Michael Shannon with his 2013 Jeff Award for Best Actor for Simpatico and director Guy Van Swearingen of A Red Orchid Theatre Credit: Johnny Knight/Jeff Awards

This is the year that the Jeff Awards, given every year for excellence in Chicago theater, kissed their venerable best actor and best actress categories goodbye and created a controversy.

Seeking to be more inclusive, the Jeffs announced plans to do away with gendered awards for acting, opting instead to recognize two best performers, not restricted to gendered categories. But in doing so, they’ve tilted even more in favor of male-identified performers.

The Jeff Awards committee is already saddled with the public perception that it’s too old and too white to accurately represent theater professionals, audiences, or the world. And this year’s crop of nominees isn’t helping.

The committee had its nose rubbed in its image problem last year when Tracy Letts infamously went off on it in an interview published in the Tribune, calling it “a club to get free tickets” and “a sea of white faces.”

Shortly after that, the committee commissioned a no-holds-barred study of the Jeffs and their reputation, and in February announced that it was making changes: ramping up public communication and outreach; cutting in half the enormous time commitment for new committee members (who had been required to see 150 shows in the first year); and actively recruiting “younger and minority candidates” for the committee (which is capped at 55 members and has a waiting list).

Jeffs spokesman Jeffrey Marks says it was also in the last year that the committee began to discuss a problem with the “best actor” and “best actress” categories. “We had a couple nominations coming up, [and] some actors that didn’t identify either way.” Also, he says, Jeff judges saw portrayals of Oscar Wilde’s Lady Bracknell in two different productions, one by a man, the other by a woman, and asked why they weren’t competing with each other.

“Because it’s the character you’re assessing,” Marks explains, “not the sex of the actor.” They decided that, beginning with the 2018 awards, the Jeffs would be gender-neutral.

In fact, that’s what many of the awards already were. There’s never been an award for best female director or best male designer, for example. To maintain the number of winners in the acting categories, two awards would be given in each category.

The Jeff Awards are divided into Equity and non-Equity wings and are handled in two separate programs. The first non-Equity awards in the new categories were given out in June, with little comment about the change; Marks notes that the split among winners “worked out pretty evenly.”

But after the Equity nominations were announced in August, there were protests on social media. It looked like gender parity had been collateral damage: the gender-neutral categories had produced a list of nominees that was markedly dominated by male-identified performers.

Director and DePaul University Theatre School faculty member Lisa Portes was among those who took notice. When I reached her by phone last week, she said she was in favor of the change but concerned about the apparently unintended effect.

“Moving to nongender-binary classifications is the right thing to do,” Portes added. “I think, however, attention must still be paid to equity, to understanding that—although it’s shifting—there are less lead roles in place for women.”

Brad Erickson, executive director of San Francisco’s Theatre Bay Area Awards, the first among the American theater awards to announce that it would go gender-neutral (following the MTV Movie & TV Awards, which made the change in 2017), told me their results in the first year have been balanced. But, he said, regarding any potential imbalance, “This came to me in the last month or so: The old system of male/female awards potentially masks the problem. It’s a kind of fun-house mirror. We say, ‘Oh look, an equal number of men and women won awards.’ Of course they did, so you’re making it seem like there’s parity, when there’s not. If there really isn’t a balance, these [gender-neutral] award systems are [more accurate] mirrors of the field. If there’s a big imbalance in the awards, it’s not the awards’ fault. It’s what’s happening in programming.”

Says Marks: “The issue of diversity in theater for awards does not start with the Jeff Awards. It ends at the Jeff Awards. It’s up to the theaters to put on the [work of a variety of] stage directors, actors, set designers, lighting designers, choreographers. All we do is judge the excellence of what they put on.”

The winners of the 2018 Jeff Equity Awards will be announced at Drury Lane Oakbrook on October 22.   v

Editors’ note: This article has been emended to clear up ambiguities in the original story and to correct an error of fact introduced by the editors.