Last night, my husband Casey and I attended the Joseph Jefferson Non-Equity Awards, which everyone lazily refers to as “the Jeffs.” It has been described to me as Chicago’s version of the Tony Awards, which actually isn’t much of a compliment to the city of Chicago. There were dollar-store electric tea-lights wreathed in sparse plastic flower petals lining every table. The “light buffet” consisted of chopped-up fruit on skewers and slices of tortilla wrap stabbed with frilly toothpicks. A raggedy red carpet led in from the street, but there was no valet to park our car. Casey suggested we walk out into traffic in an effort to arrive regally. I nixed that idea. To add crudity to bad taste, the event had a cash bar. We even had to pay for my orange juice.
So to equate this event in any way with the Tony Awards is laughable. I counted four award recipients wearing jeans (recipients, mind you, as there were a great many more among the nominees). We were crammed together like sardines, feasting on day-old cookies served on tiny plastic plates, and we were sweating. It was unbearably hot. The sound system sucked, the projections were awkward, and at one point the wrong name was read off the award-presenter’s cue card. The announced recipient got up, gave her acceptance speech, and then the emcee had to inform us all that “Surprise! There were two winners!” There were not. The attempt to save face was mortifying for everyone present.
The entire night took me back to college and to our yearly departmental banquets, organized primarily to hand out scholarships and reward those deemed most likely to succeed. Those “most likely to” never made much sense to the student body, since the community of adult voters seemed to covet good looks and sweet dispositions over talent and drive. Tickets cost money—$25 a head, which is big money when you’re an undergrad—and everyone paid the cost. We knew those awards weren’t really that important, but we took them very seriously. Nervous 18-year-old girls picked out evening dresses and pimply boys looked up YouTube videos to learn how to tie their neckties. The event was always dry, it being a university setting, but we ate an excellent buffet with real silverware and remembered to put our napkins in our laps. It was an honor to be asked to be a presenter. When it came time to hand out awards, we all slid a little further forward in our seats.
The details are not what really matters here. What matters, as my designer and director friends can appreciate, is the atmosphere. Those awards mattered because we made them matter. Human beings must grant personal importance to something (a person, a place, an event) in order for that thing to be important. We control the atmosphere, and in turn the atmosphere grants us the mood, and that mood will color everything that comes after. Are the Jeff Awards important? Important enough to warrant plates the caterer has to wash? At least two spotlight operators? Itchy suits and uncomfortable shoes? If they are, then we must prove it. If they aren’t… well, what the hell is the point if they aren’t?
The fact is: I enjoyed myself last night. My husband and I got to dress up, which we like to do. We were with a lovely group of people from Caffeine Theatre Company (who should not be held responsible for my commentary on the night). The musical performances from each of the nominated musicals were fun and performed well. I didn’t even mind the crush of people too terribly, since I was so pleased to see a large turn-out from the Chicago theatre community. Overall, I’d go to the Jeffs again. I hope I get the opportunity to do so.
But I also hope that the way we reward our theatre artists will improve. And I hope that those artists will learn to take themselves, their craft, and the city more seriously. It’s rather chicken-or-the-egg, isn’t it? Do we blame the fact that we dress and act like college students on the reality that our event is sub-par? Or is the event merely living up to the beer-and-brats Midwestern attitude that keeps Chicagoans so scruffy and sloppy? It’s not just about the debatable merits of tennis shoes and exposed bra straps. It’s about how we perceive the gravity of our own accomplishments. The Jeff Awards are the highest honor available to Chicago theatre artists, and so the ceremony should be conducted accordingly. There’s nothing rad or rebellious about treating this event like a joke. It certainly doesn’t prove how big or blasé you’ve grown to be; if anything, it makes all of us smaller. If we want the world to take Chicago theatre seriously, we have to show them that we take ourselves seriously first. It’s a basic rule of business, and the business of theatre should not ignore it.
The city of Chicago is a haven for artists of all kinds; it is poor repayment to act like the work we do only warrants plastic flower petals and a cash bar. I want Chicago to stop thinking of itself as a Second City, and start to take the international artistic accolades it so richly deserves. But this city can’t do it without your help. Think of this as a call to arms: From now on, wear a jacket and tie to your own goddamn opening. Proofread the freaking programs. Stop referring to your performance spaces as “crappy little church basements.” We've earned the right to think of ourselves as professionals, and to treat our own efforts accordingly. If you can’t think of these things as a right you’ve earned, think of it as a display of respect for the city which has given you her trust.