Theater News

Famed, Found, and Feted

The ever-growing Chicago theater scene grows its awards and honors in equal measure.

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.


The third wing of the Jeffs is for touring companies–productions of Broadway shows which stop in Chicago, often for a good long while. Many people in the Chicago theater community thumb their noses at this branch, characterizing the impetus for these awards as merely a reason for Jeff Committee members to get to see Broadway shows for free. Committee members counter that many of the actors in these shows are from Chicago and thus the Committee would have an inherent interest in tracking their progress and success and in bestowing awards upon them.

The rules for getting nominated and winning a Jeff Award or Citation are byzantine, but strangely beautiful, in the way that only higher math can be. They strive to be fair, and mostly, they succeed.

The Jeffs were the only game in town until 1990. That year, Gay Chicago Magazine started the After Dark Awards, named after its arts section. No, you don’t have to be gay to win an After Dark Award, but critics and audiences alike have occasionally suggested that it makes it more fun if you are.

Equally fun is the fact that the After Darks are completely non-competitive. The winners know they are getting an award before they even walk in. Numerous awards in one category are the norm, and are decided when the various arts writers for Gay Chicago assemble and hash out all they’ve seen throughout the year and what they think needs to be honored. The categories in the After Darks aren’t as staid, either. They’ll give an award to someone they think deserves it, even if it’s a stage manager. They also don’t make distinctions between Equity and non-Equity theater.

“We judge it on excellence and what they have to work with,” says Jeff Rossen, Gay Chicago’s main theatre critic, who produces the awards. “[Companies] can spend $2,000 on a show and do a great job with $2,000 worth of stuff and Goodman can spend $20,000 on a show and do a great job with $20,000 worth of stuff and both will be honored in the same category.”

The After Darks also give out lots of ensemble awards and do not differentiate between principal and supporting performers. Someone appearing in merely one scene might well share an honor with the star of the show.

The After Darks also give an outstanding season award to an individual or company. Local actress Annabel Armour won one last year, as did set designer Geoff Curley. Then there’s After Dark’s cabaret award–a category not considered by the Jeffs–which famously almost went to one recipient a few years ago as the “cabernet award.”

The After Dark Awards traditionally take place on Columbus Day, just before the Jeff Equity Awards and just after the first shows of the fall have closed.

The Black Theatre Alliance also holds their ceremony in the fall, though usually much closer to the timing of the Jeffs, which provides for plenty of conflict. Their award is for black theater professionals, not just black theaters. Any black actor who has appeared on stage during the past season, it seems, is nominated. Multiple awards are the norm here, too. Again as well, it’s all about a celebration and it’s an award, industry insiders say, that is gaining momentum.