Eyeing the jury

The nominations for this year’s Betty Mitchell Awards (Calgary’s equivalent to the Sterling Awards) were announced last week at a press conference at the Auburn Saloon (Calgary’s equivalent to the Next Act Pub). There were two pieces of news of particular interest to the Edmonton theatre world: first, a bunch of acclaimed, Sterling-winning Edmonton productions and co-productions, including The Black Rider, West Side Story and Underneath the Lintel, scored several major nominations at the Bettys, so congratulations to the nominees, who get to dress up all over again and likely collect a few more statuettes.

Second, it was announced that, starting with next year’s awards, the Bettys’s voting system will undergo a radical change. Previously, the theatre community at large voted on the winners from a list of nominees created by a 12-member jury; but from now on, that list of nominees will go back to the jury, who will then vote on the winner amongst themselves. (Non-jury members can still cast a ballot at this point, but only if they’ve seen 75 per cent of the eligible shows.) In other words, the Bettys will become less like the Oscars and more like the Cannes Film Festival, where a small, blue-ribbon panel hands out all the prizes.

And the Sterling Awards are strongly considering adopting the same model.

“Most theatre awards in Canada—the Doras, the Jessies, the Masques—are juried,” says Sterling committee member Judy Unwin. “And the reason they went to a juried system is that they felt that otherwise, it was more of a popularity contest. And in our case, when we send out those ballots to the 450 eligible voters, nine out of ten of those people have not seen half of the productions. So instead they vote for Paul Matwychuk because he’s such a nice guy or they vote for so-and-so because she didn’t get an award last year and deserved to.”

Wow. Ordinarily I’d be insulted by the idea that I didn’t deserve my Sterling Award, except I’m too thrilled to find out that I’m actually popular. But in any case, Unwin says that adopting a system where every voter will have seen all the eligible shows would do a lot to democratize the current situation, where blockbuster shows and “name” actors have a huge advantage over independent productions by newcomers. Take the case of Mary-Pat Schlosser, who was nominated in 2001/2 for her performance in the Fringe show Returned to Sender. She still might not have won under a juried vote, Unwin says, but she “didn’t have a hope in hell of winning under the system we have now because no one but the jurors saw her. So how could she have won the Sterling?”

Mark Bellamy, the past chair of the Bettys steering committee and producer of the ceremony, says there was surprisingly little backlash in Calgary to the decision. “We did a community forum and an online survey, and the results from that survey were the big impetus for making the change,” he says. “There was an overwhelming majority—something like 79 or 80 per cent—who felt that this new system of voting would be much fairer and ensure that the best person would get the award.... And one of the other things we found out from the survey was that not a lot of people were seeing the majority of the shows. I think a lot of people in our community simply recognized that they were not really qualified to vote.”

Somehow, I suspect the Sterling committee will have a tougher time selling this new system in Edmonton—just look at the fuss that gets kicked up every time the Fringe tries changing the way they do things. “A few years ago,” Unwin says, “we inserted a survey in the Sterling program asking for input from the community on the awards, and they said, fairly strongly, ‘No, we want a chance to vote on them. We really, really want to be a part of it.’” Unwin estimates the Sterling voter turnout at about 70 per cent, which is certainly a sign that our community takes a healthy interest in the ceremony.

Nevertheless, the Sterlings are now the only major theatre awards in Canada still using a mass-voting system, and a potential switchover to some kind of jury system is one of the big issues Unwin and her fellow committee members will be pondering when they meet this summer. Unwin promises to keep the wishes of the community in mind, but adds, “I really don’t see a downside to the jury system.”

And Bellamy agrees. “To me,” he says, “it’s all about ensuring that the people making that final decision are the ones most qualified to make it.” V