Friday, May 11, 2012

I'll Tell You YNOT

The following is a rant. Please feel free to insert "in my humble opinion" wherever you think I should have qualified my remarks.

A MUSICAL (see also: here) is an inherently competitive environment. It starts with competition for roles, followed by competition among people in those roles for placement in the curtain call--do you get the final bow, if so, to yourself or do you share it with someone, etc.. The show itself competes against other shows, and lots of other entertainment options, for audience, and competes against the legacy of the school or theater organization for the title of Best Show Ever. Finally, there is an informal competition with other schools and theaters for Best Show Around, at least among a small group of diehards who attend a variety of shows across a region.

Apparently, informal competition wasn't enough for some people, and so we've been given the YNOTs (TONY spelled backwards; isn't that friggin' clever) in Berks County, the Apollo Awards towards Harrisburg, and the Freddys the other direction near Allentown. If that's not nearby for you, look around, there's either one, or one coming in the not-too-distant future.

I dislike these awards for the following reasons:
  1. More competition - As mentioned above, the arts--MUSICALs in particular--are inherently competitive. Somehow we've decided that no artistic endeavor should continue without a trophy being attached. See also: marching band, jazz band, twirling, Irish dance, ...
  2. Extended season - MUSICALs are meant to have a very intense, but very brief lifespan. When I was working with shows, the season ran from January to the end of March. Since these things are awarded at the end of May, the season is effectively extended that long. Late May is supposed to belong to things other than the MUSICAL . This is also a problem because of:
  3. Egos - Being a lead in a MUSICAL is pretty heady stuff, and getting beaten for a lead you thought you'd be right for is pretty awful. The extended season means that you don't really go back to normal life until nearly graduation. You spend about half of the school year carrying around your status as the title character, or the third chorus-boy from the left. I've been both, and can tell you there's a difference.
  4. Another reprise - It resurrects zombie incarnations of shows that won't be anything other than a sad echo of their peak.  A show that’s had twenty-five hours of rehearsal, plus eight performances, within six days is not going to be well-represented with only a quick refresher a month-and-a-half later.
  5. Injury - It puts physical demands on students who are no longer conditioned for them. A kick-line after you’ve been doing kick-lines for three months is very different from one after two months of playing badminton in gym.
  6. Money - It enriches an entity other than the school programs that produced the show in the first place. One of the more reasonable defenses of this kind of thing is that students get to see performances by other schools. However, if a student buys a ticket to see another school’s show, the money goes toward that school’s show. If they pay $15 to hear the same song at the YNOTs, the profit goes to...?
  7. Final say - It introduces the possibility of an unwelcome asterisk. Some years ago, my school produced Aida. It was a triumph on every level: production, performance, casting, emotional impact--everything. Then the YNOTs gave the costume award to someone else. Now this show has a little blemish on its memory that no one should have been given rights to apply, because they're:
  8. Outsiders - It extends credibility and authority to people who haven't earned it. Directors know not only which songs came out the best, but which students came the greatest distance to get them there. They know who not only learned her role two days after scripts were available, but also knew every other role in the show and could fill in for any of them on opening night if asked. The audience knows when they’ve seen something special, and lots prove it by coming back and buying tickets to the matinee. Why let some “professional” register their opinion after all of that?
Full disclosure: I have a more generalized problem with awards. There are essentially three ways to go, and no matter what the details, you're doing some version of:
  • Everyone gets a trophy.
  • Winner takes all.
  • Senior privilege.

Sometimes you have so many awards to give out that it becomes a simple problem of  the time it takes to distribute them. The Academy Award acceptance speeches were limited to 45 seconds after the telecast ballooned to 4 hours, 23 minutes. The Grammy Awards have a pre-telecast to give out 70 awards not worthy of the three-hour show. If you narrow the criteria enough, and do so specifically enough, even I could win a Grammy.
Schools do this too. At some point, we figured out that we shouldn't launch our 12th-graders from the halls of our schools without some sort of ceremony to mark the occasion--a recognition of their so-called graduation to the next level, or commencement of their post-high-school lives. Eventually, this awards ceremony became too heavily-laden with other awards--so much so that we instituted another awards night, or nights. In my school we have different ones for band, sports (multiple sports ones, I think), and academics--some parents eat a school-baked chicken dinner pretty much every night in May. Eventually the awards nights became so bloated with awards that we instituted a two-hour assembly during the final days of school to absorb the excess. Eventually this recognition event will become too full and we will find another venue--though it's hard to imagine what would be a downgrade compared to a school assembly at the end of the year.

The opposite extreme is to create a system where only one person is given one award for being the best at everything. What if there were only one Emmy, one Oscar, one Tony, and one Grammy? What if there was only one award for all of those things combined? We can't even imagine it, which is, in my humble opinion (see, I did that one for you) rather a problem.

One arena where we do apply a winner-take-all system is the presidency of the United States. Years, and perhaps eight billion dollars, are spent to pick one guy who'll get a very nice office and a really nice plane for four years. It's worth it though. Even if it's pretty much a tie, you get to do whatever you want.

If you don't want to just give an award to everyone, and you can't narrow it down to just one, sometimes you employ the worst method of all--celebrating people who manage to show up for a period of time and/or simply growing older. Say what you will (or just recite what I've said, I grant you my permission) about all of the awards I've mentioned, they are pretty much based on merit--or some measure of bribery and politics mixed in with merit. Sadly, some organizations develop such a fetish about getting an award to everyone that they automatically recognize people for attendance or just making a number of laps around the sun.

The fact that the pay-scale in my profession works this way irks me (see also: here), but the biggest problem comes from hazing (see also: here). Organizations honor their aging, or exiting, members to encourage the younger ones to stay around. Hazing comes about when groups try to make the act of staying around somehow meaningful. It's self-fulfilling, of course, because once you've gotten through the hazing and managed to stick around, you want to make sure the next generation suffers just as you did. The medical profession recently recognized the fact that they might accidentally be killing people through this process, and have decided to try to cut back. It's a path that more organizations should consider.

Awards are ultimately a way to reinforce and celebrate things we value. Awards can be a way to draw attention to things that aren't getting enough of it--though the entertainment industry, the presidency of the United States, and high school MUSICALs do already enjoy a fair amount of attention. I submit that many awards are not ultimately about any of this, however, and are about the simple pleasure of beating someone else at something you already know you're good at. At this point, it's time to throw the whole thing out and go back to the blistering, tear-jerking, backbiting, and soul-crushing competition that we enjoyed in the days before anyone needed to tell you YNOT.

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