They like me! They really like me!

With the Leon Rabin Awards, Dallas toasts its theater artists without really benefiting them

When The Dallas Morning News printed the Dallas Theater Critics Forum results on November 1, it was frisky foreplay working up to the climax of November 2, when the Dallas Theatre League distributed the 1998 Leon Rabin Awards at the Irving Arts Center. They are, of course, separate but related honors: the Rabins are presented by the Theatre League, a nonprofit association of Dallas actors, directors, and designers, while the Critics Forum features theater writers from area publications. As a critic, I cannot participate in the Theatre League as a Leon Rabin voter or nominator; I had, as Tom Sime indicated in his short essay introducing the Dallas Theater Critics Forum awards, declined to join the Forum for the past several seasons.

It's difficult to explain why I had chosen not to participate, and therefore not easy to articulate why I decided to join this year. My resistance was not some gesture toward sticking it to The Belo Man, nor was it because I exchange icy stares with Tom or his Morning News colleague Lawson Taitte at production intermissions; both are nice guys, even when they're dead wrong. In all seriousness, I felt vaguely that subsuming disparate critical voices beneath the banner of a Forum award was antithetical to the very nature of criticism, which is supposed to be individuals shouting opinions into the creative winds until they're hoarse. When we meet in the drawing room, we critics are supposed to bicker good-naturedly amongst ourselves, port glasses and smelly cigars held aloft, not hold hands and resolve our petty differences in the form of a collective nod of approval to a handful of artists. And awards are kinda icky anyway, right?

Actually, it was my coming to believe that the Leon Rabins, assailed as a "popularity contest" from some corners, had this difficult-to-quantify value to the long-term development of a diverse and woefully overlooked theater scene that convinced me to throw my hat into the Dallas Critics Forum ring. Both are symbols of encouragement: "We like your work. Please do more." And both, hopefully, send a message to those inferiority-complex-addled whiners about culture: "Shut up and come see this company."

As a matter of fact, when we critics met to consider the awards, we had a laugh-filled Saturday afternoon in the lovely Lakewood home of The Weekly's critic Martha Heimberg. Fried chicken and Chianti, not port and cigars, were the consumables of the hour. Yes, opinions were passionate (though there was a surprising amount of consensus), and yes, citations were given to productions that didn't enthrall me (namely, Undermain's The Seagull and Dallas Theater Center's Long Day's Journey Into Night). Dallas Voice critic Hugh Johnson adored Undermain's Uncle Bob, which for me was the staged version of a gastrointestinal acid reflux disorder. The middle ground was reached with a "Best Actor" award to Cameron Cobb in Uncle Bob--to justify my agreement, I convinced myself I was voting in next year's Forum, mentally crossed out Uncle Bob, and substituted Therese Raquin, in which Cobb gave a smashing performance. Denial is an important ingredient for successful cooperation among critics.

Apparently, the 1998 Leon Rabin Awards presentation, held the Monday after Halloween at the Irving Arts Center, was also a convivial effort for all involved. I was unable to attend, but various reports have floated back to me from sources that are never less than bone-blunt about the Dallas theater scene that suggest there was a warmth this night that united even normally adversarial factions. Every handshake, every compliment, every expressed desire by one artist to work with another seemed genuine. If not, these actors and directors were giving the performances of their lives.

This harmonic convergence may very well be the primary function of the Leon Rabins, easily outdistancing the rather dubious phenomenon of lumping together a series of disparate productions and performances and declaring one the best by rewarding it with a trophy. It's the same with the Oscars or the Tonys or that regional journalism presentation known as the Katies, where statuettes are given away by the wheelbarrowful in categories like "Best Press Release" and "Best Annual Report" (and no, I'm not bitter because I was a finalist four years ago and didn't win). Like all those kudos, the Leon Rabin itself is empty, a false god, a graven image--its meaning is derived from the symbolic gathering of people at its feet. In an arts-hostile world, the kind of intimate and inquiring theater that Dallas' best companies do so well must be wrought almost exclusively from a pure love of expression rather than a desire for profit or status. So the value of this ceremonial acknowledgement of theater as common cause shouldn't be trivialized.

But what happens when theater ceases to be the god here, and the graven image, the Leon Rabin, becomes the object of faith? I'm not going to presume to say this has already happened, as the Rabins have been around for only four years. But based on reports--positive and negative--that I've heard, the Rabin ceremony itself has been skewed more toward the glitz-encrusted Tonys than the Village Voice's annual Obie Awards. The Obies are more buttoned-down, boozy, and collegial in their awards-night presentation--one microphone set up in a bar or restaurant, with people gathered at tables smoking, drinking, chatting, and cheering their fellow artists on. Because many of the artists I've spoken to--winners and never-nominated alike--say that they are simultaneously suspicious of the value of arts awards but pleased to gather for an official recognition of the scene, maybe this casual approach would better accommodate their mixed emotions. It might help avoid the potential fetishization of the Leon Rabin, in which winning a trophy becomes thought of as valuable in itself.

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