Dunkirk NY – This past Monday night I attended for the first time ever the annual Artie Awards in Buffalo. The Artie Awards are Buffalo’s equivalent of the Tony Awards, celebrating and recognizing outstanding achievements in theatre within the city of Buffalo. They have been going on now for twenty years, which coincidentally is about as long as I have been active in the Buffalo theatre scene. They are the brainchild of Tony Chase, who has been the theatre editor of Buffalo’s alternative newspaper ArtVoice (the alternative to the Buffalo News, at any rate) for 20 years, as well as a local radio personality for WBFO’s Theatre Talk. They also coincide with the explosive growth of Buffalo Theatre that most people believe began in the late 1980s.
I’ve never attended the Arties before for several reasons. The first reason is that I am ambivalent about award ceremonies in general, whether they be in academia or in the arts. Part of me understands the importance of recognizing legitimate achievement; when people or a particular company do well, it is the recognition of that fact that continues to motivate and hopefully inspire others. The human psyche needs affirmation and recognition, and awards serve that function. But part of me also understands that these things can become political, and that they are often used for self-promotion purposes. There is a famous line in Buffalo theatre circles – “The Arties are all political, until you win one.” There was also a bit of an Artie backlash this year from one of the theatre groups in the city that felt they were left out of the proceedings.
The second reason is that I personally do not like receiving awards much. In general, I am one of those people who hates being the center of attention for just about any reason. Now, I do appreciate recognition when I do a good job – “thanks yous” both in public and in private are always welcome. But awards have this way of creating the feeling of being singled out, and that bothers me. In my personal history with awards I again have a mixed history: some award nominations I have refused, but a couple I have accepted. Just last month I was made a Distinguished Teaching Professor, and while this is technically not an “award” but a promotion in rank up from Professor, it is something that is considered an honor to attain. When I do get the chance to receive an award, I try to believe that the award itself has a greater purpose beyond myself. Perhaps it brings a certain degree of recognition to the department as a whole, and perhaps it will help in marketing. Awards can serve many purposes, both honorable and pedestrian – such is their nature and the nature of the culture.
The third reason is that I have been nominated only once, but did not win. Since the nature of the event itself does not interest me, I never went if I was not nominated. My one nomination came in the 2003-04 season when I played Roy in Looking for Normal for a Buffalo United Artists production. I did not attend that year not because I did not want to, but because I had to attend a family celebration of my grandmother’s 96th birthday (she died on Christmas Day later that year). Other years I simply saw no particular need to attend. The Arties are generally a dress-up affair where all the theatre people in town get together for an evening, mingle and mix with each other, drink, and generally have a good time. It’s not my style. I much preferred the old Tommy Flynn days, where the informal atmosphere of camaraderie and good times was not so caught up in appearance and image.
I went this year because I happened to bump into Tony while going into a rehearsal for Much Ado About Nothing. The Artie committee and the evening’s two other co-hosts along with Tony (who are in the Ado cast) were having a planning meeting in the same space that rehearsals were taking place. He asked me if I was going to go to the Arties, and while I was trying to get out a noncommittal answer, he asked if I wanted to be a presenter, to which I said “yes” without much thought. I am one of those people who has a hard time saying “no” to anyone who asks me to do things for them, so the answer came out of my mouth without thinking, an answer I regretted giving from the moment I sat down to prepare for rehearsal. It meant I would have to go.
My reaction to the event was mixed. I dressed in a jacket and tie, looking rather schlumpy, and when I got in the place I did begin to see many people I’ve worked with over the years. The event was held in the Towne Ballroom, which at one time used to be the Pfeiffer Theatre. There were balloons and glitz and Buffalo-style glamor, with a red carpet and whatnot. I was part of a team of three that presented the Outstanding Actor in a Play award (and was the worst dressed of the three). People seemed happy to be there and having a good time, but curiously enough not much attention was being paid to the ceremony itself. There was always a constant chatter going on in the room, as people mingled and talked through the presentations and the thank-you speeches. Only the speech by lifetime achievement winner Vincent O’Neill, AD of the Irish Classical Theatre, and the memorial moment in the beginning of the second half drew any semblance of silence. The bar in the back remained busy. I hung out way in the back, and left when the proceedings were finally over (they went over time). I did a bit of mingling outside the building, and then headed home.
For me, the whole thing had a rather artificial, almost surreal ring to it. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing; it’s merely the way it felt to me. I get the impression in Buffalo that most people don’t care too much about the Arties, but of course they don’t mind winning one. The event is not particularly auspicious or solemn, but then again, university commencement ceremonies have lost a certain formality to them as well (and as someone who adores formal ceremony, this is a great loss). I think what most people like is the opportunity to dress up, have fun, be “glamorous” for an evening just like Hollywood, celebrate the past season, and then move on. I just have to say that it’s not my thing. Neither are the Tonys or the Oscars, which I never watch as well. I just don’t put too much stock in awards in the arts – heck, I don’t even care too much for our department awards (they do provide scholarship and money to students, however, so there is a measure of practicality and need there). Whether or not they have value I will leave up to others. For me, they are too much a temptation to pretentiousness, so I tend to avoid them. I suppose, though, I will always have this unresolved feeling about awards. I suppose in the end, striking a balance between the true nature of deserved recognition and the temptation towards artificiality has to be the key. If you’re doing good work because you believe in the work and are passionate about the work, and someone happens to come along and reward it, that’s pretty nice. If, however, you’re doing the work ultimately to earn that award, then you’re cheapening the work, the art, and yourself. Only the individual can be the judge of that. -twl