The Craziness of Producing an Award Show: My Personal, Behind-the-Scenes Look at The 2017 Kelsey Awards – What Worked, What Didn’t Work, and What The Future Holds

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Me performing the ceremony’s opening monologue.
Six months of work was over in just under three hours. Now that a couple of days have gone by since those crazy three hours took place, I’m now able to fully digest that night, along with offering a little behind-the-scenes look at the show, including what I felt worked, what didn’t work, details behind that awkward Trump video, and where The Kelsey Awards will go as we reach our ten-year mark in 2019.

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Rachel Tovar at The 2017 Kelsey Awards

How It All Began…

The Kelsey Awards were started by Rachel Tovar and myself back in 2009. We started it as a joke, more or less. She had an ugly, yellow camera and we were young and bored. So we decided to give out awards to our friends. (Hey, it’s better than us being bored and resorting to a cocaine habit or something, right?)

I had the time of my life making those videos with her. We were goofy, and very rarely could we get through a single take without laughing our asses off. While filming those silly movies, at no point did we ever think these awards would grow into what they are today – an event that the theater community nearly sold-out this past weekend.

So what are The Kelsey Awards exactly? I guess that depends on who you ask. Everyone has their own opinion about what it means to them and the Kelsey Theatre community. I try not to spend time defining it, because the event’s “significance” really depends on how you view the awards, the people who run the awards (me), the methodology behind the awards, the theater itself, and the people who run/produce/perform at the theater.

(In my brain, The Kelsey Awards are a fun, summer-long festivity that allows the Kelsey Theatre community to celebrate its growth and achievements. But this is also the same brain that really enjoyed the movie “Suicide Squad”…)

I tell people all the time, I don’t really care who is nominated or who wins. All I ever truly wanted was to provide an opportunity for people to come together, hang out, and perform for each other. Everything else is just icing on top of the cake. If I could do the event without handing awards, then I would. But I don’t think the show would work out well if there were no awards being handed out.

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What the logo for the show looked like back in the day.

Leading Up to the Ceremony – The Voting System

The Kelsey Awards season is actually an ongoing thing. It’s nonstop (Hello, “Hamilton”). For example, work on The 2018 Kelsey Awards has already begun, seeing that “42nd Street” and “Annie Get Your Gun” have already had their runs, and are eligible for nominations at next year’s ceremony.

Work on the 2017 voting and live ceremony began in March of this year. I spend a lot of time researching how the voting can be improved and how we can make it more fair for everyone involved. I get written to a lot about the voting process. It’s really hard, you know? How do you make it fair for everyone while still adding a sense of legitimacy? How do you avoid shows with large casts or bigger audiences from just sweeping every category? These questions (and MANY more) are questions I ask myself every year.

I am very proud with how far voting has come since we began. Is it perfect? Not by any means. I’ve learned that there really is no truly PERFECT voting system. All I can do is do what I feel is fair and easy and best for the show and the theater.

I think we’ve proved this year, however, that people DO speak honestly via this voting system. The awards this season were spread out among many shows and performers, and there wasn’t one show that swept everything… which was my biggest fear. Next year, we will continue to improve upon the strong foundation that we’ve built, and things will continue to get better.

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While rehearsing for The 2017 Kelsey Awards, the cast of “42nd Street” spaces out their opening number.

Side Note – I also think that the voting system has improved simply due to the fact that audience members are being trained to view things with a better eye. Now that we’re in our 8th year, people keep awards stuff in the back of their mind when they’re watching shows. They are making more of an effort to remember people and productions aspects that they liked, simply so they are more educated when voting season comes back around. On top of that, because of the awards, more people are making an effort to catch more shows during the season so they are more educated when voting comes back around. I am really proud of that.


What complicates things is the fact that I remove myself from the voting process completely once it begins. Since there is an obvious conflict-of-interest given my involvement with the theater, I don’t want my hand in the voting process outside of setting it up. People are often surprised when they learn that I find out the winners at the same time they do. I love not knowing, and I wish more people knew that I don’t know who wins, nor do I have access to the results at any point, as the password is changed as soon as I hand it over to a third-party.

In 2011, the very first year of the live ceremony, I went in to the ceremony knowing who exactly was going to win, and people KNEW that I knew… and I HATED that. I have a terrible poker face as it is, and to say to people, “Hey, just wait and see” knowing full well that the lost broke my heart. That is one of the main reasons why I took my hand out of it, along with not wanted to have any sort of access, especially if I was involved with a show that is eligible to win something.

 

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James and Rachel rehearsing with “The Little Mermaid” cast for The 2017 Kelsey Awards.

Leading Up to the Ceremony – Putting the Show Together

Whenever I mention my “team”, I am often just referring to my partner-in-crime, Vicki Kaiser. Vicki is the true lifeblood behind each Kelsey Awards ceremony, and quite often, she knows the show better than I do. Without her, the show would have fallen apart YEARS ago. Vicki, if you’re reading this, please know how thankful I am to have you by my side year after year. (#SteveRogersandBucky)

Late-spring of 2017, Vicki and I got together at Panera Bread (otherwise known as the best place ever) to discuss ideas and logistics for the 2017 ceremony. I had yet to write a script, but I had general ideas for stuff I wanted to do. As always, no matter how crazy my ideas were, she didn’t sit there and question why I was doing them, she immediately starting thinking HOW we were going to do it.

You’d think I’d be used to her brilliance by now, but I don’t think I’ll ever get used to it. She always surprises me and never fails to go above and beyond.

 

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Christina and Andrew rehearsing for The 2017 Kelsey Awards.
We decided to go without hosts this year, which was a big decision given how popular the JMK ladies were for the past three years. Vicki and I were ready to take a risk, and we did. Admittedly, we’ll probably go back to having a host or hosts next year, but we’ll discuss that more in Spring 2018. I do have a couple ideas as to who could host next season – a couple people who (individually or as a group) could carry the load of the show… but I’ll keep that a closely guarded secret for now.

Since there were no hosts this year, rehearsing the show this year was quite easy at times. The only things we truly needed to rehearse were the eight musicals that were performing. Everything else was more tech-related. Given that I am currently working full time in Center City Philadelphia, along with co-directing a major production of “Memphis”, this helped a ton.

The two weeks leading up to this year’s show, however, were two of the roughest weeks I’ve ever had with the show. I had never grown as frustrated (with myself) as I did leading up to the show this year. I was suffering from writer’s block, I didn’t know if I had time to do everything needed, I had to design and edit a ridiculous amount of graphics and videos, I had to organize the 2017 Block Party after UNO couldn’t accommodate our large party anymore, commitments at work, blocking “Memphis”, memorizing lines, taking photos, making sure I wasn’t ignoring my girlfriend, staying healthy and eating well, and so on and so forth… I was a hot mess, admittedly. After the Monday tech of the award show, I was BAWLIN. No, I’m not talking about the Jim Jones song that I casually sing every now and again when I shoot a paper ball into a garbage basket… I legit mean crying my ass off like I was a high school cheerleader that found out her boyfriend was cheating on her with that nerd girl that NOBODY likes.

Vicki, with her amazing superpowers, talked me off a ledge – as she always does. We came back in the next couple of days finished everything we needed to finish. And the show was ready to go!

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The cast of “Memphis” performs at

It’s the Day of the Show, Ya’ll!

Flash forward to Saturday, August 19th – 7:00pm.

Months and months of prep work, advertising, money out my own pockets, dry tech rehearsals, tech runs with eight different musicals, and so much more… has come down to whatever the hell will transpire over the next three hours.

Here’s my perspective on how the night went…

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Lorraine Perri and the cast of “In The Heights” performs at The 2017 Kelsey Awards.

The Performances

What Worked:

  • All eight musicals gave solid performances. My personal favorites being “Hunchback” and “The Boy From Oz”. Their performances were so simple and effective. No costumes, no major choreography… just performers performing. I loved that.
  • Almost every show had a full cast of performers. Only “Hunchback” had minimal casting, understandably so since they JUST cast their show a week or so ago. Everyone else, more or less, had most of their cast come back to perform. That was fun to watch.

What Didn’t Work:

  • Not having a live band or full backing track for shows like “In The Heights”, “Anything Goes”, and “Memphis”. When there is major dance choreography with only a piano… the effect isn’t the same. That’ll be a main point of focus for me next year.
  • Microphones for ensemble. We only mic’d the leads this year, and I think the performances could have benefitted a little from giving microphones to some ensemble members as well. Improving this will also be a major focus for me next year.
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Andrew Ruggieri accepts an award during The 2017 Kelsey Awards.

Giving Out Awards

What Worked:

  • Returning to having a different set of presenters. Last year, we had four people present ALL of the awards. While that made things easier, it’s always more fun to see a wide cast of familiar Kelsey Theatre faces up on the stage handing out awards to each other.
  • We handed out four awards at a time. This helped keep the show moving forward, as we cutout nearly 5-10 minutes of transition time simply by giving out more awards at once. Next year, this, or some version of this, will remain in place.
  • Frank Ferrara’s presentation to Dottie Farina and Mike DiIorio’s presentation to Walter W. Smyth brought out a lot of emotions throughout the theater. Dottie’s daughter Nicole accepted the award on her behalf, and Walter’s sister Suzie accepted the award on his behalf. These two presentations provided a depth of emotion that you couldn’t replicate if you tried. It was so raw and real.

What Didn’t Work:

  • More than any year before, we had a couple winners who were not present to accept their award, and there was no one there to accept the award on their behalf. Not really something we can fix, per se, but it’s always sad that a person is not there to say thank you.
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Jennifer Fischer and the cast of “Anything Goes” performs at The 2017 Kelsey Awards.

Videos

What Worked:

  • The Season Recap, Season Preview, and JMK videos seemed to work well. The Welcome Back to Act 2 video worked VERY well and received some of the biggest reactions in the entire ceremony. It was fun to watch people react well to those videos.
  • The Trump Video worked well! ……………… lol just kidding.

What Didn’t Work:

  • The Trump Video didn’t work. Like… AT ALL. Scroll down for the inside scoop.
  • Walter’s Tribute Video worked well, but if I had a do-over, I’d make it a minute or so shorter.
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Michael Idina Gilch and Shannon Ferrara accepting an award during The 2017 Kelsey Awards.

Other Stuff

What Worked:

  • Doing the opening monologue of the show was fun. I was frightened because I didn’t know how the audience was going to react to some of my jokes. In my brain, I plotted different paths my jokes would take, depending on the reaction of the audience from the first couple of jokes. I had some safety jokes in the bag just in case my opening bit wasn’t going well. Fortunately, I didn’t have to use them. I had a blast talking with the audience and talking about my experience as a black actor. My type of humor isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but overall, I think it went over well. If I could go back, I’d shorten it to 6-8 minutes, as opposed to the 10-12 minutes of time.
  • The screen projection seemed to work pretty well. There was one minor hiccup in Act 1 (it was hilarious in retrospect), but overall, it worked well. We introduced the projection in 2016, continued it in 2017, and will most likely continue it for the foreseeable future.

What Didn’t Work:

  • Calling out John Zimmerman for heckling… when it clearly wasn’t John Zimmerman. During my opening monologue, there was a heckle from the audience about something I was talking about. In the moment, and in the blinding lights, I could have SWORN it was John, so I shouted, “Shut up, John!” This happened not once, but TWICE. I’ve known John for years, and I truly thought I recognized his voice heckling me. I found out after the ceremony that it 100% wasn’t him, it was another person in the audience. I have contacted John and apologized to him for my actions. I feel terrible as he was just sitting back enjoying the moment and I ruined it. I told him how I was simply thinking on my feet and I should have taken another second to think about a response before yelling something back. He’s forgiven me.
  • I don’t think words can describe how much our hearts were set on having the show run 2 hours, 45 minutes this year. We hit a 3 hour run time, which is par for the course. We don’t ever want the show to be longer than that, but it’s safe to say that we’ll continue to work hard to get the run time down. Some people say, “Make the bits shorter” … which is a logical thing to say, but what some people don’t realize is that we need to allow enough time for the previous major performance to switch to the next major performance – this includes switching microphones, changing costumes, etc. We have to make sure the segments provide enough time for changes to happen. I have an idea for next year though to help… we’ll see how it works out.
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Me when the Trump video starting playing and getting no reaction…

That Awkward Trump Video…

Everyone has an opinion on Donald Trump, including myself, obviously. During the ceremony, I made the decision to bring up Trump a couple of times. The first time was during my opening monologue when I was mentioning how theater people suck at protesting. While it wasn’t the best joke of the night, it went over well in the moment and the audience responded more or less how I thought they would.

The second time was later in the first act with a video entitled “A Message From A Friend”. The concept of this video is that Donald Trump has called the Kelsey Theatre, no one answered, so he is now leaving a message saying how sorry he was that he couldn’t make the ceremony because he’s busy being a misogynistic racist, among other things, including being disappointed when he learned that “BIG Fish” isn’t the sequel to “LITTLE Mermaid”…

…yeah, this video will never see the light of day ever again.

Throughout the video, images of Donald Trump rolled as a previously recorded impression of me doing Donald Trump’s voice played through the speakers to a silent, uncomfortable audience.

As soon as his photo went up toward the beginning of the video and the audience had zero reaction, I knew it was going to be one of the longest moments of my life. The video was 5 minutes long… but in the moment, it felt like it 3 days long. I hated every second of it. I hated that I even recorded it and put it in the show. It was one of those ideas that played better in my brain than anywhere else, and it should have stayed in my brain. But hey, I took a chance on an idea, as I do with every other bit in the show, and this one simply didn’t work out.

If I could go back, I’d 100% change it to something dumb that’d get an easy laugh. But I can’t go back in time, so I will take that idea as a learning moment and apply it for better content in the future. Generally speaking, every other bit went very well, but this one DEFINITELY did not and cast a shadow over an otherwise awesome night for the show.

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The cast of “Miss Saigon” accepting their award for Outstanding Production of a Musical at The 2017 Kelsey Awards.

Post Show Feedback: The Good and the Bad

If there is one thing that the Kelsey Theatre community has no problem doing, it’s expressing their opinion on something. Typically after every Kelsey Awards ceremony, I get emails, texts, and private messages from people telling me what they thought about the event.

Much like last year, generally speaking, the feedback was really good. A lot of the messages I received were from people that wanted me to know how much they enjoyed the show, how they can’t wait for next year, how they are glad that I do this, etc. While I got a lot of those messages this year from friends, general supporters, and people I’ve only briefly met, there was one message that I received from a disgruntled attendee that shook me to my core.

I won’t go into details about who the person was or the exact details of their message, but I will tell you that they were not a fan of me. I spent time following the ceremony exchanging dialogue with this person, and I hope they understand where I stand now. In this person’s message to me, they were accusing me of things that were so bad that my jaw dropped. I still have no words to describe my feelings when this person’s messages were coming through… but I spoke my peace, and this person spoke their peace. I can’t say that we’re on the same page by any means, but we both acknowledge that and we both moving forward.

Many people have their opinion of me. Some good, some bad… hey, it is what it is. I don’t expect everyone to be my biggest fan, I don’t expect everyone to like me or tolerate me. I’m not perfect. However, if there’s one thing I am not, I am definitely not a person that “fuels hatred, bigotry, racism, and stereotypes.”

I’ll let that last sentence sit there.

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Where We Go From Here

The 2017 Kelsey Awards was a successful event. From the voting beginning in June, up until the moment we handed out the final award of the night, I am very happy with how everything went overall. Are there things that I would change? Of course. But that’s what next year is for. Every year, I look to improve the process and the ceremony – I am never content. Vicki and I will sit down, find out what worked, what didn’t work, and where we go from there, and then do it all over again in the Spring/Summer of 2018.

2019 will be the ten year mark of The Kelsey Awards. No idea if I’ll have enough gusto to continue the show past that point. At the moment, I think no, but that may only be because 2017 just finished and I’m exhausted.

The Kelsey Awards, at least with me being in charge of them, will not go on forever. They are a lot of work every summer, and when I hit the ten year mark, it may be time to either retire the show, or hand it over to another person with free time on their hands over the summer.

We’ll see 🙂

Thanks for reading, ya’ll! ‘Til next time.

Cheers, Ky

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