Whether it's the Tonys, Oscars, Golden Globes, Emmys or Jeffs, handing out awards is hard work and mostly a thankless job.
Artistic excellence is a subjective business (somewhat subjective, but that's another column). You're always going to take flack for overlooking a work or performer who others (usually interested parties who don't like to admit their interests) feel feel was more deserving. You're always going to be accused of some bias in favor of a particular kind of work.
Every award show in the world has people sitting at home railing about how the truly artistic are overlooked for political or financial reasons, how the dangerously creative are shafted in favor of the safe and mainstream, how the people making the selections are idiots. It comes with the territory.
For those and other reasons, I've long been reluctant to criticize the selections of Chicago's all-volunteer Joseph Jefferson Awards Committee. Oh, I pop my head up now and again and kvetch with the rest of those who follow Chicago theater. To wit: The two best performances I saw this year were Stephen Ouimette's astonishing work in "The Iceman Cometh" at the Goodman Theatre and Susan Moniz's gorgeous performance in Gary Griffin's "Follies" at Chicago Shakespeare Theater. Nary an Equity Jeff nomination for either. An outrage!
Those caveats aside, though, there was one serious problem with the 2012 Equity Jeff nominations, which were announced Tuesday. Too darn many nominations. Most credible awarding bodies come up with four or five in a category. The Jeff Committee came up with as many as 10 in a single category, such as for best director of a play.
If you add together the nominees for best play in the "large" and "midsize" categories (an arbitrary distinction, since much of the best work in Chicago is at midsize companies) you get a whopping 18 nominees. Plus another 13 musicals and revues. That's 31 "bests," close to 30 percent of the 118 judged shows. Add in actors and so on, and nearly every Equity theater in town had a clutch of Jeff nominations. It makes one feel bad for Nathan Lane, who also deserved one, when you're talking these numbers.
Does this matter? Why not reward all this apparent excellence?
Darn right it matters. The Jeffs are the most important theater awards in Chicago: They are part of the historical record, a guide for audiences, an indication of accomplishment and recognized in New York, where many of these artists also work. They must be credibleand select.
Unless you're living in Lake Wobegon, to find worthies under almost every rock devalues the worth of the nomination.
As with the Oscars, there should be two points of prestige. The first should be scoring a nomination, an honor afforded a small, select group. The second should be actually winning. But nominations must mean something, and this year at the Jeffs, that's questionable at best.
I laid most of this out for Jeff Marks, the Jeff Awards' spokesman. He responded that the big sheet of nominations is a consequence of the process and "statistical ties." Each potential honoree is given a score, and if several scores bunch together, then the number of nominees is increased accordingly. It is done rather like a college professor grading on a curve and looking for natural gaps between the B's and C's.
I see that. Nobody wants to deny someone a nomination for one point. But that's life in the big city. The Jeff Committee should have a finite number of nominees and then find a way to give the artists it considers the most deserving those spots.
Make the hard choice. Pick one of those Todd Rosenthal sets: "Clybourne Park"? "An Iliad"? "Red"? Which was best? ("An Iliad," say I.) Rachel Rockwell's "Sweeney Todd" was a decent show, but it wasn't even close to her sublime "Sound of Music." Neither was "Enron" at TimeLine. That's several nominations saved right there. Bye-bye.
I will slice and dice no more. I truly look forward to one of the great nights of Chicago theater on Oct. 15. And, let's stipulate, there is some fantastic work on this list, rightly honored with a Jeff nomination.
One last thing. Please, please, no ties. They just make the losers feel worse. Pick a winner, Jeff Committee, and stand proud. We'll let you know when you've made a mistake.