitz writes for Boston Arts Diary, Beatrice Lee writes for Sino-American Times and Jack Craib is South Shore Critic.

2012: Fringe companies ask us to expand from the “Small and Large” ballot distinctions and add a third entire “Fringe” category. We do. At one time or another, by Stark’s reckoning, there are over 90 fringe companies. It makes sense to divide “Small” into “Fringe” and “Midsize,” based on budgetary considerations.

Meeting with the Deaf community after the National 2012 TCG Conference held in Boston, IRNE begins an ASL initiative to address their request for more ASL translated performances. Our fundraising effort would place interpreters (using the Wheelock model) in fringe theaters at designated performances during a run and coordinate with an advocacy agency like D.E.A.F. Inc. to publicize the performance. IRNE raises funds from two foundations and transfers the funds to Stagesource to administer.

Another issue arising from the 2012 TCG Conference diversity sessions is that theater people across the country are beginning to witness a backlash against actors of color (ironically because of the number of productions now cast non-traditionally). Because our IRNE reviewers see so many productions and have an overview of the Boston (and environs) scene, we notice that roles designated for actors of color are being played by white actors. Creasey, Bourne and Becker address the issue in their publications. Bourne is currently at work on a book about the history of Black theater in Boston.

2013: The IRNEs honor the memory of beloved actor Bob Jolly (whose bequest funds a yearly award given out at the IRNES as well as starter grants to organizations, including most recently, the Front Porch Collective.)

2014: IRNE meets with STAB (Small Theater Alliance of Boston) regarding the issue of gender parity (in a year that had fewer female leading roles in the fringe category and fewer nominations for us to consider for lead actress/fringe). IRNE addresses the issue by honoring the leading ladies of IMAGINARY BEASTS, thirteen women who perform as part of an ensemble and in the past had only been nominated in the “ensemble” category because of the experimental nature of their productions (where the “lead” is exchanged within a piece). Thirteen women won “Best Actress” in 2014.

2016: The Factory Space closes, leaving many fringe companies without theaters for shows already in the works. Members of STAB ask for help. We start making inquiries and one IRNE member finds a suitable space and paints it himself (a church basement, with a stage, seats, parking, and a low rental cost). Other IRNE members reach out to local YMCAs and community centers.

IRNE Responds to National and International Crises:

2005: When Hurricane Katrina devastates New Orleans (and surrounding parishes) IRNE organizes a fundraiser, a concert/cabaret evening with performances by local actors/singers. The Lyric Stage donates the theater for the event. Proceeds are sent to the New Orleans Musicians Fund.

2010: When an earthquake ravaged Haiti, IRNE partners with Metro Stage for a musical evening (with performances by local musicians and actors). The Huntington Theatre donates the venue. Artists are invited to donate paintings for an arts raffle at the event. Donations are sent to Habitat for Humanity and the ASPCA.

2011: The week before the IRNE Awards, a tsunami levels the Fukushima Daishi Nuclear Power Plant in Japan. IRNE quickly organizes artists to create “paper prayers” (small paintings traditionally made for Hiroshima and Nagasaki Remembrance Day) and other artwork to raise funds for Japan, with the event taking place right at the IRNE Awards. A Huntington Fellow creates 200 origami paper cranes and scenic designers donate dozens of small sketches and paintings to raise funds for Japan Relief.

20002019: With the unfortunate dissolution of print media in the new millennium, our newspaper reviewers adapted, and now, most write for the internet. Almost all receive no pay. Since the very first Outer Critics Awards to honor excellence from that year’s performances, our annual IRNE Awards celebration has been free and open to anyone. We have had a commitment to diversity and parity from the very beginning, and as was reflected in final IRNE Awards show held in April of 2019, that tradition continued. This year, half of the Best New Play nominees were women in both the Large and Small categories, and both were won by women. In gender neutral categories (Small Stage), 30 of 54 nominations went to women, and women won in 6 of 10 categories, including Best Director (Musical and Play). In 2019, over two dozen people of color were represented in the nomination process and won Best Supporting Actress in all three categories (Large, Midsize and Fringe), Best Actor in Midsize and Large, as well as Best Supporting Actor and Director in Midsize.

But the IRNEs have always been, first and foremost, about honoring excellence in theater, and it is our fondest hope that it will be our legacy.