The Wellington Theatre Awards: A Brief History by Laurie Atkinson
About twenty years ago when annual award ceremonies for all manner of activities were seemingly popping up overnight all over the world it seemed odd there were no annual awards for the theatre industry or even a ceremony celebrating theatre in New Zealand. National awards and a national "knees-up" were clearly impossible but there did seem sufficient theatrical activity in Wellington, so thought Susan Budd, theatre critic for The Dominion, to make an awards evening both a reason for a party as well as providing meaningful accolades unlike, say, some of the media awards in this country for which there are only two possible contenders.
Susan got talking to Pat Cook, critic for The Dominion Sunday Times, and then myself the critic for The Evening Post. The idea was discussed amongst the four theatres, Circa, Bats, Taki Rua Depot, and Downstage, and all four gave their support and shortly the formidable Caroline Henwood of the Circa Council took up the cause and a sponsor was soon found in the unlikely form of the legal firm Chapman Tripp, thanks largely to the enthusiasm and encouragement of one of the firm’s partners, Neil Gray.
A Theatre Awards Trust Board was established and an Awards Working Committee was set up to supervise the running of the first ceremony. The three critics on the panel were joined by The Listener's Wellington theatre critic Denis Welch and Peter Harcourt was asked to be the arbiter of the panel whose job it was to chair the meeting at which the nominees were selected and he later counted the votes after the critics had voted by secret ballot.
By this time the Wellington City Council was also on board and a reception to launch the Chapman Tripp Theatre Awards was held at the Town Hall. Sir James Belich and the Minister for the Arts, The Hon. Doug Graham, spoke, welcoming the awards before "Wellington's thespian glitterati", as one newspaper put it.
The first awards evening was held in the Town Hall on December 13, 1992 with the Hon. Fran Wilde, Mayor of Wellington, hosting the evening as well as providing two awards: The Mayor's Award for Significant Contribution to Theatre and the (long-winded) Wellington City Council Culture and Recreational Committee New Zealand Playwright of the Year Award (it is now called The Absolutely Positively Outstanding New New Zealand Play of the Year!).
Over the years the award categories and their sponsors have changed and so have the ways the critics have nominated and voted for each category. During the first six years there was an award for the best production at each of the four theatres. The way the best performance by an actor or actress for a year is selected has also changed.
One category that has not changed since 1992 is the Significant Contribution to Theatre, which is a special tribute to the lifetime contribution and commitment of a theatre practitioner. He or she is nominated by the theatres and only when there are two or more nominations, which I don't remember ever occurring, do the critics vote.
The venues for the ceremony have also changed (Town Hall/St James Theatre/The Duxton Hotel/and this year The Opera House). The unpredictability of the ceremony MCs, however, has not changed, and there have been some memorable dramatic and comic moments during the presentations of the awards. Two MCs one time unashamedly and amusingly promoted their own forthcoming show, one recently subtly sent up awards shows, and at one ceremony a large reproduction of a photograph by Robert Mapplethorpe caused quite a stir.
A few New Zealand actors have shown themselves to be no less restrained than their fellow thespians at an Oscar night in Hollywood: Tears, overlong thankyous, and a little bit too much to drink. And the critics have had their moments too when they threatened to boycott a theatre the following year when it was suggested that one of their number would be refused entry. The storm in a teacup was over long before the party ended.
While the cost of a ticket may seem exorbitant to an impecunious actor there has from the start always been a concerted effort to keep the cost of a ticket as low as possible so that as many as possible could attend. This is one reason why on the ticket for admission it has always stated: Dress: Formal or Outrageous. And actors being actors have used their imaginations and have often dressed outrageously. And those who can't afford to go or aren’t nominated now have the chance to take part in an alternative, light-hearted satirical award programme – The Hackman Awards.
In his autobiography Just Who Does He Think He Is?, George Webby, who was awarded the inaugural Lifetime Achievement Award, attended the ceremony unaware he was the recipient. He didn't think much of the critics' nominations and he was there rather reluctantly as he sat at a table "with the right kind of disreputable people, whose cynicism matched mine." Then his name was announced and to a standing ovation he received the award and made his record-breaking thank-you speech which "lasted for close to half an hour."
Later he mentions that it was brought home to him that it is true that "when Oscar winners so often say, in their thank you speeches, how gratifying it is to receive recognition from one’s own peers, that they are right." Further on he describes the Chapman Tripp Theatre Awards as being prestigious and this is borne out by the fact that a 'Chappie' is proudly mentioned in countless programme biographies and advertisements throughout the country.