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After 23 Years, Longstanding IRNE Awards Disbands

After 23 years of existence, the Independent Reviewers of New England will disband, marking an unexpected end to a longstanding reviewing body and its annual awards in Greater Boston’s theater community.

On its Facebook page, the group cites the growth in new theater companies that “has made it increasingly difficult for our small number of reviewers to adequately cover the field.” The statement continues: “As we do not wish to diminish our legacy by trying to do the impossible, a majority of members have voted to cease operations.”

Made up of 14 volunteer theater critics who review small and large theater year-round and then nominate and vote on productions for 29 annual awards, the IRNE has been a staple in the theater ecosystem.

One of those reviewers and spokesperson for the group, Michael Hoban in an interview on Wednesday morning said that reviewing year-round and putting together an award show became too laborious for the non-paid volunteers, many of whom were receiving increased pressure from publicists and theater companies to attend more and more productions. Hoban said he attends 150 productions a year.

The announcement also comes after the organization faced scrutiny this spring for what some call a lack of transparency over its review process and its lack of diversity in award winners.

On April 8, the day of this year’s IRNE Awards, 13 prominent local theater professionals, including StageSource Executive Director Dawn Simmons and playwright Melinda Lopez, posted an open letter to the IRNE committee. The group of signatories — which included directors, theater administrators, actors and playwrights — acknowledged the importance of independent reviewing organizations like the IRNE but also rebuked it for not capturing or reflecting the diverse voices in contemporary Boston theater.

The group challenged the IRNE — made up of five white women and nine white men --  to “consider adapting to the community [they] aspire to represent.”

The letter has since garnered more than 600 online signatures. Hoban said the makeup of the IRNE reflects the challenge in finding theater critics at all. "It's very difficult to get somebody to do what we do ... and review these things for zero pay."

Hoban said the IRNE did not respond to the open letter because the original 13 signatories didn't directly reach out to the reviewing group. "If it was a way to encourage open, honest dialogue and to effect change, I don't think launching a letter on the internet the day of our ceremony is an honest [way] to launch a dialogue," Hoban said.

Other requests in the letter include that the IRNE cease granting awards for work not created in New England and that it provide clarity on its values and criteria. Hoban said that recommending which plays the reviewers write about is beyond the purview of theater professionals, just as the IRNE does not suggest to actors which productions to act in.

Specifically, the theater professionals want to understand how shows are selected for reviews, the nomination and voting process for awards and if IRNE members are bound to a set of “ethical, critical or journalistic standards.”

“As a critical body with significant impact on our sector, this transparency would also help us to understand the ethical framework you are working from,” the letter states, “and what kind of perspectives and behavior you consider to be acceptable and appropriate from IRNE voters.”

"We've always been transparent to the community. All anyone has to do is pick up the phone and say, 'What is your voting criteria,' " said Hoban. He said all 14 members of the IRNE must see 50 shows a year and be affiliated with a publication.

According to a historical outline posted publicly by the IRNE, the reviewing body claims to “have had a commitment to diversity and parity from the very beginning, and as was reflected in final IRNE Awards show held in April of 2019, that tradition continued.” According to a list of nominations for this year's awards, out of 159 nominees in the Small Stage categories, 26 were people of color and 64 were women. In the Large Stage category, 36 of the 143 nominations were people of color and 44 were women.

Theater is notoriously homogeneous behind the scenes, with very few people of color in production roles.

The same outline, which the IRNE linked to on its Facebook announcement of its closing, spells out its founder Beverly Creasey's efforts to make theater more inclusive, including helping to organize a non-traditional casting initiative in the '80s.

The announcement brought on disappointment by many supporters online.

The comments section of the IRNE’s Facebook post is flooded with messages of  appreciation for their contribution to the community, including variations of “so sad to hear this” and “you will be missed.” The IRNE Facebook page will remain active so that reviewers can continue post their reviews.

Maria Garcia Twitter Senior Editor, The ARTery
Maria Garcia is the senior editor of The ARTery, WBUR's Arts and Culture Team.

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