Motif Theater Awards Process

People are always asking us about the nomination process for the Theater Awards. Here’s how we do it, spelled out in as much detail as we can muster:

First, we contact every theater company we know of in the area. This includes everyone who has sent us press releases, been in our listings, been covered for any reason over the years, or that any of our sales people and theater writers are aware of. Our contact list is not always as up-to-date as we would like, but most of them are people we correspond with periodically, so it’s generally pretty fresh. We also ask our salespeople to contribute contact information (they know everybody), and our writers contribute contacts, then our admin staff (with the help of intrepid interns) try to chase down any remaining unresponsive contacts through social media. So, the outreach protocol is 1. Send email. 2. Send to alternate email addresses if we have them in sales, accounting or among the writers. 3. Have our writers send emails. 4. Remind/nudge/reach out on social media. 5. Call. 6. Repeat the emails (we send four reminders total, but we try to spare the people who’ve already answered).To all of these contacts, we send a list of probable categories and ask the open-ended questions: What do you feel was the best work to come out of your organization, and what was the best work you saw elsewhere? (By the way, as a community, we need to work on improving our ability to answer that second part – see each other’s work, people! That said, for some of our respondents it produced beautiful, insightful suggestions from people clearly appreciating what’s going on around them). This year, we attempted to connect with 78 local theater companies and heard back from 44 (one politely declined to respond, and one submitted their ballot after nominations were locked).

Do we miss some? Undoubtedly. Did we probably screw up our attempts to contact some folks or accidentally reach out to retired or redacted producers/artistic directors? I’d say so. Did we try our best and end up really happy with our high response rate and the enthusiastic suggestions overall? Yes, absolutely.


Secondly, once we have everyone’s nominations in, we put them all in a giant spreadsheet. There are several people working on the data entry, because it’s a lot. One year, we tried to have people fill it in themselves in an online form – it wasn’t successful, but as more of the universe goes digital, we may give it another try.

Many of the nominations we receive don’t specify what category – sometimes we get a name, but no play or role, sometime a role but no indication of the performer, and often they’re miscategorized. We’re okay with that – we want the input and feedback, and we’d rather sort through the details ourselves than have people not respond because it’s too much work. But it does leave a lot of parsing.
From that spreadsheet, we try to do straight math – if something or someone received five or six nods from nominators, it gets on the nominee list over something that got one or two.
Unfortunately, straight math alone can’t do the trick – we frequently end up with 16- or 18-way ties (not exaggerating). And of course, at this stage, we have a fair number of misclassified suggestions or suggestions for the same performance in both lead and supporting, etc.

Third, next, we have meetings. The goal is to break the ties and settle on a final set of nominees – between four and seven. (How many usually depends on how many ties remain after the meetings.)

Fourth, we also identify our “Critics’ Picks” awards – this is something we just started doing last year. It’s a response to concerns about the popularity contest aspect of the voting online. Each current Motif theater critic picks one performance or production that did not make the final nominations ballot, but stood out for that particular writer. With about 3,000 voters for the theater awards in a given year, some of that gets diluted, but it’s certainly true that you have an advantage if you get out there on social media, and you have advantages if lots of people saw a show or if the theater’s name is known. We WANT the widespread participation – one of our fundamental goals is to get people to realize how robust the theater scene is, and how many shows and theaters are out there and how much more activity there is than the average voter may have realized. If theaters or actors scare up votes, it still helps us all. But we wanted to also have some special awards that were picked for distinction, whether a lot of people saw them or not. We know it’s still not unbiased (this is art and subjective – there is nothing that’s not biased somehow), but at least it’s a whole different set of biases, and helps freshen things up. We still try to be as fair about it as possible. For some of these, we accept impassioned arguments from the critics, and some writers-only voting takes place.

Suggestions for improvement are always welcomed, and we tweak our process a little bit every year. Hope it helps satisfy some curiosity and answer the questions we get every year!