Most Unethical Year End Awards, Theater Division

the-best-2015A 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.

Go ahead–guess.

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

36 thoughts on “Most Unethical Year End Awards, Theater Division

  1. “138 is about 45% of all … It continues the damaging cultural trend of declaring everyone above average and praiseworthy”.

    But all 138 “best” honorees are above average!

    (I’ll see myself out)

  2. -Hillary Clinton said this week that she would close any school “that wasn’t doing a better-than-average job.”-
    Can’t stop laughing about this. If this is an ongoing program, we would soon be left with one school.
    Remember, half the population of any group are below that group’s average; which half of the Presidential candidates group is Hilary in?

    • I’m not defending Hillary here but I’d like to point out that half the data set (50%) doesn’t always fall below the average. The median is the midpoint of a data set. For example if you have 10, 10, 9, 8, 8, 7, 2, 2 – the average is 7; so, only 2 is below average in this data set.

    • Once again, everyone mistakes “average” for “mean.” If there are 10 guys and one of them makes $10 and the others don’t make any, their average income is $1–but half of them are not above that and half below–one is above and the other nine below. Average and mean don’t generally merge unless there are only two in the sample. Just being a picky math major.

      • “Mean” and “Average” are the same, to be picky… 😉

        Hillary’s statement is ludicrous because the literal meaning of her words is merely a proposal to compare schools, and close the ones doing worse than others. This creates a low bar standard. All schools could do poorly, and none would be closed. This is called a “race to the bottom”.

        The same happens when schools are judged merely on their “graduation” rate; lower the bar, and everyone graduates! The school “wins”!

        I think it is fair to assume Hillary is exaggerating her claim to close all schools that are “below average”. However, her statement betrays an ideological misunderstanding of what achievement and competition are.

        The Olympic Games, for instance, one must qualify to even compete. If you cannot get a minimum time, you don’t go. Different countries have different minimums, but you must be near the top of your country’s talent pool to compete. The Olympic gold medalist in track could beat a Sunday jogger, in theory, but they are never placed on the same race course.

        Schools are not the Olympics. Schools simply do not compete against each other. One schools performance is not acceptable, simply because another school’s is less acceptable. Schools must be judged according to some universal standard.

        Hillary’s statement suggests, once again, relying on test scores, etc, to judge schools. Test scores are meaningless, if students don’t want to learn, or have too much chaos in their personal lives to focus on school. Closing schools for merely student performance throws extra chaos into their lives, and defeats any goal of improving education.

        Where focus should be laid is in the accreditation processes, validating that schools are providing good teaching methods and resources, rather than the results, which are beyond the control of the school. Of course, this means that some might be left behind…

      • As soon as I hit “post comment”, I thought I would hear from the math majors. You and John (the not-so cynical one) are correct of course, but your examples use a single data point with a small sample size. When assessing hundreds of attributes in a group of thousands, the 50-50 rule is pretty danged correct. Still, accuracy is important. and I was not precise in my post.

  3. “You! I’ve just awarded you the prize for the hundred-meter dash. Does it make you happy?”
    “Uh, I suppose it would.”
    “No dodging, please. You have the prize—here, I’ll write it out:
    ‘Grand prize for the championship, one hundred-meter sprint.’ “ He had actually come back to my seat and pinned it on my chest. “There! Are you happy? You value it—or don’t you?”
    I was sore. First that dirty crack about rich kids—a typical sneer of those who haven’t got it — and now this farce. I ripped it off and chucked it at him.
    Mr. Dubois had looked surprised. “It doesn’t make you happy?”
    “You know darn well I placed fourth!”
    “Exactly! The prize for first place is worthless to you . . . because you haven’t earned it. But you enjoy a modest satisfaction in placing fourth; you earned it. I trust that some of the somnambulists here understood this little morality play.”

    From Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein.

    Heinlein was always pretty heavy handed about inserting messages into his fiction, that aside it is hard to disagree with his point here. Who wants an award you haven’t earned? Exact;y how badly can a person need validation?

      • “Starship Troopers” along with “The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress” should be taught in schools, along with “Atlas Shrugged”.
        But then, so should “Das Kapital”, “The Republic”, “Mein Kampf”, “Leviathan”, “The Wealth of Nations” and especially the Federalist Papers (in schools outside the USA).

        • “Starship Troopers” was actually the first sci-fi novel I ever read. Of the titles you’ve mentioned, I’ve read “The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress”, “Das Kapital”, “Mein Kampf” and sections of “Atlas Shrugged”, “The Wealth of Nations” and the Federalist Papers. I never got around to Plato’s Republic (the reviews that I read of it made it sound like an early day Communist Manifesto) or “Leviathan”, which has virtually escaped my notice. I certainly agree that the Federalist Papers should be taught in schools- along with Churchill’s “History of the English Speaking Peoples”. Heinlein’s novels should be encouraged reading, but a good history of the Roman Republic would serve just as well. “Atlas Shrugged” would be high school level encouraged reading. The others, mostly dealing with disastrous regimes, need to be perused with a solid background of history in place first.

      • ‘You don’t value things you don’t earn’ was one of his arguments for restricting the vote only to people willing to risk their lives to gain it.

        His anti-Marxism argument was… Lame. He said a chef can’t make a gourmet meal out of rotten apples, so work doesn’t add value, so Marxism is wrong. *headdesk*

        • You’re not really representing his argument fairly. He didn’t say that work doesn’t add value, only that labor isn’t the sole source of value. Socialism however is dependent on the labor theory of value, and the chef + rotten apples example is a useful critique of at least the lay version of it.

          • You mean straw version, but let’s extend the metaphor, the rotten apple fell from a tree and wasn’t useful o make a pie, the fresh apple was grown in an orchard that someone planted and tended, was picked by someone and transported while still fresh. The fresh apple wouldn’t have its value without the work put into it.

            • I meant lay version, because real people actually preach it. Perhaps weak-man is better given the similarity to straw-man. Specifically, the weak man version is that the value is directly proportional to the amount of labor involved. Marx at least recognized the concept of use value.

              I dispute the claim that a fresh apple never has value without labor. If I find a wild apple tree with a fresh apple which I then eat, I contend that it had value independent of any human labor, unless you want to include consumption as labor.

              • Although, to be fair, the consistent interpretation from just about everyone ascribes that version as a fundamental component of Marxism. Wikipedia linked to https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1875/gotha/ch01.htm as a source for “Labor is not the source of all wealth” but wealth is not the same as value. I’m not 100% sold that Marx didn’t ascribe to it, but I’m willing to accept that his philosophy was a lot more nuanced than how his worshipers present it.

  4. As its the best plays list their writers saw , instead of putting out this long list they should allow each reviewer to pick out ten and write a piece about those ten . That would cut it down some I think and put it more in perspective that these are just the best shows these critics saw.

      • Its almost as bad as those ones where everyone votes for their favorite show or performance and you have actors lobbying for votes so they will win. It doesn’t matter if you saw the show or not they just want to win.

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