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.

________________________

UPDATE:

(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.

0 thoughts on “Controversy (?) swirls around Toronto's 2010 Dora Mavor Moore Awards”

  1. Hey Megan,

    Well I have had a number of thoughts and phone calls etc on this subject and atraight let me say that I am in my 5th year as a TAPA Board Member.

    I remember the days when the members of the srts community voted directly on the awards. It was a freaking popularity contest with tons of people who never saw the shows voting for their friends. I seem to also recall howls of outrage about that process as well.

    Do I think that the process could be massaged and changed a bit? Of course. Would I like to know where the monies to change everything would come from? You bet.

    But the fish bone in my throat is the idea that there are indie vs establisment artists. I mean what is Richard saying. Is he saying that there should be people who work for the venued companies on the jury? Well if so perhaps they would agree to sit on the jury when asked. This is a huge committment and frankly tons of people just run the other way to avoid it but then stop long enough to vent at the nominations.

    I have been a juror in the General Division and it was the major focus of my year. Just try balancing running a theatre company, acting in a show and still seeing 80 odd plays and running the risk of being outed in the newspaper as behaving in a manner not up to the standard of Caesar’s wife. Sure one can make connections Megan but when printed like that by a major paper it does do the smoke/fire dance and we have been conditioned by now to understand that what we are reading is actually a dog whistle that shouts blame.

    And you know what Megan…the fact that all the examples that Kelly used were either diverse artists or diverse productions is going to leave a stain on somebodies wall. You may not see it that way but I can tell you that they do.

  2. I’ve updated this in the body of the article too, but just in case it gets missed by folks who have already read it:

    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).”

    Personally, 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.

  3. Philip – There’s so much here to talk about that I feel like I can’t write it all, and that it’s all swirling around so much in my head that I wouldn’t even know where to start writing.

    What I’d really love to do is sit down and have a pint with people and talk about it. Of course, that would limit discourse to whoever is not at the table.

    So, here are a couple of my bottom line thoughts:

    – First, let me say thank you for writing your comment. It made me reconsider things, and also is important to me, considering a comment on the Nestruck article indicating that artists were afraid to comment for fear of some kind of reprisal in the form of lack of coverage. I realise that my coverage is not as important as that of the major newspapers like the Globe and Mail, but I am happy that you know that you are free to say whatever you want to me. I would never hold someone’s opinion against a production they were involved in.

    – I really believe that the Dora’s are an important way for the Toronto theatre community to come together, and I certainly don’t believe it should be abolished. I think it’s fantastic for us (yeah, I say us, I like to pretend I’m part of the theatre community) to celebrate the achievements of our industry through things like the Dora’s and the Harold’s

    – I totally don’t think voting should be open to everyone, I was just quoting what Kelly said. I absolutely acknowledge that it would just end up being a popularity contest.

    – I hate the distinction between ‘mainstream’ and ‘alternative’ theatre. I think they’re both theatre. I think it would be great if we could let people know about ‘alternative’ theatre, let them know it’s not as intimidating as they think, and have enough people go to it that it becomes ‘mainstream’ Sorry if I implied that I agreed with Ouzounian on that, I really don’t. I mean, I agree that there are cliques, but there are cliques in every industry, it seems to be an unfortunate fact of human nature. I don’t think it’s something that is driving the awards.

    – I realised that me saying I didn’t know why people saw things as an attack was ridiculous, since the whole thrust of my argument is that it’s about perception, not reality. I didn’t mean to imply that people didn’t have a right to that perception, I meant only to say that it wasn’t *my* perception.

    – as for the naming of particular artists in conflict, I have to say, I didn’t make the connection to ‘diverse’ artists, or, as was pointed out in one of the comments on Nestruck’s, minority artists. I realise that could come from what has upon occasion been called my privileged position of “majority” as a caucasian who lives in my own little ‘happy world’, but it really never did occur to me to identify them by their ethnicity. What I did assume was that the people Nestruck named were the only people who had specific conflict of interests in the jury. If that’s not the case, then I do think that the naming of specific examples, but not including all examples, would be very irresponsible. Although I think (hope?)it would not have been intentional on his part, and that if it were the case he would correct it.

    – in terms of getting people to be jurors, I can totally believe that it’s a thankless hellish job that a lot of people turn down. I suspect it’s much like the board on my co-op, I’m a bit flattered at being asked repeatedly to join, but I really don’t have time to commit to it. That said, if I ever qualified for the Dora jury (I imagine I probably don’t), then I would be over the moon and honoured at the offer, and would happily find a way to accept.

    But really, after all of that, Philip, really, I would love to sit down and have a pint with you and talk to you about this, and about the state of Toronto theatre in general.

  4. I’m afraid Knaapen’s reply does not satisfy me…

    It is nice to know that at the two meetings they have as a jury, Dora jurors “declare an official conflict of interest and leave the room” when discussion turns to work they were involved in. I was unaware of that.

    But the fact remains that the Dora Award nominees and winners are not determined during those meetings. Nominees and winners are determined by secret ballot. And, to simply quote from Knaapen’s email to me: “[F]rom time to time, a Dora juror is involved in [a] show that is registered. Dora jurors can vote on shows in which they were personally involved in.”

    That’s the problem, in my view. Why not declare a conflict of interest and abstain then?

    IAs for the two examples of jury-nominee connections I came across – I really can’t help that they happened to involve, as Philip puts it, “diverse artists or diverse productions”. I didn’t find any others…

  5. Hey Megan,

    I would welcome a pint at any time. I post here because I think that we can have a reasonable discussion. Conversely I don’t post on the G&M cause whenever I want to lower my opinion of the human race I read their comment section.

    You know me Megan….I don’t have any fear of repercussions by critics cause they will write what they want to and I can’t change any of that. I can only do the best I can with the shows I am involved in.

    Even when you are on a jury there will always be nominations that you go…huh? And that is just part of the process.

    Was I disappointed that we didn’t get any nominations…sure. But so what. I was just so pleased that a nice part of the diverse community received some props and now it has been tainted by innuendo and potential dog whistle verbiage. That’s what sucks. That people, who instead of having a burst of pride for their work, maybe for the first time getting this kind of public recognition, just got smeared in prime time.

    But I will tell you what Megan. Before I leave the TAPA Board I will pass your name on to the Dora Committee cause I think you would be a great juror.

    Philip

  6. I really want to keep talking about this, especially in light of the continued comments on Nestruck’s article.

    But I’m in Fringe craziness right now, so I can’t. 🙁

    Perhaps at some point I’ll have a moment when I can address this. Until then, thanks for the discussion guys.

    Also, on a side note: Philip – Congratulations! I can’t imagine a more perfect person for the Silver Ticket.

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