They like me! They really like me!

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

And it would eliminate the musical numbers. I know I'll never be honored for my critical contributions to the development of musical theater, but really, people, at all the Oscar-watching parties I've ever attended, the musical numbers were the breaks where you got up to take a piss or refresh the martini pitcher. Or, if endured, they were the gaudy embarrassments that reinforced just how contemptibly shallow the Academy Awards are. A friend once referred to Oscar musical numbers as scratching posts--they're the place to get your claws ready for Sharon Stone's gown.

There seems to be a contradiction between style and content with the Leon Rabins--the Dallas Theatre League apparently wants to mimic nationally broadcast awards ceremonies, but they don't want to reward national talent, or so the rap goes. Tom Sime, a sharp critical mind at The Dallas Morning News, recently wrote an opinion piece in which he chastised Theatre League voters for not choosing some of the national talent that's brought to town, especially by the Dallas Theater Center. He insisted that the Rabins would always be a "cordoned-off Dallas block party" that might be "afraid to compete with national talent" unless they started honoring people like designer Ming Cho Lee, a nationally celebrated artist whom Dallas Theater Center artistic director Richard Hamburger has solicited.

I agree with him that there's a high risk of winner recidivism in something like the Leon Rabin awards, which will only be thwarted if Dallas can develop an array of talented new theater artists (precocious pups like Our Endeavors' Scott Osborne and Patti Kirkpatrick), and convince them to stay here. Otherwise, veterans like Charlotte Akin and Bruce Coleman will have to dedicate Rabin Rooms in their homes to contain the overflow. But really, why shouldn't the Leon Rabins focus on Dallas talent? More bluntly put, will outsiders even give a damn about a still-young Dallas theater award?

Hamburger, whose unpopularity may have been exaggerated by a few embittered artists, has indicated to me that he doesn't feel snubbed and understands completely why Dallas artists have the edge over the national folks he often employs. As far as Hamburger, now himself a Dallas artist, never being chosen as best director by Theatre League voters, he understands that the playing field ain't level to begin with. Comparing the talents of Hamburger and Bruce Coleman is fair, but comparing the Dallas Theater Center's budget to New Theatre Company's is not. Their coffers, not to mention their spaces, create very different theater experiences. If I were a Theatre League voter, I might not cast my ballot for Hamburger either--and not because I think he's an East Coast elitist who thinks Dallas artists are hicks putting on tent shows (hell, for all I know, maybe he does believe this in some moist little drawer of his heart, but if he doesn't recognize the cultural, political, and social mandate for theater artists to create wherever they are, then his parents wasted all that tuition). I would vote for Coleman (assuming he deserved it) because I've seen him elicit nuanced performances in the marvelously detailed worlds he created with little money and cramped space--and theater is nothing if not the art of overcoming limitations.

But Hamburger may be more like your average Dallas theater artist than anyone knows--he shares with friends and foes alike his reservations about the whole idea of declaring one best performance from a precocious, captivating litter. He insists that he feels the same way about the Tony Awards as he does the Leon Rabins. For myself, I don't think there's anything egregious about enjoying the Rabins for its showbiz value alone, if getting gussied up and giving acceptance speeches is your thing. But why not shoot for more? Chicago's theater awards are distributed by a league that offers health benefits and financial aid to that community. They're a long-entrenched institution, of course, which is presumably what the Dallas Theatre League soldiers forward to become. Are there any long-term plans to develop projects to make the difficult lives of dedicated artists a little easier? How about schmoozing a few fat-cat corporations that consider themselves patrons of the arts and convincing them to infuse a Theatre League fund with enough cash to provide more security to uninsured artists? Member theaters taking a more active role in the League's future might facilitate this.

As they are now, I believe that the Leon Rabin awards have some symbolic significance. That significance will snowball the longer they can hang around--presuming that showbiz doesn't overtake community purpose and that a sense of vision is applied in the direction of helping make Dallas a more hospitable place for theater people to live and work. Otherwise, all those precious moments of artists' lives squandered while they sit through musical numbers will have been sacrificed in vain.

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