Before 1968, Chicago was without a way to honor local theatre talent. So, the Midwest Advisory Committee of Actors’ Equity appointed Felix Shuman, a member at the time, to find a means of gaining recognition for actors working in the city. The Jeff Committee was formed to honor excellence in the Chicago Theatre community and the birth of the Joseph Jefferson award or as we affectionately call them–the Jeff Awards–had arrived.
The Jeff Committee consists of up to 45 men and women with varying backgrounds in theatre and is united by an active interest. They possess academic backgrounds in theatre, significant professional experience, a history of theatre involvement, and consistent theatre attendance in Chicago and other major theatre capitals of the world.
In 1973, the Jeff Committee extended its coverage and recognition to include the productions of non-Equity theatres through the creation of a Citations Wing. Flash forward to today.
While The Jeff Awards Committee has always endeavored to respond to the needs of the Chicago theatre community and to match its evolution, there has been some grumbling in the theatre community at large regarding eligibility for obtaining a Jeff award.
Chicago theatre is quickly evolving. There are children’s productions being performed by Equity actors who are not eligible for a Jeff nor are the productions themselves because the Jeff Committee doesn’t recognize children’s theatre when voting. Some of these actors are giving the best performances of their lifetimes and they cannot be considered.
And what about the big Broadway sit-down productions that are coming or already here in Chicago? Is there a way to honor the accomplishments of Wicked, or the Color Purple, or Putnum County Spelling Bee, or Urinetown without local store front theatres thinking they can’t compete with the competition?
This is a great problem to have to deal with for the Jeff Committee. It means we’re in need to recognize the latest explosion of talent that is in Chicago and it’s time to adapt again.
Perhaps it’s time to create a few more categories to recognize these productions. Why not include a children’s theatre category? Think of the impact on children when they see their first theatre production and they’ve been exposed to a top-notch production performed by a Jeff award winning Equity actor. That memory will stay with them for a lifetime and provide a grassroots opportunity to develop a future theatre going family.
With the big Broadway productions, some distinction could be made to separate them into their own category so the playing field is more level. Perhaps it could be the size of the house where the production is performed that creates the criteria for this new category. If the Jeff Committee decides that this isn’t plausible, then all Equity performances in Chicago should be treated equally.
The best solution to a problem like this is to encourage growth and recognition for everyone involved. That way everyone wins: the actors, the directors, the crew, the audience, and especially Chicago theatre.