Jeff Awards Plan Steps to Diversify, Integrate with Theater Community

The Jeff Awards have released the results of an independent research project to identify areas for improvement, and action steps the committee is considering to address the findings. Taproot+, a non-profit organization that provides pro bono services by volunteer professionals, conducted the study, which consisted of phone interviews with 21 leaders of theater organizations, and a survey that was provided to every Jeff-participating theater.

The committee presented the results and potential remedies at a League of Chicago Theatres event for managing directors on Monday. Key issues reported by the study (which can be downloaded here) include a lack of racial and age diversity, a perception of bias towards “conventional productions,” transparency around rules and policies, community involvement, and the award’s overall lack of impact.

Membership diversity being the most prominent problem, the study found that the current time commitment of seeing more than 150 shows annually is a major barrier to broadening membership. The Committee says it had already begun instituting a proactive recruitment initiative with minority organizations and will increase the effort, and that it may reduce the number of shows members see by having them judge shows in either the Equity or Non-Equity wing on a rotating basis each year (currently members see all recommended shows in each wing). That change could reduce the time commitment in half and entice more applicants. It could also reduce the number of comp tickets provided from theatres for members to review productions, which was another concern, especially among smaller theaters.

Subcommittees are being formed to “conduct a review of the opening night voting structure and rules, the role of the Artistic/Technical team, addressing final ballot concerns, and whether “Jeff Recommended” or another term should be used for opening night results for theaters’ publicity use.” Ways to interact with the theatre community for its input are being explored. A revamp of the website is underway, and the committee will begin producing a quarterly newsletter as it explores other communication avenues.

The organization is looking to expand its current education programs that are held with a panel of experts at Jeff membership meetings to the broader theater community and theatergoing public in partnership with other organizations. Other activities, such as the appointment of an outreach coordinator and scholarships are under consideration.

The project was conducted in two phases from May through October, with Managing Directors (or equivalent title) and Artistic Directors among Chicago area theaters. “As we begin the 50th anniversary year of the Jeff Awards, we are moving forward with ways to improve in these three areas as well as celebrate past achievements,” said David Liesse, Jeff Awards chairman. “Using the Taproot+ recommendations and after much discussion, we will continue honoring excellence in the Chicago theatre community with renewed enthusiasm.”

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Abigail Trabue

Abigail has worked as an actor/director in Chicago for over ten years, and along with husband Jason Epperson founded Lotus Theatricals in 2015, and PerformInk Chicago and Kansas City in 2016 (where she serves as Managing Editor of both publications). When not talking shop, Abigail is raising three padawans with Jason, drinking lots of coffee, converting school buses into RV's, and eating all the foods at Disney World. You can find her on Twitter @AbigailTrabue