The Helpmann Awards can’t be taken seriously

Like many people who work with Australia’s live performance industry, I have conflicting feelings about the Helpmann Awards.

On one hand, I think it’s important to celebrate the significant achievements of a vibrant industry, and I appreciate that the Helpmann committee and Live Performance Australia try pretty hard to make a national performing arts award consistent and representative.

On the other, I know that the very idea of a national performing arts award — crossing all major art forms — is patently ridiculous. It’s been ridiculous for many years now, and the Helpmanns voting system — made up of small nominating panels and a large cohort of industry members — constantly throws forth bizarre and often inexplicable results. I’ll address some of the more unusual choices in this year’s nominations further on in this article.

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There are always flaws in voting processes for major arts awards, but the Helpmanns voting system makes about as much sense as the Logies. And I tend to think they should be treated in much the same way — that it’s fantastic when somebody’s work gets recognised, but that the awards really aren’t a great indicator of the greatest artistic achievements.

The central problem is geography and the sheer scope of the live performance industry. The fact is that the vast majority of voters have not seen every event in a majority of categories. The events are spread too far across the country, and even if voters should want to catch up as soon as nominations are announced, most of the works have finished their seasons. At least Logie voters can get screeners. There is a modest travel fund available, but it only allows each member to apply for one trip each year.

Single city-based performance awards, such as Melbourne’s Green Room Awards, Brisbane’s Matilda Awards, and the Sydney Theatre Awards, for which I’m a voting member, are much, much more workable.

The Helpmanns voting system stipulates that you must have seen just two nominated performances in a particular category if you wish to vote in that category. That inevitably means works with shorter seasons in smaller venues constantly miss out to works that play long seasons or have national tours.

An example I bring out every year is the 2013 award for Best Sound Design. The award went to Peter Hylenski, who did a wonderful job on the mega-musical King Kong. But another nominee in the category was Tony David Cray, who created the sound design for Opera Australia’s groundbreaking production of Die Tote Stadt, which featured an orchestra playing live from the Sydney Opera House’s studio and broadcast into the Joan Sutherland Theatre. It was a spectacular technical and artistic achievement, but Die Tote Stadt played a very short season, with just a handful of performances, so missed out to King Kong, which ran for nine months in Melbourne’s huge Regent Theatre.

Furthermore, the online voting system has no way of ensuring that voters have actually seen anything that they’re voting for.

None of this even addresses the strange rules for categorisation — supporting performers nominated as lead performers and vice versa — nor that some nominating panels are made up of senior arts figures with their own eligible productions.

The musical theatre nominating panel is made up mostly of commercial producers, with a few artists thrown in. The panel includes John Frost, whose productions of My Fair Lady and The Book of Mormon are the two most nominated productions this year, Michael Cassell, whose production of Kinky Boots has the third most nominations, and James Thane, Executive Producer at Disney Theatrical Productions, the company behind Aladdin, which has the equal third number of nominations. These four shows almost completely dominate the musical theatre categories.

And it’s largely in those musical theatre categories that the strangest choices seem to have been made.

Many members of the musical theatre industry have expressed disappointment that Australian creative talents have been so thoroughly overlooked. There are no Australians nominated for directing or choreographing a musical at this year’s awards — in fact, half of the nominations for directing and choreographing go to Casey Nicholaw, the New York-based director/choreographer who recreated his Broadway work for Australian audiences in The Book of Mormon and Aladdin.

Of course, the counter-argument is that it would be too parochial to count out foreign artists whose work is seen in Australia, but when there are categories exclusively recognising work created for a Broadway audience and then remounted in Australia, it’s easy to wonder how much the Helpmanns actually celebrate the strength and vibrancy of Australia’s live performance industry, and how much they just exist for producers to hype their products.

I’ve also learnt that the producers of Dream Lover, the new Australian-made musical which opened in the middle of the eligibility period, have requested that the production be nominated in next year’s awards. Apparently their argument is that the production was somewhat of a work-in-progress for its Sydney season (although it certainly wasn’t sold that way), but will be ready to be judged during its Melbourne season at the end of this year. To Dream Lover’s advantage, there also seem to be less high-profile, critically-acclaimed musicals opening in Australia during the next year, and the production will also have been seen by a greater audience when voting comes around.

There are other oddities: Julie Andrews has been nominated for Best Director, despite the fact that her production is a recreation of Moss Hart’s original 1956 Broadway production of My Fair Lady, three of the four actors nominated for Best Male Actor in a Musical are from overseas, and Sophie Wright, very clearly a supporting performer in Kinky Boots has ended up in the category for Best Female Actor in a Musical.

Others are also disappointed to see Cecil Beaton, the Oscar-winning costume designer behind My Fair Lady, picking up a nomination for work created in 1956 and recreated by associates. Surely his Tony Award for the musical, more than six decades ago, is sufficient for the now deceased designer. Giving him a Helpmann makes even less sense than Australia knighting Prince Philip.

In addition to those issues, I was surprised to see Perth Festival’s Boorna Waanginy nominated for Best Sound Design and Best Lighting Design. The work was an extraordinary experience — a massive public art installation featuring light, projections and sound — but I can’t recall there being any live performance elements in the work. If there were, they were certainly minimal, and I wouldn’t think sufficient to justify the work’s inclusion in awards for the live performance industry.

But then again, there’s little else from Perth in the nominations, and these are the kind of issues that arise when an awards ceremony tries to cover an entire nation of live performance.

*Note: Ben Neutze votes for the Helpmann Awards and is one of the ten panellists for the Sydney Theatre Awards.

IF YOU ENJOY STORIES AND ANALYSIS OF AUSTRALIA’S ENTERTAINMENT INDUSTRY, THEN CONSIDER HELPING INDEPENDENT ARTS MEDIA AS ARTS COVERAGE IN MAINSTREAM MEDIA DECLINES

Featured image: Barrie Kosky’s Saul, nominated for seven Helpmann Awards

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