Awards, awards, awards. Every industry has 'em and entertainers thrive on 'em. In Chicago, there are numerous awards for plays, for film scripts, for women writers, for women actors, for Asian playwrights and Asian actors, for cabaret--well, you name it, there's probably an honor or an award for it. But when it comes to actual theatrical productions, the City of Big Shoulders has three main awards: The Jeffs, the After Darks, and the Black Theatre Alliance.
The Joseph Jefferson Awards and Citations come in three varieties: Equity, non-Equity, and Touring. They're completely separate branches with completely separate awards ceremonies, though not completely separate adjudication processes. The Jeff's were in 1967 by four actors. Six awards from seven theaters were given out at the first ceremony in 1968. Now, between the three branches, the Jeff's dole out over 100 awards to actors, directors, designers, playwrights, and producers.
The non-Equity Jeffs just had their Citations ceremony on June 12. Their judging season runs from April 1 to March 31. The Citations Wing was instituted in 1973 to honor the burgeoning off-Loop, non-union theater scene that was producing works by unknown playwrights like David Mamet, starring then-unknown actors like Joe Mantegna, Dennis Franz, and Meshach Taylor.
The Citations are also known as the "Fun Jeffs" because they were designed as a celebration of Chicago theater, not as a competition. Indeed, this Jeff committee is very careful to keep the word "award" as far away from these honors as possible. There are, of course, "honorees," who may be also be called "winners," but there are, unlike many other awards, no "losers." Citations may be given to multiple recipients in one category--and often are. For example, in this year's Jeff Citations, both Circle Theatre and Raven Theatre shared the best production citation for their respective mountings of The Crime of the Century and A View from the Bridge. It should be noted that The Crime of the Century is a new play and View, of course, is a revival of a classic. That kind of openness toward variety is one of the things that endows the Jeff Citations with its spark.
The Equity Wing has a reputation for being more staid, though that has changed in the last few years, as the November ceremony has been held in a more cabaret-style setting, with no reserved tables and no reserved attitudes. The Equity Wing experimented recently with multiple winners--under pressure from some major Chicago theaters--but they went back to their old system when recipients complained that multiple winners devalued their award.
What makes the Equity Jeff Awards interesting is the variety of Equity contracts found in Chicago. The Chicago Area Theatre contract (CAT) has seven tiers: 1-6 and N. The N tier allows a previously non-union theater to do one show with one Equity actor at a nominal salary. And it only applies to one production, not the theater's entire schedule. Tier 1 is similar, but mandates an Equity stage manager along with some other requirements.
What all this means for the Jeffs is that a company like Rivendell Theatre Ensemble (which doesn't even have a permanent space) can compete with the Goodman and win. In fact, it happened a few years ago when Rivendell's production of Wrens (which was also a new play by a Chicago playwright) beat out productions from far larger theaters for the ensemble award.