A local theater website in Washington D.C. gathers up its reviewers and staff, and announces year end awards, “The Best of 2015” in several categories, including the best professional theater productions of a play. I was alerted, with the usual fanfare, that my company’s farewell production of “Twelve Angry Men” made the esteemed list. Several friends sent me the link, with congratulations.
Guess how many plays made the “Best” list.
Did you guess 138?
That’s right: this site, which is run by a friend, had 138 productions named as “best.” When my reaction to this on Facebook was the same as it was last year, only a bit more pointed—I asked where I could buy one of those “We’re Number 138!” giant foam fingers, I was chided by one of my cast members for not being properly “gracious.” That really ticked me off. Being gracious in response to a cynical exercise that is phony to its core just encourages more of the same.
What’s wrong with naming 138 “best” professional dramatic productions? Everything:
It’s a scam. It works like this: the site gives an “award” that only the theater community recognizes or pays any attention to, then each theater, in its promotional materials, trumpets that the organization named one of its offerings as a “Best Play of 2015,” while never disclosing that this isn’t a Top Ten or even a Top 25, but a Top 138, which is really a “Didn’t Suck Award.” (I have roughly calculated that 138 is about 45% of all the professionally produced plays this year in D.C.). Potential subscribers are impressed, and its as a result of pure, calculated deceit. I have roughly calculated
It is a quid pro quo scheme. Every one of the theaters awarded this inflated, devalued distinction will soon be hit up for ads.
It exploits the weakness of performing artists, which is that they are desperate for attention and love. The proof: the performers really are happy to be thrown this calculated crumb. It’s sad. As long as someone, somewhere, in print, says that they are the “best,” that’s good enough.
It is dishonest. There is no such thing as the “best” 138 anythings—they are, at best, the better plays of 2015. This is English degradation.
It continues the damaging cultural trend of declaring everyone above average and praiseworthy, which not only lulls less than outstanding individuals into thinking otherwise, but also cheats the legitimately excellent artists who deserve recognition. There were three productions of “As You Like It” on the list of D.C. Bests! I’m just guessing here, but I bet that one of them was obviously better than the other two, though wild wildebeests couldn’t drag me to another “As You Like It,” and a company defaulting to Shakespeare in a Shakespeare saturated theater scene like D.C. raises a prima facie case that group involved isn’t the “best” by any standard. (Hillary Clinton said this week that she would close any school “that wasn’t doing a better-than-average job.” Sorry, that just popped into my head. She’d like these awards, and that’s another strike against them.)
It is lazy. Making a competent declaration of absolute quality in an active theater community like the District’s takes time, consideration, and well thought-out standards. Or, you can just make sure every potential ad source is happy, and honor every play that anyone on the staff had something good to say about.
It is cowardly. As the Oscars, Tonys, Emmys and MLB All-Star Game discovers every year, making a good faith effort to name the best means that a lot of people will feel snubbed or unfairly ignored. Name so many “bests” that it’s not worth complaining (“Hey! I just know our production was one of the top 138 this year!”) and you’re safe.
It is insulting. The device lets theater artists know that this website thinks they can be pleased by transparently absurd honors so diluted that they are meaningless. “You are the best dog/infant/ theater company! Yes you are! Yes you are!”
Worst of all, they are pleased