Helen Hayes Award

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Helen Hayes Award
Awarded for Excellence in professional theatre in the Washington, D.C. area
Country United States
Presented by theatreWashington
First awarded 1983
Website www.theatrewashington.org

A Helen Hayes Award is a theater award named for the famed actress Helen Hayes to recognize excellence in professional theater in the Washington, D.C. area since 1983. The awards are named in tribute to Helen Hayes, known as the "First Lady of American theatre." They are presented by theatreWashington (formerly known as the Helen Hayes Awards organization), which is the unified voice of Washington theatre since the 1980s. The organization – led by Amy Austin – works full-time to promote, represent and support all segments of Washington’s professional theatre community as well as strengthen Washington theatre’s powerful economic engine and world class brand.[1]



In the early 1980s, the Washington Theatre Awards Society was founded to recognize and encourage excellence in professional theatre in the Washington region through the presentation of the Helen Hayes Awards, to promote a reputation of quality of theatrical excellence in Washington theatre. Award recipients attracted new audiences and support, in turn investing in programming and infrastructure, attracting larger audiences and higher-profile artists.

The organization launched education and communication programs. The early success of the Helen Hayes Awards suggested that the organization do business under the name of its most visible program.

By building audiences, by introducing students to theatre, by promoting Washington across the nation as a cultural center, and with the national and international significance of the Helen Hayes Awards, the organization has helped drive the growth of Washington theatre. At the input of the theatre community and a wide range of stakeholders, the organization aimed to become more robust, and adopted the name theatreWashington to better reflect the breadth and geographic scope of its realigned activities.[1]

Due to criticism of the "one size fits all" philosophy of the awards, in September 2013 theatreWashington announced that, effective with the 2015 awards, the awards would be split into

  1. The Helen Group of Awards for non-Equity productions defined to be those that have no more than three equity actors or the equity actors make up less than 51% of the cast.
  2. The Hayes Group of Awards for productions employing too many equity actors to qualify for the Helen Group.

These awards will be at the production level, not at the company level.[2]

History of the Awards[edit]

The story begins in 1983 on a flight from Chicago back home to Washington D.C.,when Broadway producer Bonnie Nelson Schwartz pondered the state of theatre in her hometown. Chicago's Joseph Jefferson Awards had just been presented. Impressed with the way the Jefferson Awards had galvanized Chicago theatre, Bonnie wondered what could be done to strengthen and cultivate live theatre in Washington.

Together with producing partner Arthur Cantor and Washington Post Critic Emeritus Richard L. Coe, they presented a plan to the first lady of the American theatre and native Washingtonian, Helen Hayes, who wholeheartedly embraced the idea of her namesake awards honoring theatrical excellence in her hometown.

The idea of Washington's own theatre awards program – a signature event that would promote the concept of Washington as a theatre town – was born. The stage was set. As young theatres received Helen Hayes for artistic excellence, they attracted new audiences and support. With greater support, the theatres could invest in their programming and facilities. Audiences grew.

Along with this concept, came to the organization the dream of improving the community by helping artists make a living doing what they love in a place where they had established roots. In order to better serve the growing demand, restaurants and stores opened – more people came. Neighborhoods were revitalized.

The bounty of talent and world-class productions make theatre an essential priority for thousands of Washingtonians each day – to feed their spirit and soul, to help educate their children, to encourage cultural diversity, and to provide a more vibrant quality of life.

Helen Hayes MacArthur: First Lady of American Theatre[edit]

Born on October 10, 1900, in Washington, DC, Helen Hayes saw her first play at the National Theatre when she was five years old. At the age of nine, she made her professional debut. Later that same year, she appeared on Broadway for the first time in the play Old Dutch. Perhaps the greatest actress in the history of the American stage, her astonishing career in theatre, film, television, recording, and publishing spanned the 20th century.

Miss Hayes authored eight books and worked extensively in radio for more than half a century. She was the recipient of the first Tony Award for Best Actress, two Oscars, an Emmy Award, a Grammy Award, The Kennedy Center Honors, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and was regarded as the "First Lady of the American Theatre".

The Helen Hayes Awards is a vibrant living legacy to her legendary work ethic, standards of excellence, and inspiration to Washington artists who followed in her footsteps. Eighty years after her first visit to the National Theatre, Miss Hayes presided over the inaugural presentation of her namesake awards. She died on March 17, 1993.

The awards[edit]

Awards categories[edit]

With nearly 80 professional theatre companies, Washington, DC, is second only to New York for the number of productions each year. During the 2011 season, 53 theatres produced 192 shows in the January 1 – December 31 judging cycle. From these shows, 153 artists, ensembles, and productions from 26 theatres were nominated for Helen Hayes Awards, which are given for resident and nonresident productions. The awards for acting, directing, design, choreography, productions, and more include:

  • Resident Play
    • Outstanding Director
    • Outstanding Supporting Actress
    • Outstanding Lead Actress
    • Outstanding Ensemble
    • Outstanding Resident Play
  • Resident Musical
    • Outstanding Director
    • Outstanding Supporting Actor
    • Outstanding Supporting Actress
    • Outstanding Ensemble
    • Outstanding Lead Actor
    • Outstanding Lead Actress
    • Outstanding Resident Musical
  • Resident Production
    • Outstanding Set Design
    • Outstanding Lighting Design
    • Outstanding Sound Design
    • Outstanding Musical Direction
    • Outstanding Choreography
    • Outstanding Costume Design
  • Nonresident Production
    • Outstanding Lead Actor
    • Outstanding Lead Actress
    • Outstanding Supporting Performer
    • Outstanding Nonresident Production
  • Special Awards
    • The Charles MacArthur Award – for Outstanding New Play or Musical
    • The Washington Post Award – for Innovative Leadership in the Theatre Community
    • The John Aniello Award – for Outstanding Emerging Theatre Company
    • The James MacArthur Award – for Outstanding Supporting Actor, Resident Play
    • The Robert Prosky Award – for Outstanding Lead Actor, Resident Play
    • Outstanding Production – Theatre for Young Audiences

The nominees and recipients selection method[edit]

  • Eight judges from a judging pool, specifically endorsed for the purpose by a panel of Washington-area artistic directors, are dispatched to see each eligible production.
  • Each judge evaluates each artist’s work in the production on a 0-10 graded point scale in each of applicable categories. Ballots must be submitted within 24 hours of the judge’s attendance.
  • Judges have no idea as to the Awards status of any work they have seen and scored until the public does, i.e., when the nominees (and then the recipients) are announced.
  • At the conclusion of the 12-month judging cycle (January–December), the scores from the eight judges who saw each production are tabulated by an independent analysis firm.
  • In all, about 22,000 scores are analyzed annually, using standardized and widely accepted statistical models.
  • The productions, designs, and performances receiving the top-five final scores in each category become the nominees. In the case of tie votes, a tie-breaking system is used, and if the tie still cannot be broken, the number of nominees is simply increased.
  • Following the public announcement of the nominees, the process continues to determine the award recipient in each category. Again, in the case of tie votes, a tie-breaking system is used, and if the tie still cannot be broken, the number of recipients is increased.

For more information on the selection process:[3]


Some critics feel that the Helen Hayes Awards tend to overlook smaller theatres and productions at the expense of rewarding the larger, more established theatres. It has been suggested that the awards be "two-tiered" with separate categories for large and small theatres.[4][5] This criticism was addressed by the restructuring of the awards into the Helen (nonequity) and Hayes (equity) groups.[2]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "http://theatrewashington.org/content/our-story". Retrieved 2012-07-09.  External link in |title= (help)
  2. ^ a b Pressley, Nelson (17 September 2013). "Helen Hayes Awards will split nominees into two groups based on Equity involvement". The Washington Post. Retrieved 18 September 2013. 
  3. ^ "http://theatrewashington.org/content/faqs#faq7". Retrieved 2012-07-09.  External link in |title= (help)
  4. ^ Pressley, Nelson (2012-04-20). "Helen Hayes Awards could use a two-tiered approach to Washington theater". The Washington Post. Retrieved 2012-12-08. 
  5. ^ Pressley, Nelson (2012-01-22). "New Helen Hayes Awards could spur diverse theater". The Washington Post. Retrieved 2012-12-08. 

External links[edit]