2023 Helen Hayes Awards
May 22, 2023
For tickets go to theatrewashington.org
After three years of varying and virtual approaches, this year’s Helen Hayes Awards will be more familiar with the honors being doled out live and in person on Monday night at the Anthem.
Integral in making the 37th awards both fun and sufficiently formal is delightful actor/director Holly Twyford who’s been tapped to both co-host and co-direct the annual ceremony. “For me, it’s not as hard as it sounds,” she explains modestly. “Will Gartshore [co-director and celebrated Washington actor] has done the lion’s share of the work. He’d already written an entire script by the time I stepped in. He’s really smart and knows music.”
Undeniably, Twyford brings a lot of experience to the gig. She’s been attending the awards since the early ‘90s, and remembers meeting the late “first lady of American theater” for whom the Awards are named, and shaking her hand. She’s also the recipient of multiple Helen Hayes Awards and so many nominations it’s been written into Monday night’s show. And while Twyford understands the show’s inherent excitement and spontaneity, she’s also aware of the challenges involved in creating a successful evening.
“I was just saying to my wife, these kinds of things are not easy to orchestrate,” Twyford continues. “It’s great and amazing to celebrate our community and its artistry, but it’s tricky to have everyone heard and appreciated. It’s a lot to do in one night, but we have to remember it’s more than giving out awards, it’s an opportunity to stop and look at the community.
“For instance, we have non-gendered acting categories. When you divide between men and women, some members of the theater community are left out. It’s that simple.”
This year, the music-filled awards ceremony is divided into two parts. Twyford shares hosting duties with local favorites Naomi Jacobson, Erika Rose, and Christopher Michael Richardson. Also on board in a guest spot is Broadway star Michael Urie who’s currently finishing up a run of “Spamalot” at the Kennedy Center. Urie enjoys a long connection to Washington’s Shakespeare Theatre Company where he played the title prince in Michael Kahn’s 2018 “Hamlet,” and last summer co-starred with husband Ryan Spahn in Talene Monahon’s wonderful plague-set comedy “Jane Anger.”
The awards selection process is arduous. Recognizing work from 131 eligible productions presented in the 2022 calendar year, nominations were made in 41 categories and grouped in “Helen” or “Hayes” cohorts, depending on the number of Equity members involved in the production with Hayes counting more.
Nominations are the result of 40 carefully vetted judges considering 2,146 individual pieces of work, such as design, direction, choreography, performances, and more. Productions under consideration in 2022 included 39 musicals, 97 plays, and 38 world premieres.
Many of this year’s sensational nominees (actors, designers, directors, writers, etc.) come from the queer community. Here’s a sampling.
Rising director Henery Wyand is nominated for Outstanding Direction in a Play for Perisphere Theater’s production of Tanya Barfield’s “Blue Door,” the striking tale of a contemporary black professional who comes face to face with 19th century ancestors. In addition to directing, Wyand also designed the lighting, set, and costumes.
After graduating from Vassar, he came to D.C. for Shakespeare Theatre Company’s prestigious fellowship program. About directing, Wyand says, “there aren’t a lot of specifically young queer Black directors out there. It gives me a sense of urgency to make sure underrepresented stories are shared. And if I don’t do that who will?”
And regarding his nomination, his sentiment is sweet: “Awards are a way to give flowers to people who are creating things. Living artists don’t always receive appreciation for their work.”
When Emily Sucher learned she’d been nominated for a Helen Hayes Award (Outstanding Choreography in a Play) for “To Fall in Love” with Nu Sass Productions, she seriously thought she was being punked.
“I got the news in a text from an unfamiliar number. I didn’t believe it at first,” she says. As an intimacy choreographer, Sucher is called on to stage stories with content of an intimate nature, and she just wasn’t sure it was something that Helen Hayes’ judges were looking to recognize. Clearly, they were.
Sucher adds, “Being queer shapes who I am as an intimacy choreographer and fuels my passion to tell all kinds of stories, and to show what sex and intimacy can look like. It’s not always the same.”
Out Chilean actor Fran Tapia is nominated for Outstanding Supporting Performer in a Musical for her work in GALA Hispanic Theatre’s world premiere Spanish-language production of “On Your Feet! The Story of Emilio and Gloria Estefan en Español” (the production leads the nominee pack with fifteen nods including Outstanding Ensemble for a Musical).
As Gloria Fajardo, pop star Gloria Estefan’s embittered mother, Tapia garnered rave reviews.
“Singing my character’s song — ‘If I Never Got to Tell You — breaks my heart, and that it was translated into Spanish by Gloria Estefan and her daughter Emily Estefan who is gay makes it ever more significant to me. I had the honor of introducing this version of the song to the world.”
Tapia left her native Santiago, Chile, for Washington when her wife was posted at the Chilean Embassy. It was in the thick of the pandemic, and there weren’t a lot of theater opportunities, so she thew herself into Divino Tesoro, a podcast where children and adolescents can discuss gender identity, and she also worked as director of GALA’s youth program. It was the GALA job that led to an audition to play Gloria.
She’s currently touring as Gloria Fajardo in the original English version of “On Your Feet!” During its June and July break, she’ll appear in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical “In the Heights” at the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival, and then in August it’s back to playing Gloria at the pretty seaside Ogunquit Playhouse in Maine.
Despite her intense work schedule, Tapia isn’t missing Monday’s event: ““I’m honored to be nominated, yes. But I definitely want to win!”
Talented local actor Michael Kevin Darnall is vying for Outstanding Supporting Performer in a Play for his memorable comic turn as wonderfully flamboyant Isom in Studio Theatre’s production of Katori Hall’s “The Hot Wing King,” a layered dramedy about Black men loving Black men, and yes, a hot wing competition.
This is Darnall’s seventh Helen Hayes Award nomination prompting him to dub himself the DMV’s Susan Lucci, (after the soap star who was nominated 19 times before finally winning an Emmy). Typically cast as the brooding young man, the biracial and bisexual actor fought hard to play Isom. “There’s a lot of my mom in the character,” he says, “so in part, all of this is a tribute to her.”
The first time Darnall read for a Black role was five or six years into his professional career: “Playing Black men has been few and far between for me, so to play Isom as part of a cast of Black men whose skin tone ran the spectrum was very reaffirming, and those other actors became my brothers.”
The cast became a tight-knit group on and offstage, collectively spending a lot of money at Le Diplomate, a trendy bistro a few blocks from Studio, where they indulged in escargot and gimlets. That close camaraderie and sense of fun was reflected in the work. They’re now nominated for Outstanding Ensemble Performance in a Play.
Good luck to all the nominees.
A full list of award recipients will be available @theatrewashington.org on Tuesday, May 23.