Controversy (?) swirls around Toronto's 2010 Dora Mavor Moore Awards

By Megan Mooney

Note: Anything in italics is information I added to the article after it’s original publishing

Okay, so, I have put a question mark after the word controversy, because, really, although it might be viewed as a controversy, it really doesn’t seem like a make-or-break kind of thing, and I imagine pretty much no one outside of the theatre world knows of it’s existence.

Mostly I’m writing this as a response to the comments posted on Kelly Nestruck’s piece about all of this, but in case you haven’t been following, here’s some background…

First, Richard Ouzounian (theatre critic for the Toronto Star) wrote an article called “Revenge of the cool kids – Snub of Mirvish works by Dora Awards reflects badly on nominators, not plays ” on June 10.   He touches on a few things in the article:

  • The oft lamented issues with categories in the Doras calling it “One category fits all.”
  • Issues he has with the voting process: “The general membership does not vote on the Doras. The same handful of people who make the nominations vote on the winners.”
  • Lament the lack of ‘mainstream theatre’ involvement in the Dora nomination and voting process, citing this as the reason for the lack of Mirvish nominations: “You don’t send a vegan to review The Keg. …  of the four remaining names I knew, two of them were resolutely from the world of alternative theatre. … Do you think anybody from the Establishment ever had a chance?”

Then, on Tuesday (June 22nd) Ouzounian wrote another piece called “Dissent Clouds Dora Awards”  Here he tells us that “two of Toronto’s largest arts organizations informed me of their decision to end their affiliation with the Toronto Alliance for the Performing Arts after this year’s Dora Awards.” telling us that “it seems revolution is the order of the day”  There are other bits of theatre news in the article that aren’t related to the Doras.

TAPA, who administers the Dora Awards, published a response to these articles in a “communiqué” from their executive director – Jacoba Knaapen, and their Board President – Meredith Potter.  I’m not positive what day they published it, because it doesn’t seem to be on the article, but I first ready it yesterday (June 24).   Unsurprisingly, they basically called Ouzounian out on things published in his articles.  The biggest being that they had not heard of any members looking to withdraw membership, and “to set the record straight, I spoke with Mirvish Productions yesterday and they very clearly expressed that they have absolutely no intention to withdraw their TAPA membership, which was insinuated in the most recent Toronto Star article.”

Enter Kelly Nestruck (Theatre Critic for the Globe and Mail).  Nestruck published an article on his blog called “Dora Awards: Jurors are doin’ it for themselves” yesterday evening.  He starts his piece with a line I quite love:  “The Doras, which allegedly honour the best in Toronto theatre, are always a little controversial. As they should be. Part of what makes arts awards worthwhile is the debate they create.”  Ironically, I think that statement has gotten lost in the “controversy” of his words.

He touches on several things in the piece, but the one that seems to have caught the ire of the theatre community is this:

“There are no rules forbidding jurors from voting for their own work.  Yes, to repeat, there is nothing stopping Dora jurors from nominating shows or artists from shows that they were personally involved in.  They can nominate them, they can vote for them and they can try to convince other jurors to vote for them. And, precisely because of the weighted ballot system, a single jury member can hold a lot of sway.”

It wasn’t Nestruck’s article that prompted me to write about this issue, but rather, the reaction people have had to his article.  People seem to have taken his words as attacks on specific jurors, or even as a slight to artists motives in general.  It seemed like an awful lot of intent to take away from a relatively short piece.

I admit that I don’t know the Dora processes in and out, and really don’t feel comfortable commenting on them with any sense of authoritative knowledge, but based on what I have read throughout this ‘controversy’ I will write about my take on the ‘conflict of interest’ issue.  (yeah, 700 words in, and I’m finally getting to my point of view…)

There are people in the comments section of Nestruck’s piece who seem to think that this article was attacking or blaming certain people.  I have to say, I don’t see that. It’s a shame that was how some people perceived the words.  It wasn’t my perception of what Nestruck was saying.

In fact, as I see it, Nestruck took the time to point out that this isn’t actually about the specific jurors that he named for illustrative purposes (because, otherwise it would just sound like a ‘what if there were jurors who were related to nominations’ instead of stating that it is the case) and that if they voted for those productions they did so “because they believed in the quality of the work they were involved in.”  He explicitly said “The problem here is with the Dora rules.”

It’s not about whether or not the jurors are biased towards their own work (everyone is biased in some direction, the is no such thing as “objective”), but rather about the *perception* of bias.  Perception is reality.  What influences people is their perception of what’s happening, not the actual fact of what is happening.

With that in mind, I have to say, I find it odd that there aren’t rules in existence to address conflict of interest. The theatre community is a small tight one, there will *always* be conflicts of interest, and it only makes sense to acknowledge them.  It doesn’t mean you have to eliminate them, just address them in some way.

How they’re addressed, well, that’s up to someone else to decide (my bets would be on a committee). It could be abstention from a category, or abstention from the discussions in that category, or, no doubt, any other number of things.  Just something that would remove the *perception* of undue influence.

I stand corrected, apparently there is a process in place.  It would appear that there is in fact a process that addresses conflicts of interest.  Apparently jurors declare their conflict of interest and leave the room during the discussion.   So, my comments were in error, and I’m happy to have been corrected.  More details at the bottom of the article.

The truth is, if I were on the jury and I had a piece nominated, I would want to have those rules in place so that no one could say “oh yeah, well, Megan’s piece got it just because she was on the jury, so she could talk it up to the others”.

As for the dismay some people have about names being named, it’s not as though Nestruck is leaking any big secret here, all you need to do is look at the nominees and look at the jurors and you can see the connections.  Just because there are connections, it doesn’t mean there is blame. Okay, I’m withdrawing this because on sober second thought I realised that if I am saying that perception is reality in the rest of the piece, then I can’t suddenly turn around and say ignore it in another part.



(June 26, 2010) So, in the comments on Nestruck’s article Jacoba Knaapen (the aforementioned Executive Director of TAPA, the organization that administers the Doras) provided some clarification.  It would appear that there is in fact a process that addresses conflicts of interest.  Jacoba says:  “The Dora jurors meet to discuss shows twice a year and when they do, they declare an official conflict of interest and leave the room (similar to some government granting peer adjudication juries). “

That’s enough for me.  It acknowledges and addresses the perception.

And I want to reiterate that what I am talking about is the *perception* of unfair advantages, it’s not that I think that untoward things are happening.  In fact, I imagine that many people would over compensate for the fact that they are involved in a work and treat it more harshly than others.  It’s like teachers who have their own child in their class.  I had a friend where this was the case in high school.  Her dad always marked her harder than the others because he was afraid people would think she was getting special treatment.