Harry Potter and the Cursed Child production photo
(Image: Manuel Harlan)

There was no shortage of headlines about the Helpmann Awards this week. The awards “show theatre is winning the diversity race in Australian entertainment”; they show the dominance of Sydney’s Belvoir St Theatre as it “took home 13 of the 43 accolades”; and they “snubbed” Harry Potter and the Cursed Child in a “shock result”.

The latter point is the one that really dominated debate. Cursed Child has garnered glowing reviews, full houses and audiences from all over the globe. The producers will be proud of their one award for lighting design, but may be forgiven for wondering what exactly they have to do to bag a few more.

Theatre critic Cameron Woodhead — who gave the show 4.5 stars in his review — took to Twitter to bemoan the voting result:

Yeah, it’s wrong. The Helpmanns mean bugger all. They’re biased in favour of shows that make it to multiple capital cities, as Counting and Cracking did. Also, the voting pool is Sydney-centric & totally untransparent.

That’s a helluva tough review for the landmark awards in the theatre industry. But there’s a good question at the heart of it. Beyond the good feeling of acknowledgement by a panel of industry peeps, what does it really mean to win a Helpmann Award?

This isn’t about ticket sales

The first thing to understand is that the The Helpmanns — which cover everything from cabaret and opera, to comedy and theatre — do not function like The Tonys. By the time we get to the red carpet, most nominated productions are already closed. The announcement of “Winner of Best Production” will not be plastered all over billboards in the theatre district.

Shock results will not save a show, but they will throw a spotlight on a performer or a company or an artistic director, and this publicity will be good for the industry and individual career ambitions. By design, The Helpmanns recognise a back-catalogue of success. Like a pie night at the local footy club, they highlight the achievements of the club’s season.

The winner this time around was Belvoir; they came down to Melbourne for the ceremony and they caught the flight back to Sydney with excess baggage. Under the artistic direction of Eamon Flack, Belvoir bagged 13 Helpmann statuettes.

This is a huge scoop into the lucky dip of subjective assessment and a great reminder for the industry that you don’t have to be the biggest company to win the most acknowledgement.

Counting and Cracking (a Sydney Festival production depicting four generations of a family as it moves from Sri Lanka to Australia) and Barbara and The Camp Dogs (a rock music excursion that’s “part road story, part family drama, part political cry from the heart”) formed the dynamic duo that beat up the state companies and the highly visible commercial production of Cursed Child. 

The Harry Potter spinoff is the only nominated theatre show still running, but it’s hardly relying on more external approval to sell tickets. J.K. Rowling has created her own universe and there are certainly enough fans to sustain this story.

What’s happening behind the scenes?

Last year, there was a big kerfuffle because the Melbourne Theatre Company (MTC) and the Sydney Theatre Company (STC) dominated the nominations. Out of all the theatre categories, only Helen Morse was a nominee from an independent company. There was general agreement — at least on social media — that the big resources of the big companies led to a big influence in the outcome of the awards.

It’s true the state companies have more money, longer seasons and greater sway within the discussion, but the work that was on display was also groundbreaking for that year.

So, back to Woodhead’s comment. I’m pretty sure the winners and nominees don’t think the awards mean “bugger all”. It’s a snarky critique and a pretty big stretch to suggest the voting pool is “untransparent”.

The Helpmann’s website names all panel members and explains their judging process:

The Helpmann Awards Administration Committee selects the panel chairs who then appoint panelists to ensure broad geographic and artistic representation.

A quick glance through the panel volunteers reveals that Belvoir AD Eamon Flack is a panel member. He shares voting duties with other industry heavyweights like Kate Cherry, Matthew Lutton, Daniel Clarke, Sam Strong, Clare Watson and Sydney Festival artistic director Wesley Enoch.

The charge of “Sydney-centric” is also hard to sustain as the website reports the theatre panel is chaired by Virginia Lovett, executive producer of Melbourne Theatre Company.

This year, the MTC and STC both walked away empty-handed. MTC did not even grab a nomination in the big-ticket categories. Is this lack of representation an indication of a lack of innovation or a sign that MTC programming is more focused on subscribers than winning awards? Probably both. The panel will have their reasons for their choices. But in the current climate it is no big surprise that the most recent J.K. Rowling franchise was not loaded up with silverware.

The success of Counting and Cracking and Barbara and the Camp Dogs is a welcome reminder that modern Australia is a diverse place and our audiences are seeking out multi-dimensional Australian stories. We are not just waiting for the next piece of cultural cargo to wash up on our shores. These two plays in particular have been wrought from our own lived experience and their creation cannot be undervalued.

Any serious industry needs an awards system like the Helpmanns. They may not be perfect, but they do provide a moment in time to shine a light on great achievements and even greater aspirations.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey