As soon as I saw my actor friend’s Facebook post, I knew it was that time of year again. The time of year when theater people go shopping. With screenshots of three different dresses labeled with letters A, B and C, she was asking her Internet friends what she should wear to the 11th annual Ivey Awards on September 21 — one of the biggest reasons she and a lot of theater folks around here have to get dressed up every year.

That Monday, my friend will wear her winning dress to the State Theatre for the Iveys’ annual show and post-show party. (Show starts at 7:30 p.m.) Like my friend’s dress poll, the Iveys have categories that can surprise you and are meant to be used for celebration. For the past 10 years they have been a chance for members of the Twin Cities theater community to come together to honor and praise the past year in theater. The party that follows the always efficiently-organized 90-minute award ceremony goes late and runs loud.

Of course, over the awards’ 10-plus year lifespan, an Ivey honor has become a credible credit on artists’ bios, in press releases, on resumes, and in grant applications. Though Scott Mayer, Ivey Awards founder, insists that “we are very careful to never indicate that any play or individual is the ‘best’ of the year,” being singled out for an award comes with positive consequences.

Local theater critics have voiced criticism that the awards are too Minnesota nice and even-handed to the point of predictability while some local artists wonder whether the process could be more rigorous.

Mayer is confident that the evaluation process is as rigorous as any other national or regional awards but is also quick to point out that “the awards are intended to be a representation of all of the phenomenal work that all of the theaters do throughout the year.”

So, does it even matter how the awards are chosen or is the celebration itself enough?

The basics

The details of the Ivey Awards selection process are unlike any other. In theory, they are chosen in a way similar to the way my friend is trying to choose her dress — by basing it on what a volunteer audience says. Of course, my friend’s voters are randomly selected from who sees her Facebook posts while the Iveys recruit 150 audience members to see the shows and evaluate the 78 Ivey-eligible theaters.

To be eligible for Ivey evaluation, a producing theater has to be a company, for-profit or not-for-profit, that has been around for more than a year, produces a certain number of shows, and pays its artists. The shows also have to be scripted (so no improv companies are eligible). Five or six of the 150 different evaluators see every show and fill out an online evaluation form. The form has about 25 questions on it, combining a number scale from one to 20 with additional spaces for comments, and ranging from general questions about the whole production to specific ones in various areas of theater activity like “Performance,” “Design Elements,” or “Concept and Overall Direction.”

The human element

Faith Christine has evaluated 50 to 70 shows per year since the Iveys launched in 2004. (Though all Ivey evaluators are required to see a minimum number of shows, Christine may be called a super-evaluator.) In mandatory training sessions before they start seeing shows each year, she said, evaluators are taught to start at 10 as a baseline score, and to go up and down based on whether the show is above or below what they would expect. Plus, they are not supposed to talk to other evaluators about a show until they have rated it, she said. (Chicago’s Jeff Awards, in contrast, are chosen by a committee of 50 evaluators who each see up to 150 shows each year and meet regularly to discuss what they think.)

This past year, the Iveys pushed to recruit at least 50 percent of their evaluators from among people with theater backgrounds by soliciting volunteer names from participating theaters. According to an informal poll conducted at the training sessions, the number of evaluators who described themselves as “theater people” reached the Iveys’ goal. (In Washington, D.C., Helen Hayes Awards judges are exclusively nominated by artistic directors of member theaters. Jeff Awards judges are at least 60 percent working theater artists.)

The Ivey evaluation period lasts from Sept. 1 to Aug. 31 of every year. At the beginning of September, all of the electronic evaluations are fed into a database, which averages the scores of the five to six different evaluators in each category and compiles all of their comments.

Honorees, not winners

According to Mayer, shows that are consistently called out for certain components or for overall production via either high scores or comments from all five or six evaluators may rise to the level of being an Ivey honoree. Approximately 10 Iveys will be passed out annually, plus the Emerging Artist and Lifetime Achievement awards (which are simply tallied via a vote from each Ivey-eligible theater).

“Because creativity is not viewed as a competition,” says the Ivey Awards website, there are no categories. One year, more than one costume design may get attention from the evaluators while another year none do.

“I think that what is really important to keep in perspective here is that this is intended to be a celebration of the theater community first and foremost,” Mayer said. “A lot of times people get very, very focused on the awards — which is great, because I’m glad to know that people have respect for the awards — but in some ways I view the awards as an opportunity for people to get invested ... . Really, one of the most important objectives of the Ivey awards is to make sure that every theater feels respected and welcome.”

The criticism

Graydon Royce wrote in the Star Tribune that the Iveys try so hard to give every theater a turn in the spotlight that the awards are like “the sack race in elementary school.” The Pioneer Press’s Dominic Papatola insisted that he could predict the winners based simply on who has not won yet. He called the awards Midwestern in their niceness without that backbone of humility that normally goes with the stereotype.

Former Mu Performing Arts artistic director Rick Shiomi served on the awards’ advisory committee for half a decade. He said even though there are 150 evaluators, he wonders whether having too small a number of people seeing each show makes the set of awards almost random.

He also wondered about the step between the compiling of the evaluators’ scores and comments, and the approval of the honorees by the advisory committee.

“Scott would look at those results and pick out the ones he thought were outstanding,” he said. The advisory committee rarely said no to these recommendations. Mayer was the one who gathered the results and recommended recipients to the committee, and the only person who saw everything, Shiomi said. He did not doubt the high reviews Mayer reported about the shows, but pointed out that as a committee member, “you didn’t know what people were saying about the other shows.”

Shiomi, who won a Lifetime Achievement Award after he left the committee, said he would have liked to see at least one or two committee members get involved in the process, see all the information, and help sift through the highest ranked.

“At this very critical point, it’s only one person making the decisions,” he said.

Other artists, who wished to remain anonymous because the Iveys are the only theater awards in town, wondered what it says about the Minnesota theater community that even the awards ceremony deemphasizes the value of the awards. They questioned whether it is good for the health of the theater community to have an event that celebrates art’s existence more than its quality. Other artists lamented the lack of working professionals among the evaluators in years past, and worried whether the ticket-buying public (and funders) who join in the awards celebration or hear about the awards cared to understand the distinction between “excellence” and “best."

The night of

When I asked my friend which dress won her poll, she replied that the feedback was too even-handed to pick a winner. Ultimately, she gathered the feedback and decided to buy two dresses. Why not? Though of course she can only wear one a night, there’s no reason why other dresses shouldn’t feel excellent as well, right?

Perhaps the Iveys are more like my friend’s contest than I originally imagined. They’re good for pictures, good for gushing over once a year and good for leaving in a closet while you do your real work the rest of the year. Know that audience input was solicited to find honorees and went through some sort of process to narrow them down, but ultimately only so many awards can fit into the show’s 90 minutes before we’re all itching for the dance party that was the real reason to buy the dress in the first place.