Established a decade ago as a response to the lack of coverage given to our Off West-End theatre scene, The Off West-End Awards, also known as The Offies, have championed the great work produced by smaller independent venues and companies, these venues crucial to our theatrical ecosystem. Adapting to our newly established digital theatre world, OffWestEnd have introduced the ‘OnComm Award’, an online commendation highlighting the creativity of the theatre world during and post the Covid pandemic. OffWestEnd recently awarded Philip Ridley’s Poltergeist with an OnComm Award, marking the award’s 100th recommendation. Director Geoffrey Brown tells us more about these crucial awards and their impact within the theatre industry.

Hi Geoffrey, OffWestEnd have recently announced awarding their 100th ‘OnComm Award’ to Phillip Ridley for his play Poltergeist. An important milestone, how does this feel?

It’s great!  When we launched the OnComm Award, we had no idea that it would be so well received, and that we would not only have lots of submissions but that the overall quality would be as good as it has turned out.  We have now awarded over 100 OnComms from over 300 submissions, which is a great success rate.

A response to the closure of theatres as a result of the Covid pandemic, the ‘OnComm Awards’ have continued on from the OffWestEnd Award’s commitment to highlight and celebrate the work of alternative and fringe theatre venues. How did the team approach adapting to our newly established digital age of theatre?

Well, it was a bit of a shock to realise that our entire awards programme was instantly irrelevant in a lockdown which forced the closure of theatres and established restrictions for outdoor gatherings.  However, it was also clear pretty quickly that the creativity of the sector was not to be silenced and online performances began to emerge.  As soon as this happened, we came up with the idea of an award for online performances – the OnComm – an Online Commendation.

In a year that has been challenging for the industry, these awards further help to raise awareness of fringe theatre to wider audiences and boost morale. What does it mean to be able to continue OffWestEnd’s work during this time?

OffWestEnd is a tiny, essentially voluntary support organisation, but the sector we support – independent, alternative and fringe theatre – is one that is easily overshadowed by the large commercial and subsidised theatre sector, and their various backers and support agencies, forgetting that most professionals in these productions have honed their careers in these same fringe and independent theatres.

We felt we had to try to do our bit to support the sector as best we could.  Apart from launching the OnComm, we also undertook a survey of our venues to try and better understand the challenges and potential responses, and we also prepared a research report which argued for government support for the sector.  We tried to circulate this as widely as possible and hope that it helped, in its own way, to persuade the government to come up with their recovery funding programme.

The Offies were established 10 years ago as a response to the lack of attention given to the great work made on our Off West End stages. What have the awards done for the awareness of fringe theatre during this time?

We think they have had an important impact in helping to raise the profile of the sector – many venues celebrate their nominations and wins with references in their marketing materials and their programmes, and most creatives working in the sector are not only aware our awards exist, but are proactive in making sure their shows are submitted for possible nominations.  In addition, we have our own listings website and mailing list of over 8,000, where our awards help to raise the profile of venues and shows.

As well as ‘OnComm’ and ‘The Offies’, you’re also founders of the ‘Short Run OffComm Commendation’, ‘OffFest’ and the ‘OneOff Special Award’. What inspired the creations of these awards?

In 2019, it became clear that the Offies, while important and successful, were not relevant to many OffWestEnd venues as the Offies eligibility rules demanded at least 10 performances and many venues were presenting shows that ran for just 3-4 days.  The OffComm (Offies Commendation) was introduced to recognise these short run shows, and the assessment process is more straightforward, relying on existing reviewers to also make OffComm recommendations.  Similarly, we were not covering theatre at festivals, such as the Voila Europe Festival, as these shows too were only on for very short runs – so the OffFest was born.  Then came the OnComm, as previously discussed.  The OneOff emerged as it became clear that our other awards were quite “structured” with (necessary) rules and criteria – but this meant we did not have the flexibility to just recognise occasional special achievements – especially those during lockdown – so this led to the OneOff.  We are trying to ensure that we have both a highly respected set of awards (especially the Offies) but that we are also flexible enough to ensure that we are able to respond to the need to celebrate the sector as it evolves as a result of changing circumstances.

Assessors play a crucial role in your work as they determine what shows are put forward. How is it decided who’ll assess and what is the process in terms of nominations being put forward?

Anyone can put themselves forward as an assessor – full info is on www.offies.london.  Successful applicants join the assessors’ team and we then work on the basis that all eligible shows are seen by 2 assessors.  For the Offies, venues or companies (or their PR agencies) invite us to their press night.  For the OffComm, companies approach us, we send them a list of OffCommreviewers, and they can invite any or all of them.  For OnComm, companies send us the info we need (again, as set out on the Offies website), and we add this to the OnComm assessor schedule and invite our assessors to put themselves forward for specific shows.  The assessors must agree before any nominations go forward.  For the Offies, any nominations mean that we then send some of our “super assessors” to see the show so there is a level playing field at the end of the year when we come to deciding on finalists and winners.

What have you learned during your time of running these awards?

Off West End, alternative, independent and fringe theatre is the most amazing sector with incredible levels of creativity, imagination, innovation, diversity, and commitment.  We hope our awards have highlighted all these factors over the years, and the broadening of the awards in the last 12 months have encouraged the participation of an even wider range of companies, performers and other creatives – including many beyond London, as the “London only” rule made no sense for the OnComm online award so shows developed anywhere in the UK are eligible for the OnComm.

What are your hopes for the OffWestEnd Awards moving forward?

I hope that we have done a small amount to help ensure that the profile of independent, alternative and fringe theatre has been maintained over the last 9 months, and that we will be in a good place to help support and promote the sector in 2021 when live shows begin to return in a significant way – for example, we have been working to improve our listings website, www.offwestend.com.  The sector in 2021 is likely to be a new mix – with both increasing numbers of live shows but also a continuation of online shows – and we are confident we will be ready!

Questions by Lucy Basaba.

To find out more about the OffWestEnd Awards, visit here…

Written by Theatrefullstop